The Diminishing Middle

How Modi is restructuring the BJP

30 June 2019
The BJP has seen increasing centralisation of power under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s leadership.
pradeep gaur / mint / getty images
The BJP has seen increasing centralisation of power under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s leadership.
pradeep gaur / mint / getty images

Before campaigning for India’s general election started, in April this year, I was in Delhi discussing the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidates in the capital with party workers. As we talked about the BJP’s prospects, I asked whether they thought the Congress would make something of a revival in Delhi. One party worker dismissed my query immediately. “Of course not, this is clearly Modi’s election!” he said. On the sidelines, the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress were facing a breakdown in talks over an alliance that did not come through.

The BJP, at the time, was dealing with a public showdown of its own. Udit Raj, one of its prominent Dalit members of parliament at the time, was furious over the party’s delay in ticket distribution, specifically its reluctance to renominate him for his constituency of North West Delhi. After sending his followers to make a commotion over the tickets at the party office, Raj finally quit the BJP after the ticket was given to the singer Hans Raj Hans, and joined the Congress. In the press conference held by the Congress to welcome him into its fold, Raj had sharp words for his previous party, “There is a propaganda in the BJP that everyone in the party gets justice,” he said. “BJP’s karyakartas”—party workers—“use this propaganda as their weapon and as a source of pride, and say that the party will do what the internal survey says.” He argued that the survey’s findings indicated that the seat should have been given to him. “My only mistake was that I was neither deaf nor blind in the party. If that was the case, perhaps they would have rewarded me for being mute, and I could have even become the PM!”

Raj went on to cite more anomalies in the BJP’s conduct towards him, but it was his critique of its performance myth that was unnerving for the party. BJP members trolled him on Twitter for these statements. Maheish Girri, another MP who was denied a ticket, but accepted the decision, said that by leaving the party, Raj had stooped low for “just a ticket.” The BJP spokesperson Tajinder Bagga ridiculed Raj’s comments. What Raj was referring to, however, is a constant theme in the party, familiar to all its members—a notion that the BJP takes care of everyone, and rewards their commitment. “Sangathan sabka khyal rakhta hai”—the organisation takes care of everyone—is a common refrain in most party meetings.

This refrain has come under great strain ever since the BJP swept to power in an overwhelming victory in the 2014 general election. Since then, the party has seen increasing centralisation of power under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s leadership. As the BJP cemented its election victories, and aggressively expanded its base—the party has recruited many ambitious new members—it now boasts one of the largest memberships in the world for any political party.

Many from the party’s older cadre are skeptical about the new direction the BJP has taken. A member from the party’s older, and now retired, Jan Sangh leadership explained to me how he viewed the shift. “The party has expanded beyond our imagination,” he said. “The pressure on its margins has increased, and there is now more and more demand from these members to get their due for their work. This is only fair, I think, and while we were trained to keep our ambitions in check in our time, this is no longer the case today.”

Rashmi Singh is a doctoral candidate at the department of sociology at Cambridge University. She studies party politics in India.

Keywords: Bharatiya Janata Party Narendra Modi Amit Shah party cadre Sangh Parivar