More a cult than a political party: Shivam Singh, BJP leader Ram Madhav’s former protégé

Courtesy Shivam Shankar Singh
20 August, 2020

In 2013, Shivam Shankar Singh, then a college student, volunteered for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election campaign for the national polls the following year. He graduated from college in 2015 and began working for the BJP officially in 2016. Singh was mentored by Ram Madhav, a national general secretary of the BJP and a top ideologue of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Singh worked in the areas of data analytics and social media. In March 2018, he resigned from the party. In a blog post, Singh explained that he quit because of the party’s misleading narratives against the opposition and the media, the crackdown on political dissent, the dissemination of fake news and the deliberate communal polarisation of the Hindu majority, among others.

As Indian politics places itself firmly on the right of the ideological spectrum, some individuals who were previously members of right-wing organisations, have moved towards the Left—or at least away from the Right. Yet others, who hail from a notably right-wing milieu, never embraced it and have become the political right’s fiercest critics. What makes such individuals go against the stream? What events, situations and considerations shape their decisions? Abhimanyu Chandra, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, seeks to explore these transitions in a series of interviews, titled Converse Lens, being published by The Caravan. Chandra spoke to Singh about the final straw that led to his resignation, and the silent disillusionment with the current government within the BJP. He further discussed why opposition parties have failed to capitalise on this disillusionment.

Abhimanyu Chandra: It has been over two years since you resigned from the BJP. Has your opinion of the party changed in this time—or is it the same?
Shivam Shankar Singh: From what I can tell, the BJP has made more inroads over the last two years over systems. Initially, BJP was just a political party. That is no longer the case. At this point of time, they have extended way beyond only [being] a political party. The way the judiciary has been handling a lot of cases. What you get to see ultimately, is that the country has been taken over by one political party.

The phenomenon of everyone—in the judiciary, inside the BJP, outside the BJP, in the media—just giving up is slightly new. This is a post-2019 phenomenon. If you look at the coronavirus situation, the way it has played out, what Modiji has today—the kind of fan following—is more like a cult than a political party.

AC: In your resignation post, you had cited what you saw as the “good,” the “bad,” and the “ugly” in the BJP. Where would you say the balance has shifted since?
SSS: Today, we have moved way beyond this. The reality of the degree of power the BJP has, is so set in stone at this point in time, and there is very little happening to oppose it. Extremely little happening politically, extremely little is happening in the judiciary. There is an absolute sense that most of the people who could have done something about [opposing the BJP] have given up. There is no real sense of a choice being presented before people at this point in time.

AC: So, are you saying that over the last two years, the paradigm has changed such that the BJP can no longer be assessed in terms of a good-bad-ugly breakdown?
SSS: Exactly.

AC: Even then, in your view, has the BJP shifted towards the good or towards the ugly?
SSS: For example, with regard to the Delhi riots, if you look at what is happening, the kind of people who have been arrested, everyone pretty much understands what is happening. No one thinks that it is a fair thing to do, to arrest students, to arrest people who were just protesting out on the streets, send them to jail for three months.

Everyone knew what was happening is wrong. A lot of people, even within the BJP, have the understanding that a witch-hunt is going on. But the point is that even for something this obvious, there is no real public anger against it. The opposition couldn’t really do much. The Aam Aadmi Party didn’t say anything. Congress didn’t say anything. The media really didn’t care who is being arrested. Safoora Zargar was pregnant, so that was played [in the media] for one-two days, that a pregnant lady is still in jail.

But beyond a pregnant lady, the argument should have been that people protested against the government and now they are being implicated in a riot. But no one is making that argument. So, I would say the BJP is still pretty much the same as what it was before. The good, the bad, and the ugly hasn’t really changed that much. It’s exactly where it was. Except, the other side has completely disappeared now.

