“In India, the BJP has always operated at the confluence of technology and politics”

Recent local elections in India, particularly in the state of Uttar Pradesh, have highlighted the hold of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the political life of the country. Nalin Mehta, Dean of School of Modern Media UPES, Dehradun has just published The New BJP, Modi and the Creation of the World’s Largest Political Party (Westland, Delhi, 2022), an 800-page book in which he presents the BJP, the largest political party in the world, in a completely new light. Its transformation and modernization under Modi’s leadership allowed it both to entrench itself deeply in the political landscape and to accelerate the decline of Congress, the party that presided over India’s destinies after its independence in 1947. The BJP has gone from being a fringe opposition party to building a new legitimacy by expanding its electoral base which its opponents are now struggling to challenge.

Why did you choose to title your book “The New BJP”?

Many people asked me why I didn’t choose ‘real BJP’ or ‘old BJP’ as the title. Of course, the BJP has been around since 1980. Its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, was established in 1951. The ideology of Hindu nationalism was already fully formed in the 1950s. However, today’s BJP differs greatly from the Pre-2014 BJP [lorsque Narendra Modi est arrivé au pouvoir] which was essentially an upper caste and rather urban party. Since then, the party has changed considerably. The BJP has now become the dominant party in the countryside, especially in the Hindi-speaking parts of northern India. This happened because the BJP, after 2014, created a new social coalition in which the lower castes are much better represented. The most representative example is the state of Uttar Pradesh, the largest in the country, where, according to my research, 57.5% of BJP candidates for the national parliament in 2019 were from the lower castes. Similarly, 52.8% of its candidates in the 2017 provincial election in this state were from these castes. These high representation percentages are also found at other levels of party leadership.

“The party succeeded in building a new women’s vote in rural areas. This change is crucial. Historically, Indian women voted less than men”

What other springs to activate the BJP to ensure its domination over Indian political life?

The BJP has also focused on building a modern welfare state through so-called DBTs (Direct Benefit Transfers), a system that allows recipients of benefits to receive them directly without intermediaries, thus allowing them to build their house or install a toilet, for example. This allowed him to create a new social class of voters who vote for him because they were helped by the government. Finally, the BJP succeeded in building a new women’s vote in rural areas. This change is crucial. Historically, Indian women voted less than men. And those who did, tended to vote more for Congress than for the BJP. In the 2019 national elections, women voted in greater numbers than men, and in most states they voted more for the BJP. All these transformations have helped Narendra Modi’s party to establish itself as the primary pole of Indian politics.

Interestingly, the first chapter of your book talks about Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Does he precisely symbolize the “new BJP”?

Absolutely. He is a saffron-clad monk whose re-election as head of Uttar Pradesh illustrates this development. He is the first chief minister of this state since independence to serve a second consecutive term. In addition, he managed to increase his share of voice. Yogi created a new electoral base in this state between 2017 and 2022. And this, alongside Narendra Modi, who remains the most popular politician in the country. Yogi’s rise in Uttar Pradesh stands apart from other regions, where the party relied on the prime minister alone to mobilize crowds. In Uttar Pradesh, it’s Modi and Yogi together. Yogi is undoubtedly one of the most influential BJP leaders today and he will have a role to play in the post-Modi era.

Still, Narendra Modi is the main architect of the BJP’s success.

Without a doubt. The transformation of the party that I have mentioned is directly attributable to him, as well as to his lieutenant Amit Shah, the Minister of Interior, who was president of the formation between 2014 and 2020. These two men have made it the most largest political formation in the world ahead of the Chinese Communist Party, by creating a very strong basic organizational structure, which enabled it to grow from 35 million members in 2014 to 174 million in 2019.

“There is no doubt that the debate in India has shifted to the right. What was once politically incorrect is now openly discussed”

Is the mastery of communication tools by the BJP at the origin of this success?

Historically, the BJP has always bet on new communication technologies. In the 1980s it used tapes and videos when other parties did not. With the advent of digital technology, it has again outstripped others. In essence, the BJP has always operated at the confluence of technology and politics. If, today, other parties have joined it in this field, what distinguishes it is its scope. For example, Narendra Modi was a Twitter phenomenon long before he became Prime Minister and he is one of the most followed politicians in the world. In the book, I studied and compared the digital and conventional communication strategy of the BJP and the Congress party. The Prime Minister’s party has succeeded in building calibrated communication for each of its audiences. I was surprised to find that the myth that the BJP only talks about its core issues (Hinduism, terrorism, Kashmir) in its mainstream communication was wrong. In fact, he talks about everything from development to agriculture. And above all, he talks more about the Congress party than about himself! It presents itself above all as the anti-Congress party. Interestingly, Congress has focused its digital communication primarily on Twitter, despite being the smallest social network in the country. If you look on Facebook, Instagram, you will find the BJP much better established than the Congress which seems quite monolithic in its communication. Narendra Modi even has a Linkedin page, allowing him to reach out to specific audiences.

What about the religious question?

There is no doubt that the debate in India has shifted to the right. What was once politically incorrect is now openly discussed. There has always been a debate about the place of religion in public life since the 1950s. But the problem was that there was a big gap between the idealism of this debate and the way it was implemented. In practice. This has allowed the BJP to accuse Congress of doublespeak and use it to advance its agenda. The elections have shown us that the more the BJP emphasizes identity issues, the more it benefits from them. The last local elections in Uttar Pradesh showed that even without the Muslim vote, he could win.

In view of the show of force of the BJP, what do you think of the future of the Congress?

Even at its peak in 2019, the BJP garnered 37.4% of the vote, meaning over 60% of India did not vote for it. The weakness of Congress leadership and its inability to mount a strong electoral challenge means that it has become, albeit unwittingly, an asset to the BJP. The party has been in decline for fifteen years because it no longer has the charismatic mass leaders it once had. If you see his second echelon, you will find the same leaders as in the 1990s. There was no renewal. As a result, a political vacuum has been created at the national level. To avoid this, a change in the leadership of Congress is needed.

titan work

A former journalist turned academic, Nalin Mehta has shown great tenacity in this work of compilation which has enabled him to paint a renewed portrait of the main Indian political party. He has both analyzed masses of documents on the BJP and deciphered the way in which its leaders have managed to make it a steamroller against which other formations have difficulty resisting. Thanks to this reference work, the functioning of Indian political life becomes clearer to grasp.

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