Surat/Gandhinagar: Last year, a woman in Surat’s Mota Varachha neighbourhood, whose family was below the poverty line (BPL), needed an expensive surgery. Milan Jalavadiya, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) worker, recalls how he got her a ‘Ma Amrutam’ card — a Gujarat government scheme under which BPL families are provided with medical and surgical care for serious illnesses — sanctioned within 24 hours.
It not only took care of the woman’s hospital expenses but also converted her and her family into committed BJP voters, Jalavadiya said.
Jalavadiya is a ‘panna pramukh’ in the BJP in Gujarat. A panna pramukh — head of a page in the electoral rolls — is a small constituent of the BJP’s much talked about expansive ground network of booth pramukhs, panna pramukhs and panna samitis across the country that the party is banking on for the upcoming Gujarat assembly poll.
Through this network, the party micromanages voters, ensuring that they come out to vote on election day.
And when it’s not election time, these foot-soldiers of the BJP run almost a parallel administration system. They bring government schemes to the doorstep of beneficiaries, act as intermediaries for any work or problems that families under their jurisdiction may have with government authorities, and keep passively campaigning for the BJP.
“We have to just keep the conversation with voters going at all times. I have to keep a watchful eye on what the people in my neighbourhood need. If I am not available, I put a message on the WhatsApp group of our booth for someone to help them out. If someone from the BJP is meeting their requirements, solving their issues, they are more likely to vote for us,” Jalavadiya told ThePrint.
“When it’s not election time, it’s just half an hour’s work every day,” added Jalavadiya, who works full-time with a textile trading business.
Elections for the 182-member Gujarat assembly will be held in two phases on 1 and 5 December. The counting of votes will take place on 8 December.
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The world of BJP booth pramukhs, panna pramukhs
In Gujarat, the BJP boasts to have an army of 80-82 lakh people whose names, contact details, identification, and addresses are registered with the party and verified at several levels through the year to plug any holes in the structure.
There is a head for every polling booth. Under the booth heads, there is a head for every page or party’s first point of contact with voters at the booth level — the panna pramukh. Every page has about 30-35 voters and the panna pramukh is responsible for ensuring they are loyal to the BJP, and if they are not BJP voters already, converting them into one.
The panna pramukh’s name also features on the page of voters he is responsible for, and as a result, the 30-35 voters on his page — usually from five or six families — are his neighbours.
Under the panna pramukh is a panna samiti, a concept unique to the Gujarat BJP for now, barring a few stray local elections in other states. The panna samitis comprise one voter from each of these five or six families.
“So, effectively, we can boast of having one interlocutor of the BJP in every family,” said Raju Patel, a BJP Gandhinagar corporator and a panna pramukh in the city.
“I have been living in this area for many years and most of the voters on my page have been living around me for at least five to 10 years. So, we already have social relations. We attend each others’ family functions, weddings, and celebrate festivals together. It’s easier for me to take the BJP’s message to these people,” added Patel.
Kamlesh Banker, another BJP panna pramukh from Gandhinagar, opened the booklet for booth number 19 to page number 16 and rapidly ticked about five names. “These are the members I have carefully picked for my page samiti,” he told ThePrint. “I ensured they are influencers within their families, they are not government servants, they are either young and very politically-inclined or on the older side and have more time on their hands,” said Banker, who is also president of a BJP ward in Gandhinagar.
“Earlier, one person, the panna pramukh, used to be responsible for 30 people. Now with the panna samiti model, we have one person responsible for every five or six voters and as page pramukh, the panna samiti members — one from each family on our page — are our primary contacts to reach all voters on our page,” he said.
Patel and Banker both attribute the BJP’s thundering victory in the Gandhinagar Municipal Corporation election in 2021, when the party improved its tally to 41 from the previous 16, to this grid of panna samitis.
Out of the total 44 seats in the Gandhinagar municipal corporation, Congress won only two seats while Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) bagged one.
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‘Woo non-BJP voters with services’
This intricate organisational system works seamlessly in BJP bastions, but there are areas where the party does not have committed voters or where party members know that the electorate doesn’t vote based on ideology. But, with this level of micromanagement, the party also knows exactly who these voters are by name.
“We pay extra attention to these voters,” said Nishit Patel, another panna pramukh from Surat’s Mota Varachha area who works in textile trading. “There is no point in trying to convince such voters with words. They are going to cast it away as lip service. Our best bet is to woo them with our services.”
Patel said, if the booth-level manpower is consistently ensuring that such “floating voters” or “non-BJP voters” are getting the benefit of government schemes, if they are not facing any red tape in processes such as getting an Aadhar Card made or passport verification, over a period of time, “they will automatically get converted into BJP voters.”
The party expects the booth-level workers to put a lot of emphasis on first-time voters.
Sanket Panchasara, a young doctor, a Gandhinagar corporator and one of the BJP’s panna pramukhs, said, “If there are any 16-17 year-olds on our page, we assist them with all the paperwork in getting them registered as voters. We become their first contacts in the world of politics and there is a greater chance that they will trust us with their vote.”
Patel from Mota Varachha said, in his area, many young students who aspire to study abroad apply for passports. “We try to personally accompany them for police verifications. It helps us earn the trust of not just the concerned youngster but his or her whole family,” he said.
The panna pramukhs also network with people by organising local meet-ups, and inviting families (on their electoral page) to listen to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Mann ki Baat’ together, party leaders said.
Once a week, the local MLA meets the party’s booth-level cadre and, once a month, the local MP makes a visit.
The MLA also tries to make booth workers meet local government authorities once every month, Jalavadiya said. “He tells the zonal officers, a call from them (booth workers) is like a call from me,” he added. “That’s how I could get the Ma Amrutam card sanctioned in 24 hours.”
(Edited by Anumeha Saxena)
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