No matter what one’s political affiliations are, last week’s results herald a new era in Indian politics. Many early analyses emphasise the importance and role of the BJP’s presidential style campaign on the success of the BJP. My effort is to complicate this argument by exploring some of the social bases for the rise of the BJP. Over 4 weeks in urban Bangalore, I interviewed party workers and voters, and followed party campaigns. I find that analyses that focus on leadership, and the so-called “NaMo wave”, may mask the support provided by the BJP’s focused grassroots campaign and concerted service delivery.
First, it appears that the BJP’s local workers have been involved in significant and focused door-to-door campaigning, beyond rallies/meetings. This kind of campiagning is true even in wards that have Congress councillors. In contrast, the INC does not appear to have such mobilisation. In Neelasandra (INC Ward), for instance, I found BJP-affiliated youth involved in campaigning and mobilisation. Shiva, the local BJP ‘volunteer’, allegedly collected a nominal amount in the name of ‘fundraising for the BJP’. How much of this money actually reached the BJP is unclear, but it appears the process of collecting these contributions provided an opportunity to talk about the BJP and its agenda. In contrast, in these same areas, the Congress does not appear to have had similar efforts. One INC worker in charge of SC/ST mobilisation confirmed both the absence of the local MLA in any efforts to campaign or any efforts to send campaigners from the party side. Such door to door campaigning, he believed, act both as a show of strength and allows parties to “discuss issues”. Such campaigning, especially if led by professionals and educated individuals as was the case with the BJP, provides opportunities to spread information about party position. Backed with an intelligent and responsive party organisation, such efforts provide meaningful tactical direction to campaigning.
Second, beyond the immediate process of service provision before elections (as the Congress workers had done some wards), such as getting pension cards or ration cards made, BJP workers (and possibly in some cases, RSS workers) have been consistently involved in providing locals intermediation with the difficult-to-access government. Three such leaders/brokers/workers/agents, all male, disclosed that had been active in “social service” for several years now, including one who has been in such service fro a decade. Such characterisation of their work as social service (as opposed to party work) is unsurprising – such seeming neutrality allows flexibility in marketing the votes that have a hold over to the highest bidder. These individuals are all local residents and perform a variety of roles, in particular targeting their ministrations to the poor who struggle to access the state. It is possible that such services from the BJP cut across caste lines – for instance, several Vokkaliga voters spoke of these services. Such instances of cross-caste service provision have been noted by Ward Berenschot in his book Riot Politics (2012), and by Tariq Thachil in his work on tribals receiving services from the RSS in Chattisgarh (2013). Clearly, foresighted local leaders have the opportunity to build broad-based social coalitions which translate into electoral success, as voters increasingly lay emphasis on service delivery and responsiveness. At the very least, such service provision opens doors for party functionaries to access voters’ thought process.
In this clamourous election campaign, it is quite likely that the BJP’s emphasis on Narendra Modi may have led some parties to focus on projecting their own leaders, possibly at the expense of more traditional methods of mobilisation. This may have been the smokescreen that led parties into eschewing grassroots mobilisation, allowing the BJP to quietly chip away at traditional bases of support. Analyses of these historic elections need to account for the increasing importance of long-term provision of services and intermediation in party network formation and consolidation, particularly in urban areas.