Understanding the BJP Phenomenon: An Assortment of Factors (Part 1)

The burgeoning of the BJP and its ascendancy — so much so that it is now the largest political party in the world in terms of membership — was a phenomenon deprived of a sufficient study. In terms of a disruption on the political stage, it is hardly different from the transformation of the Congress from a body of English-educated elite lawyers to a vehicle of national mass movement under the leadership of Gandhi over a century ago, except insofar as the intervening decades between the rise of the Congress under Gandhi and the meteoric rise of the BJP in the twenty-first century, have witnessed a surge in population and technology, naturally allowing the BJP to impact the commons on a much larger scale than the Congress could in the days of the freedom struggle. Yet, the references to the BJP phenomenon, even by scholarly pens and speeches, seemed never to sufficiently appreciate either the scale or the manner in which the BJP had achieved that scale.

Professor Nalin Mehta

That is, until award-winning journalist and writer Nalin Mehta, currently the Dean of School of Modern Media, UPES, published his vastly illuminating book analyzing the very phenomenon: ‘The New BJP: Modi and the Making of the World’s Largest Political Party’. Mehta has to his credit four other books which, too, have been described as deeply analytical. Such adjectives may be common in the circles of professional book reviewers. The aforementioned book, however, eminently justifies Star TV CEO Uday Shankar’s description of him as “probably the best media academic in India”.

Professor Mehta’s latest book

In the course of his research, Mehta solicited the help of a few journalists across India, and of the data scientist Rishabh Srivastava. Mehta and Srivastava created a new archival data-mining software called NARAD (Normative Analysis of Reporting and Discourse). This allowed them to stack an original database of 11,588 BJP-linked documents between 2006 and 2019, consisting of 17.9 million words. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning techniques allowed Mehta to uncover patterns that analysts tend mostly to miss.

This newly created database on BJP literature includes 8,579 BJP speeches, press releases and party articles published over thirteen years (between 2005 and 2019; 4.98 million words), 168 issues of the BJP fortnightly magazine Kamal Sandesh (2009–2019; 2.69 million words), 230 issues of the RSS weekly magazine Organiser (May 2015-December 2019; 6.12 million words), 1,305 speeches by Prime Minister Modi (2014–2019; 3.44 million words) and 216 documents of the RSS outfit Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (literally, the ‘jungle-dweller benefit hermitage’) which works in tribal areas (June 2018-December 2019; 43,000 words). We compared and contrasted this offline literature with social-media posts by seventy-five leaders from the BJP, the Congress and several regional parties between January 2016 and December 2019 (4,76,827 posts in all). This included all Facebook posts by the BJP, the RSS, the Congress, Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Rahul Gandhi from their official pages in the same period (a total of 40,251; 1.2 million words). After cleaning up the data, we created a specially developed digital analysis tool, the Narad Index, which measures how communication patterns change over time. The findings surprised us, and various chapters in the book, across subjects, are suffused with the insights we gained from them.

We further supplemented the digital archive and the Narad Index by creating a centralised digital repository of 218 interactive data dashboards, which we called ‘PollNiti’. This repository consists of over 100 data-analytics dashboards on constituency-level political information from national and state elections spread over four decades of politics (1980–2019); eight economic data dashboards consisting of national and state-level economic data stretching over seven years (2012–2019); and 110 social-media-analytics dashboards tracking dozens of politicians over three years (2016–2019). Many of these data sets were drawn from public sources. Some we constructed ourselves over time.

He notes that his research led him to unexpected results, many of which challenge the long-dated preconceptions of political analysts and commentators. Employing as close to a perfect methodology of data analysis as possible, he lucidly documents the changes that the BJP implemented in its party structure, communication and even government policy, so as to emerge as so significant and phenomenal a political party. This is impressive in context of the fact that, although steadily growing for several years, a sizeable component of its growth achieved fruition in a rather short span of time.

