The two different machines of Modi’s BJP and Congress
From grassroots cadre to a digital army, from aspirations to ideology, the BJP’s party structure – much like the Congress of the past – is now fortified. How the Congress decides to contend with this hegemon, as it gears up to elect a new party president, will be crucial for its survival
When political scientist WH Morris-Jones visited the Congress party office in Bhopal in 1967 to research what held the party together, he was waved off by a committed party worker “hard at work over a desk” who told him he was “busy”. When Morris-Jones persisted, the worker responded, “I am working for the party and nobody can interfere with this work”. The political scientist later recalled that this encounter “opened” his eyes. There were, he wrote, “several of his (the worker’s) kind to be found in dusty Congress offices up and down the country, slaves dedicated to the cause”. These party workers were legatees of Mahatma Gandhi’s exhortation to the service ethic, which harnessed the “traditional call of seva to the modern party machine”.
Today, it is possible to find such dedicated men and women — karyakartas — in brand new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) offices across India. It is relatively more difficult, however, to find a comparable large cohort of dedicated ideological workers in older Congress offices anymore. As the Congress prepares to elect a new president next month, the revolt of a dissenting group of leaders (the so-called G-23, some of whom have now left the party), the exit of some of its leading lights, and rising demands to publish electoral rolls have dominated the headlines. However, beyond the news cycle, there are deep differences in cadre-building and party structures between Narendra Modi’s New BJP post-2014 and the Gandhi family’s Congress – differences which its next president must contend with.
Cadre growth and size
Historically, the old pre-Independence Congress was built district by district by Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru with a deep grassroots structure of ideological workers. That backbone of the zameenee karyakarta remained the party’s bedrock after Indira Gandhi split the Congress in 1969 and replaced the Syndicate of powerful state satraps such as K Kamaraj and Morarji Desai with a coterie of rootless central leaders. Even after the Congress went into decline from the early 1990s with the rise of Hindutva and the Mandal parties, it took two decades for its district-level structures to atrophy.
In 2009, BJP candidates forfeited their deposits in as many as 170 parliamentary seats, the Congress only in 71. By 2019, the BJP forfeited deposits in only 51 seats nationally, but the Congress did so in almost three times as many seats (148). In other words, in almost one-third of India’s parliamentary map, the Congress had become electorally irrelevant within the course of a decade.
It now faces a political hegemon with a cadre structure of a scale it has never faced before. The BJP under Modi, between 2014 and 2019, grew five-fold to 174 million members, becoming almost double the size of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Even if we assume that one-third of these members claimed by the BJP are transient — those attracted to the ruling dispensation and in danger of leaving if the party loses power— it would still be larger than the CCP.
The new BJP’s internal reordering under Modi was based on a simple organising idea: The voting booth is at the heart of winning elections. Nationally, India has 1,035,000 voting booths. The BJP claims to have set up booth-level committees in 83% of these (863,000) between 2014 and 2019. This is what gives it the ground game and last-mile connectivity – to convert loose supporters into voters. This was evident in the recently concluded Uttar Pradesh (UP) elections, where cadre mobilisation made a huge difference, with the rival Samajwadi Party unable to convert its rally crowds into votes.
A significant part of the BJP’s managerial restructuring was enabled by the adoption of technology, with mobile phone numbers, one-time passwords and WhatsApp. WhatsApp groups performed two functions: Disseminating outward uniform messaging and social listening from the ground up. During the 2017 UP election, for example, Amit Shah announced later, the BJP had as many as 3.2 million people in its WhatsApp groups in the state.
The Congress, too, began a new digital membership drive on November 1, 2021. It claims to have registered over 26 million new members through it. It tried to adopt a tech-driven approach to cadre management before the 2019 polls -- with its Shakti platform – which linked party workers’ voter identity cards with phone numbers. But that experiment failed.
Technology is not a magic bullet. It is only an enabler. By itself, it can do little. For the BJP, the adoption of digital technologies as a management tool worked only because it was adroitly enmeshed with managerial restructuring to the grassroots, oversight mechanisms, and clear command and control systems. The BJP’s use of digital technology would not have been so impactful without a physical reordering of the party and its ground-level sangathan. In the Congress’s case, its previous tech interventions were never seen through with offline changes.
The BJP is also growing because the acquisition of power has made it the party of upward mobility and aspiration in middle India. When UP deputy chief minister Brajesh Pathak, once the Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, switched to the BJP in 2017, he told journalist Pranshu Mishra: “A political leader has an average career of 20 years unless you are from a political family. Then it can go up to 30 years. Of the 20, I did 10 in BSP, I will do my remaining 10 in BJP. The Congress is good but what’s the point in joining it?”
Beyond senior leaders such as Jyotiraditya Scindia and RPN Singh, a lot of younger third- and fourth-rung Congress leaders have also been making similar choices. In Gujarat, the Congress gave the BJP a tough fight in 2017. Yet, its state unit is almost unrecognisable ahead of this year’s assembly election. Many Congress district-level leaders have switched to the BJP.
Product differentiation is a big structural difference between the BJP and the Congress. Whether you like it or not, the BJP’s ideological positioning is crystal clear. The Congress carried the legacy of the nationalist movement post-Independence. Today, many people who may otherwise not vote for the BJP, are unclear what the Congress stands for: Beyond being anti-BJP or anti-Modi. Psephologist Jai Mrug argues, “At a time of great social flux, a party that has a sharper ideology and positioning compared to others who are bits of everything, like Congress, always looks more attractive.”
In the 2022 UP polls, many Congress posters featured Indira Gandhi. Recent Rajasthan government ads featured Rajiv Gandhi prominently. Indira Gandhi was assassinated almost four decades ago, Rajiv three decades ago. A vast majority of Indians were born after their deaths. A whopping 74% of Indians are below 40, over half is below 30. How does the Congress speak to this new India? That is the challenge its next president will face.
Nalin Mehta is the author of The New BJP: Modi and the Making of the World’s Largest Political Party, Westland
The views expressed are personal