People like Harsh Mander have been implicated in the riots—the opposition parties should be coming together and saying this is wrong. That voice doesn’t really exist anymore. Until that happens, I don’t see the narrative [advanced by the BJP] being broken. If someone like Mander is charged and arrested, even more people will disengage, will back off. There will be more fear. But more than that, people will feel the situation [in terms of space for dissent] is impossible, nothing can be done.

When the JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University] issue was going on [in 2016], you could still see the AAP speak up, the Congress speak up. You saw people like Kanhaiya Kumar emerge into people who had a voice. With the Delhi riots, I haven’t seen that.

AC: The 2016 JNU unrest, what did you make of it—as someone inside the party operations at that time?
SS: To be honest, my first reaction was “what stupidity.” Why is the government machinery even bothered about a university? Makes no sense. If you are not the person doing it, you don’t see the branding that is happening, until the time it reaches a certain critical mass. These things seem too trivial, too stupid. And you think that maybe some idiot type in some corner of the party, or some idiot bureaucrat is getting it pushed. You think of it in those terms.

It takes a while to understand what the consequence of it is going to be, that “tukde-tukde,” “anti-national,” these terms will get branded into a huge deal. It takes a long while to reach that conclusion. After a certain point in time, you realise this is how it operates. Then they worked on the narrative for a while. They linked it with communist, with Muslim, with more things. And then it got built.

This kind of clarity came to be around mid-2017, 2018. That anyone who raises an issue against the government, for example like Ravish Kumar, would be boycotted and branded. That was becoming clearer. Until then, you still had some hope. The government has just been formed, something will happen. Everyone held the belief that India is going to be the new superpower, that something amazing is going to happen to the country.

AC: You left the BJP in March 2018, whereas the JNU unrest began in February 2016. In 2017, Adityanath was appointed as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, which shocked many people even inside the BJP, given his firebrand Hindu-nationalist record. Why specifically did you leave the party when you did? What was the final straw?
SSS: I was involved with the work for the 2018 Tripura elections and wanted to finish that before leaving. I had decided that this was the last project I was working on for the BJP.

The breaking point was Modiji’s speeches in Karnataka [during the campaign for the 2018 assembly elections] and elsewhere. Looking at what they were trying to do in Karnataka, looking at the kind of speeches that they were giving. It became pretty clear that the agenda was not going to be development, it was not going to be an anti-corruption plank, it was not going to be building a better India, which was what the pitch was in 2014.

If you look at 2014, BJP still focused on an anti-corruption plank against the Congress, they focused on development, they focused on ache din aane wale hain—good days are coming soon—they focused on price rise. There were still some fundamental issues that you could actually talk about. But by 2019, it was pretty clear that there was going to be none of that.

AC: You mentioned the prime minister’s speeches in Karnataka—what specific speeches, in what context, struck you?
SSS: I mention Karnataka because it was a very strange experience for me. At a certain level, you had started seeing the polarisation. What was unique about Karnataka was that the prime minister made a false statement. He lied about something related to Jawaharlal Nehru or Bhagat Singh or something. I can’t remember exactly. He basically went up on stage and said that no one met Bhagat Singh in jail. There was some historical fact that he completely messed up. And everyone started correcting him on social media, that the prime minister doesn’t know history.

Because I have a fundamental understanding of how much work goes into a political speech, I know for a fact that it is very unlikely that a wrong fact slips in like this. What you basically realise is that the BJP knows how to shape a narrative. Up till then, the narrative in the [2018 Karnataka] elections was against Yediyurappa [BS Yediyurappa, the current chief minister of Karnataka.] It was about corruption, it was about the Bellary brothers [referring to the mining barons Janardhana Reddy, Karunakara Reddy, and Somashekara Reddy, who were embroiled in controversies regarding illegal mining at the time]. In Karnataka’s local politics, these were the things being discussed. Modiji makes one wrong statement and all of that goes down the drain.

That was a major lesson for me—that these guys are willing to do this also.