The following are the summarized observations pertinent to the BJP:

  1. It is no longer a party dominated by ‘upper-castes’: Many an opinion chamber have long dismissed the BJP as a party dominated by ‘upper-castes’. Mehta documents how this was not, strictly speaking, true even in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and how it is much less true today. Contrary to such dismissive assessments by such analysts as Christophe Jaffrelot, the BJP has managed to secure a much greater representation of OBCs than any caste-based party in India, and has secured impressive numbers of SC, ST and other backward class representatives in its party, rivalling those of caste-based parties. In terms of caste, it is a far more representative party than any other political party in India. This is one of the major factors that may be credited with its meteoric rise.
  2. For several years now, it has not cared for the Muslim vote: Its growth has been predicated, amongst other factors, on the mobilization only of Hindus. Citing other analysts, Mehta notes that, to a significant degree, the mobilization of Hindus is not impelled by anti-minority, specifically anti-Muslim, sentiment. To some degree, however, the Hindus have mobilized on grounds of the need to feel secure. This, Mehta notes, has happened in Muslim-majority constituencies and districts, in many of which, the preponderance of Muslims has invariably resulted in an atmosphere of fear, if not outright terror or tyranny, for the minority Hindus. Yet, while the BJP has not cared for the Muslim vote, it has largely been cautious in its references to Muslims, contrary to the tone of antagonism that many commentators allege to animate the BJP. The opinions of important party apparatchiks reveal that there does not seem to be a conspicuous anti-Muslim sentiment within the BJP, notwithstanding an occasional outrageous statement. I stress here that Mehta does not expressly make the inference in the foregoing sentence; this is my own inference after having perused his analysis of the BJP’s approach to Muslims.
  3. ‘Cow’, ‘Hindu’ and ‘Mandir’ have never featured amongst the top five popular points of political communication in the last decade or two: In the years 2014–15, the BJP spoke most often about ‘Development’ and ‘Farmers’. Somewhere around 2016, and following through in 2017 and 2018, the hitherto almost absent anti-Congress rhetoric became more noticeable. In other words, the BJP’s communication adopted a pronounced emphasis on how it was everything that the Congress was not. This became most frequent and voluminous in 2019 and overrode every other topic. In 2019, the topics on which the BJP spoke and wrote evinced the following order: Congress > Modi > Development > Farmers > Terrorism > Defence > Kashmir > Mandir > Cow > NRC. The focus on farmers has been ‘relentless’ since Modi assumed power in 2014.
  4. Its rhetoric on national security was more frequent and pronounced when it was in the opposition: It is reductionist to credit hard nationalism solely, or even predominantly, with the ability of the BJP to attract votes, notwithstanding its importance as a factor. The years 2006, 2007 and 2008 witnessed maximum communication on terrorism and defence, with an acclivitous yet understandable peak in 2008 with the attacks of 26/11, and it is only in 2019 that it came close to that frequency which was seen in 2006.
  5. It has had the first-mover advantage with regard to the leveraging of social media, and continues to demonstrate its dexterity: While the Congress has been attempting to replicate the BJP’s model, its shortcoming consists in the fact that is has devoted most of its attention to Twitter. The BJP has a 360-degree-view of social media; it has a sizeable presence on every social media platform, and far outperforms the Congress on Facebook, and much more so on Instagram. In terms of likes and retweets, Rahul Gandhi has consistently outperformed Narendra Modi, but Modi has the advantage of having a much larger base of following. The BJP’s expenditure on digital advertising has always been higher than that of the Congress. However, this is hardly the best summary I can offer; the minutiae of the BJP’s leveraging of social media are much more intricate.
  6. The BJP no longer depends on the RSS for its electoral triumphs: Mehta estimates the total strength of the RSS as no greater than a few million, whereas the BJP, having managed to increase its membership manifold in the five years from 2014 to 2019, now boasts of close to twenty-nine times the membership of the RSS and a trifling short of twice of that of the Communist Party of China (CCP). Mehta notes that even if a third of the BJP’s membership may be dismissed as transient — that might not validly be counted owing to its high probability of switching allegiances in case of an electoral loss — the BJP would still boast of nineteen times the strength of the RSS, and about twenty percent larger than the CCP. This assessment is based on the 2019 figure of 174 million members in the BJP (the CCP at 91.9 million and the RSS at 5.92 million respectively).

In subsequent posts, I shall present other conclusions drawn by Mehta.

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Eternal as evolution is, I cannot purport to have grown in full measure, and I hope to augment my acuity in the company of beings far more erudite than me.

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Samved Iyer

Samved Iyer

Eternal as evolution is, I cannot purport to have grown in full measure, and I hope to augment my acuity in the company of beings far more erudite than me.

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