Gujarat elections 2017: A tale of two organisational models in Indian politics

Updated on Dec 15, 2017 11:38 AM IST

The Gujarat elections of 2017 have revealed new types of vulnerabilities and strengths in the two very different political organizations of the Congress and the BJP.

BJP supporters during a rally in Gandhinagar during the Gujarat elections.(PTI)
BJP supporters during a rally in Gandhinagar during the Gujarat elections.(PTI)
Hindustan Times | By

It is past midnight. But the BJP media centre — set up in the annexe of a swanky corporate complex on the outskirts of Ahmedabad — is still buzzing. Dozens of journalists, a couple of central ministers who have just dropped in and scores of party workers could be seen in multiple huddles, awaiting their respective turns for a face time with Adhyaksh ji — BJP president Amit Shah. Shah has been camping here since the afternoon and carrying out a number of review meetings.

“He doesn’t seem to be in a good mood,” said a journalist, coming out of the room where Shah was closeted with Bhupender Yadav, the BJP’s in-charge for the elections in Gujarat. The journalist is quickly countered. “That’s how Adhyaksh ji is,” said a close aide of Shah. “He never shows he is happy. He doesn’t like leaving things to chance. He likes to keep up the pressure on us.”

Such an assessment is not atypical of what one hears of Amit Shah. His organisational stamina and skills are now stories of legend. More importantly, India has only recently awakened to the radical transformation he has brought about within the BJP and for electoral politics. The BJP as an organisation, when it comes to elections, appears to have been revamped as a hybrid between military precision and corporate efficiency.

My colleague Prashant Jha’s much-acclaimed book How the BJP Wins (2017) goes so far as to call today’s BJP “India’s greatest election machine”. Many aspects of this machine, in fact, are getting clearer by the day. For one, it is highly centralised with a defined chain of command, a capacity for fast decision-making and clear accountability. The party is even becoming a zero-tolerance zone for competing factions. And Shah’s disciplinary interventions can extend all the way to the booth level.

“He not only lays out the strategy, but also monitors almost every aspect of its implementation,” said the Shah aide, who wished not to be named. “All of us align our work to his directions. The candidates, the campaigners, the spokespersons, the social media team, the grassroots workers, all of us.”

Most importantly, this highly centralised military-corporate machine has space for only one message — Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Increasingly as well, the BJP candidate is fast becoming a mere signboard, who is only expected to carry the Modi message. Funding for the elections has overwhelmingly become top down in the BJP and, therefore, personal resources of the local candidate now counts for little.

In contrast, the Congress remains tied to its past organisational traditions, even as it has added a smart phone and a laptop to its overall capacity. The Congress organisation is the classic “satrap model”. Nodes of influence or local potentates are joined together to create a power grid that, in essence, turns into a large patron-client network. At the state level, one can even sometimes discern a franchise model in the satrap style, in which a powerful bloc runs the Congress for a while. This is a highly negotiated and leaky (for both money and power) arrangement, which is always open to various kinds of pulls and pressures. The leader of the Congress, in fact, can perhaps be seen as the great coordinator, whose chief role is to assemble, connect and animate political networks.

The Gujarat elections of 2017, however, have revealed new types of vulnerabilities and strengths in these two very different political organisations in India. The military-corporate machine, as it turns out, is not only expensive to run in terms of money and resources but that it is also far more fragile when its main message goes off script. That is to say, the BJP was found to be expending much more energy and resources to hold on to its centre.

If anything, the strains of running a one-message campaign showed badly in Gujarat. The 34 public rallies almost felt like over exposure and the Prime Minister’s hoarse, almost tired, voice in the final rounds revealed wear and tear rather than conveying a narrative about moving from strength to strength.

Read | BJP continues to ride on PM Modi’s popular appeal but the party should buck up

The Congress, on the other hand, with the flexibility that comes with the satrap model displayed far more resilience. Rahul Gandhi and his team, for one, revealed nimbleness and agility in absorbing and incorporating various contradictory forces.

Read | Gujarat elections: Does Congress have spokes to outrun the BJP wheel in final lap?

There is strategic brilliance in getting the Patels and the OBCs on board even when reservations can be a zero-sum game between them. Or getting the Dalits, Muslims and tribals to continue to ride the Congress bandwagon, even though these communities have a long set of grievances against the Patels.

In other words, the satrap model was far more open to negotiations, listening to other voices and interests and more importantly able to stitch together and hold contradictory pulls and pressures — that might rock the boat but not necessarily sink it.

It is the troika of Jignesh Mevani, Alpesh Thakor and Hardik Patel that has come to dictate the course of the elections this time in Gujarat. Even though theirs is an untidy coalition, it has served the Congress party well, from amplifying its message on social media to mobilising crowds for election rallies and organising volunteers for polling booths.

This is not to argue that the BJP is or has been averse to alliances and partnerships by smaller political groups. Notably, in the North East. However, as Gujarat will tell us, there is a visible hardening in the political arteries. The power of the BJP is now so immense and overwhelming that any arrangement will be starkly unequal for any other party or group. Put differently, there is something about a political machine that makes it relentless and insatiable. Recent noises by the Shiv Sena and the JD(U) give us some indication of how difficult it is to be housed under the BJP umbrella.

When the dust finally settles on the Gujarat elections these two starkly different political organisational models will come up for review. Will the BJP continue to bet on pursuing its military-corporate model for 2019? Will Amit Shah remain the fuel and force for working the levers and moving the wheels for the party?

For the Congress, on the other hand, will it continue to see urgency and importance in trying to tap, co-opt and harness the different types of anger, disquiet and resentments that are cropping up across India?

This Monday’s Gujarat verdict will decisively tell us how politics will test the political organisation.


    Rajesh Mahapatra was the Chief Content Officer at Hindustan Times. From sports to politics, analytics to economics, he has an interest in everything that makes news. He tweets as @rajeshmahapatra

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