AC: It sounds like you were surprised that the BJP was ready to do something that you had not expected.
SSS: I wouldn’t say it was a surprise. Basically, in politics, everything works on a spectrum. You know that no party is absolutely good or absolutely bad. With BJP, a lot of people voted them in with hope in 2014. Till mid-2017, 2018, a lot of people still had hopes of development.

Slowly, I began to see that hope completely disappear, and it turned into a frenzy kind of thing. That’s why I make the “cult” reference, because that’s what has happened now. There’s a leader who rules by the cult of personality. It’s not based on issues anymore, not based on what is going to happen to the country’s future. So, I eventually reached a point that I can’t do this anymore. Enough.

AC: Shortly after publishing your resignation post, you wrote in a column that you were someone involved in politics who was “privileged enough to not have to bury my convictions.” What specifically did you mean here by being privileged? Were you referring to class, or caste, or gender, or what specifically?
SSS: It’s actually of all kinds. For one, I didn’t need the job actually. I come from a background that I can earn a salary; I can earn a higher salary than I was making at the BJP. The second is also a privilege of gender and caste—of me being an upper-caste Hindu. However much criticism there is, there is only a certain extent to which I can be vilified, right? One very big privilege I would also say is that a lot of people in the BJP know me personally. So, at the end of the day, I understand that there cannot be a tremendous amount of backlash, because I have friends within the party.

AC: Let us say that everything about your background was as is, but as a woman, or a Muslim. What would have changed in terms of their ability to resign, be vocal, and the backlash?
SSS: For one, I am sure the trolling would have been much higher. The second part of it is that if someone is a Muslim, one, it would be very weird for you to stay there that long. I don’t think that’s even a realistic scenario.

AC: A Muslim would not have continued in the positions you were in, up till the time you did, given the party’s evolving politics?
SSS: Yes, or even risen up the hierarchy to that extent. I didn’t have Muslim colleagues in the organisation. I haven’t met too many Muslims in the IT cell. That is just not something that happens. Or even women for that matter. If you look at the BJP IT cell, it’s not a very inclusive organisation in that sense. And to a certain extent, it is true of all political parties—all political parties are pretty male dominant.

AC: You also wrote in the column that your resignation had received support from many readers. Did some people in the BJP also agree with you, complaining about internal party practices? Did more people resign?
SSS: On a one-to-one level, almost anyone I meet with agrees with the fundamental things [in the resignation post]. There might be some disagreement that “what other option is there”; that “Congress is also useless”; that “it is as bad if not worse.” But fundamentally, everyone agrees on a lot of things. And primarily, if you talk to anyone right now, no one will say that the BJP is doing anything good on the economy. Everyone I have spoken to realises that the entire Rs 20 lakh crore package [announced by the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman in response to the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown] is not enough.

AC: Are you saying that people within the BJP will say this?
SS: Yes. On a one-to-one basis, almost everyone realises that the government is not functioning well. And almost everyone also realises that they cannot win on developmental issues; they have to win on different issues. And what my understanding is that it is going to be a new issue every time. Last time they got Pulwama, Balakot [on 14 Feb 2019, over forty Central Reserve Police Force personnel were killed in a bomb attack. Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for the attack, and on 26 February, the Indian government launched a counter air-strike on an alleged JeM base in Balakot] so it became anti-Pakistan. Next election it will be something else. But it is going be on an emotional issue at the end of the day. A lot of people [within the party] fundamentally understand this.

But people who have invested years into building their politics within a political party, they have a lot more to lose [than I did]. For ten years, he [such a person] has been doing politics, is trying to get a seat. He has risen up the organisation after spending fifteen-twenty years in the BJP and the RSS. So, just the opportunity cost is so high that most people don’t really change sides unless it’s for personal benefit.

