The BJP’s Campaign Calculus

01 July, 2013

IN 2003, Pramod Mahajan was appointed chairman of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s central campaign committee for the next year’s Lok Sabha elections. Mahajan—known for his organisational skills and his fondness for the company of wealthy industrialists—was appointed against the backdrop of an Indian economy that was growing at a rate of close to 8 percent. Buoyed by the upbeat economic mood, Mahajan, with the approval of his party leadership, assembled an expensive marketing campaign, “India Shining”, which celebrated the Indian growth story in a series of high-gloss television and newspaper advertisements. In the months before the election, the government spent more than Rs 100 crore selling the idea of an economically vibrant India to its own people, even as, according to the World Bank, close to 75 percent of the country lived on less than Rs 100 per day.

After the election, which the BJP had been widely favoured to win, Mahajan’s campaign bore the brunt of the blame for the party’s defeat. The BJP’s upbeat narrative of inclusive growth, it was said, conflicted too starkly with the below-subsistence reality of the majority of Indians. While the country was witnessing unprecedented growth, as has been the case during other periods of economic expansion—under both the Congress and the BJP—the most significant beneficiaries of that growth were a small proportion of upper- and middle-class Indians, with the overwhelming gains accumulating to the super-rich. While Mahajan might have mistakenly seen the signs of broad prosperity in the gains of a small minority, what was more surprising was that the senior leadership of the BJP had gone along with extravagant notions of a “shining” Indian economy. Given the exuberance of the campaign, it is plausible that they, too, might have gotten carried away by the seductive shimmer of growth visible amongst the select few who populate the party’s inner circle and its social periphery.

Both the BJP and its ideological and functional backbone, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have found their core constituency amongst upper-caste Hindus. They have historically appealed to the aspirations of this small minority, which comprises less than 10 percent of the country’s population. The upper castes constitute a substantial proportion of the BJP cadre and RSS shakhas; the top leadership of both organisations has always been made up largely of Brahmins. Though the overlap between caste and class is inexact (and current data on this subject remain elusive), it is safe to say that among the wealthiest 10 percent of Indians—who have reaped the largest benefit from the country’s growth—Hindu upper castes are vastly over-represented. This cross-section of upper-income and upper-caste Hindus mirrors the core constituency of both the BJP and the RSS.

Once more this year, with another election approaching, the BJP seems likely to opt for a campaign narrative that reflects the limited worldview of its leaders and core supporters. The recent selection of Narendra Modi as the party’s campaign chief (which indicates that he will almost certainly be declared its candidate for prime minister) presents a paradox in this regard. On the one hand, it suggests an effort by the BJP to broaden its social base, but upon closer examination there is reason to believe the party may be presenting itself much as it did in 2004.

There is no doubt that, over the past few years, Modi has come to be seen as a poster boy for development-oriented governance. Gujarat, which he has run for the last 11 years, is one of India’s fastest-growing states, and Modi has been immensely successful in building a narrative that establishes his no-nonsense attitude toward governance and policy as the main reason for Gujarat’s consistent growth. To the dismay of his critics, a section of voters now hails him as a strongman with the will and wisdom to reduce corruption and deliver growth. The man once viewed only as a communal polariser has found his biggest support among major industrialists, who cherish his decisiveness even if it carries authoritarian undertones. His second rung of supporters is made up of smaller businessmen, petty traders and shopkeepers, long the BJP’s traditional constituency. In addition to these two groups, there are the increasing number of young corporate professionals from the middle classes, who aspire to move up the income ladder and see Modi as a promoter of business and efficiency. This last group has been particularly vocal in their support of Modi, and the intensity of their cries for his ascension often presents the impression that the BJP has vastly expanded its voter base. But for all their energy, this group too represents a very small proportion of India’s population; these young aspirants often come from the same upper castes that have long been the BJP’s base.

While Modi’s admirers strongly believe that his appeal will spread across lines of caste and class, right now his most ardent support comes from this same small cross-section of upper-caste Hindus, who wield a disproportionate influence within the BJP and the RSS. The party was certain in 2004 that an aspirational message would expand its voter base, but in hindsight, they seem to have been carried away by the fervour within their own ranks. Ironically, this time they may do so behind a candidate whose own origins are not upper-caste, which might otherwise have heralded a shift away from the parochial outlook to which the party has often been prone.