New Delhi/Mumbai: It may seem like an outsize effort from the BJP, deploying top guns like Union Home Minister Amit Shah, party president J.P. Nadda and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to campaign for the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) polls, slated for 1 December.
But it appears to be inspired by a roadmap outlined by Shah in 2017, when he was national BJP president. The vision envisaged the BJP in power at every level of governance, from panchayats to Parliament, or “P to P”.
At the time, on Shah’s watch, the BJP had already experimented with the model and tasted success. In the 2017 local body elections in Odisha, where the party has never been in office, the BJP deployed a battery of senior leaders, including the then chief ministers of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand — Raman Singh and Raghubar Das — and Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who belongs to the state.
The party’s Odisha focus paid off as it won 297 of the 853 zila parishad seats, up from 36 in 2012, and emerged as the principal opposition party. The ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) was down to 473 seats from 651 in 2012.
The performance also helped lay the ground for the BJP’s emergence as the second-largest party in the 2019 assembly elections, after the BJD.
Addressing the party’s national executive meeting in Odisha capital Bhubaneswar after the polls, Shah exhorted workers to expand the BJP’s footprints at all levels by ensuring the BJP “ruled from panchayat to Parliament”.
Cut to the present, the same strategy is playing out for the election to the 150 seats in the GHMC, which oversees Hyderabad and a few other pockets in surrounding areas.
The importance the BJP is attaching to the election can be gauged from the fact that senior leader Bhupender Yadav — who served as the party in-charge for the Bihar assembly elections this month — is now overseeing its campaign for the GHMC. Fuelling its ambitions is the party’s win in the Dubakka assembly bypoll — a stronghold of Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) — this month.
The big push for the GHMC is part of the BJP’s efforts to widen its presence across South India, where it’s only ever had power in Karnataka. Just last week, Shah wrapped up a visit to Tamil Nadu, where assembly elections are due early next year.
In the last GHMC election, the TRS won 99 divisions. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) of Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi won 44, with the remaining seven picked up by other parties and Independents.
A new phenomenon
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah are known to criss-cross the country for assembly elections, the GHMC will mark the first time the BJP pitches such senior leaders for local body elections.
This wasn’t done even when the BJP contested against former ally Shiv Sena in the 2017 Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation election, which emerged as a battle of prestige for the sparring allies.
For the Shiv Sena, it was a question of guarding its citadel of two decades, while the BJP wanted to make a point that Mumbai is no longer the Shiv Sena’s exclusive domain and that it is strong enough to take on — even overtake — the Maharashtra-based party on its own turf.
Even so, the campaigning was left to the then Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who addressed several rallies in the state capital. The only outside leader who stepped in to aid the campaign was Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath (this election had ended in a close contest, with the Shiv Sena getting 84 seats in the 227-member corporation, two more than the BJP).
Political commentator Hemant Desai said the aggression the BJP currently displays wasn’t even seen in the 1990s, when it was still growing as a party. At the time, he said, senior party leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani never used to address these many rallies, even for assembly polls.
“For local elections, expecting the top leadership to campaign was out of question. These were largely fought by local leaders. The Mumbai civic body was an exception, where (the late Shiv Sena founder) Bal Thackeray used to personally campaign since the local body is so important to the Shiv Sena, but even then, other parties never brought their big guns in,” he added.
“Right now, Modi and Amit Shah are making a deliberate concentrated effort to grow the party in places where there is no presence. Back then, the leadership wasn’t this methodical and aggressive about it,” he added.
According to experts, this strategy of including central leaders and ministers in campaigns for even local elections has been employed by the BJP to keep the cadres motivated and expand its footprint.
“One needs to understand that for the BJP under Amit Shah, every election is important and they fight elections to win,” said Sanjay Kumar, professor at the Delhi-based research institute Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).
Echoing Desai on the differences between the BJP of then and now, he said, “As far as the BJP of the past is concerned, there was a clear distinction between party and the government as far as campaigning for local elections is concerned. Earlier, senior leaders would not campaign for say panchayat or civic elections.
“Shah had once said we follow the P-to-P model — to rule right from the panchayat level to Parliament. There is no distinction between them as all are equally important. As far as Hyderabad is concerned, there are two main reasons for this: The BJP sees it as a fertile ground where it can grow, especially keeping the demography in mind,” he added.
In Hyderabad, Kumar said, at least 52 per cent of the population is Hindu and 44 per cent Muslim.
“The fact that senior leaders are seen canvassing for local elections definitely motivates the workers who are still trying to shape the party in the region. This is also a way for the BJP to set the stage for 2024 and the 2023 state elections. Whether they win or lose, the people are able to see the efforts they put in,” he added.
The GHMC limits cover 24 assembly constituencies, or 20 per cent of the 119 seats in the Telangana house.
‘To strengthen party at local level’
Speaking to ThePrint, BJP national spokesperson Gopal Krishna Agarwal said the party’s “basic thought is to fight elections and strengthen the party at the local level”.
“The involvement of senior leaders there sends a message that the party is quite serious about all the elections — Centre, states as well as local bodies,” he added.
“It is not just in Hyderabad but in Jammu and Kashmir also, for the (upcoming) District Development Council (DD) elections, our senior ministers and leaders are canvassing,” he added.
“A few years ago, we were not even contesting on our own symbol in the Uttar Pradesh panchayat elections, but things have changed now. This helps expand the footprints of the party, as well as establish communication with the people,” he said.
Such opportunities, Agarwal said, “also give a chance to the local leadership to develop”.
“Our organisation has become very strong over a period of time, with mandal and booth-level structure in place,” he said. “We ourselves have 18 crore members, earlier we also had to depend on the RSS workers.”
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