The people who can afford to do it so easily are people who are not really dependent on politics for their lives and livelihoods, for whom politics is not their entire profession. Other people would have the option of changing parties if the opposition had created a platform. For example, the BJP has created a platform that someone like Jyotiraditya Scindia, who is unhappy with the Congress, can leave it. The other side has not been able to build a platform for career politicians to be able to do something like this.  

AC: Does that mean that the people who have left the BJP, whether you, or Yashwant Sinha, or Prodyut Bora, are people who come from privileged economic backgrounds? What are the common features between people who can leave, and cannot leave?
SSS: I would say the most common feature is people who are not dependent on politics [for a living]. And also, you have to figure out what else you want to do in life. Because to quit the BJP, and knowing there is no real opposition that is doing much, your decision means going out of politics altogether.

AC: When people leave the BJP, sometimes they are criticised by the Left for supporting the BJP up till then. Do you think liberals are open and welcoming to people who want to leave the BJP, or is there more criticism for having supported Modi up till that point? What was your personal experience?
SSS: I would say that in general, the BJP and RSS do a much better job of including people [who leave some other group]. Those organisations in general, RSS especially, is built to bring you in, and make you feel like a part of the community, in the very essence of the organisation. Their entire purpose is to become as large as possible. That is their stated purpose.

This kind of thing doesn’t exist on the Left partly because there is no real organisation. Everyone is doing their own thing. There is very little commonality between different sets of people against the BJP, right now. On the Left, yes, there is some cliquishness, that “you should have known better,” or that “you supported them once so you can’t be on our side.” But this is more at random; it’s not some organisation or political party saying this.

AC: As you look back at your own trajectory, do you regret your past work with the BJP?
SSS: No, not at all. I think at a certain point in time it was important to support the BJP just because no one really could have supported the Congress in 2014, the narrative being what it was. A lot of people who began understanding politics at that age basically understood that Congress had to be dislodged, just given the narrative of corruption and inaction. It takes a certain amount of experience and maturity to realise if the narrative is accurate or not. But if you enter the voting age group when that narrative is getting built, you will get swayed up with it.

That is what we [in the BJP] worked on when designing and building campaigns, too, so I understand how it works. It can be easy to say that you can be immune to propaganda, or you can be immune to advertising. But the reality is that almost no one can.

AC: But what of the fact that some of the narratives that emerged have been unsubstantiated?
SSS: Now that I have worked in politics for so long, now I know how exactly you get people into a crowd. I know how crowds get together, how crowds operate. Now, I can look at a crowd and easily tell how many people are mobilised and how many have come on their own. Once you have worked with elections, on how narratives are framed, you see how propaganda operates, it’s quite easy to tell.

But just looking from the outside, I really believe it [the narrative that is presented] is powerful enough that almost anyone would get swayed by it. And we have seen this operate multiple times. We saw it with Balakot and Pulwama. We are seeing it right now on China. We are seeing it with coronavirus, with the thaalee-valee bajaana nautanki—the drama of banging plates and pans—that had started. Things like that and how they catch on, you get to see it. And once you see it from the inside, the magic kind of disappears.

AC: You mentioned that deciding to leave the BJP is somewhat like leaving politics, given, in your view, the lack of alternatives. What have you been up to since you left the BJP in March 2018?
SSS: I am working with two companies: a data analytics company, Riply Analytics, and a media company, called Public Relations and Advocacy Group.

AC: Do you have plans to join a party or a political movement?
SSS: I have come to a conclusion that you cannot do politics in this country with any degree of respectability till you have a significant amount of bank balance. The independence to voice your opinion in politics comes actually from your financial strength.

AC: Are you working on that right now?
SSS: Yes. And that’s what I advise other people also, because I get a lot of phone calls seeking advice from people who want to enter politics. I say be political, be politically active. But don’t bank on contesting an election too soon. Because while it could work out, you’ll probably have to be at a level of subservience to the party leadership. And the only way you get to supersede that is that you build your own empire. And after that you do what you want.

This interview has been edited and condensed.