In the aftermath of the BJP-led NDA’s historic mandate on 23 May, the party workers’ role has come to the fore in the various analyses of the election results.
The Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress’s Sudip Bandopadhyay believes his party would have fared far better had its foot soldiers been able to match Didi’s energy. The Congress’s Raj Babbar has a similar theory about his party’s performance in Uttar Pradesh, wishing that the workers had emulated Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
Sukhbir Badal of the Shiromani Akali Dal, a rare NDA partner that under-performed, feels his cadres would have done well had they worn their loyalties to the party top brass on their sleeves, just as the BJP workers do with their ‘Modi-Modi’ chants. The BJP leadership has indeed been effusive in crediting its showing to its workers’ efforts.
The Edge Party Workers Bring To An Election Campaign
Babbar and Bandopadhyay may not be articulating their party’s official position, Badal’s remarks may have a larger context and may possibly have been intended for a closed group, and the workers’ exertions may not be the only factor behind the BJP triumph. However, these statements nevertheless underscore the edge party workers bring to an election campaign – and offer an opportunity to reflect on the factors that either enthuse or demoralise them.
In the present circumstances, it is only fitting to look at how these factors bolstered the BJP and inhibited its rivals.
Ideology, no matter how questionable, is an obvious driver.
The dream of a muscular ‘Hindu Rashtra’ moves the Sangh Parivar and its affiliates to mobilise opinion in favour of the BJP. This is the most commonly cited example of how a belief could mobilise the powers on-ground, but is by no means the only one.
There are others stemming from a vision of re-balancing the social order (as in the case of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Mandalite parties), claiming their rightful space for a specific and proud culture (regional formations like the DMK), altering the prevalent political culture (the Aam Aadmi Party), or empowering the have-nots (the Left).
Meanwhile, the Congress is riding too many boats, a viable tactic at one point of time, but now it’s only making it difficult to ascertain who or what the grand old party stands for, in a political marketplace that is seeking ‘customised’ offerings.
BJP’s ‘Simple’ Messaging Worked
Two factors explain the BJP’s smooth conversion of ideological positioning into votes and seats in recent years.
The Hindutva agenda, especially when meshed with nationalism and nourished by the kind of resources the BJP has commandeered, casts a wider, almost pan-India net.
Regional parties focus on niche geographies and others are hobbled by resource crunches, despite the wider relevance and promise their agendas hold, in a country where oppression, and disillusionment with the political class are high.
The BJP’s ideological positioning is packaged well, making the workers’ job easier. Narratives connect better in an emotional story format than in a bland, treatise form. The BJP’s success lies in enlivening and repeatedly affirming its agenda with a simplistic, punchy spin on immediate events. It makes the message easier to carry forth, mainly because it distills the message for the worker herself, indeed, it scripts the lines to be spoken.
Contrast this with rival ranks struggling to locate their narratives in a shifting milieu, and desperately trying to articulate them in relatable vocabularies. Workers unsure of the bite of their own message can hardly become energetic purveyors.
BJP Set A Target For Its Workers
While ideology propels one set of workers – sometimes to the extent of creating blind spots when it comes to reading the shifts in the popular mood – it is the prospect of power that energises others. Though drawn to the party for more mundane reasons than ideology, their incentive to bend is no less. That is because power within sniffing distance promises proximity to those in positions that matter. After all, good things come with it – social heft within the community, and pecuniary benefits via petty contracts, dispute settlements and other intermediations.
When the BJP publicly announced its ambitious seat goals, the ‘mission so-many’ and ‘abki baar X paar’ declarations, it did more than just set a target the party had to work towards.
It told the workers that there was something favourable in the air that the party leadership knew of (why else would it stick its neck out), something that would make victory inevitable, if only the workers did their bit. The scent of power did the rest.
Meanwhile, the Opposition’s lackluster body language, repeated reversals and inability to form governments – even from not entirely uncomfortable seats – did little to inspire the ‘floating’ political workers, their pool increasingly drawn from personal, caste or community networks, or those elbowed out of local power structures. Notably, the simplification of scripts to be peddled, and the prospect of power, work just as well for the agenda-driven, as they do for the power-seeking.
How To Challenge The BJP’s Narrative
For both the agenda-driven and the power-seeking, another common motivating factor is the perceived space for upward mobility within the party structure. The BJP is not short of dynasts, but the absence of a single First Family at the top and the party’s pointed recognition of those who have made it from the trenches, comforts the more ambitious of their chances of graduating to better things. Competing parties do not offer the same optics.
From the point of view of the Opposition parties, all this may look bleak.
However, there are themes like constitutionalism, corruption, social justice and federalism that have the potential to create a narrative as potent as Hindutva.
Some of them were, in fact, challenging Hindutva not so long ago. Also, in a country of India’s size and diversity, it is practically impossible for any single political party to accommodate every interest and all ambitions in micro and meso-level structures. There will always be those seeking political space in rival folds.
Even with these comforters, it would, of course, take sizeable effort to sharpen alternate narratives, find new, credible voices to lead the charge at all levels, and excite workers to convince the people of their case. For those who believe it is too tall an order, there is always the case study of how the BJP built and rebuilt itself.
(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and crime fiction writer and can be contacted at @ManishDubey1972. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)