The Rise of the World’s Largest Political Party
The ascendancy of the BJP coincides with rapidly improving ties between India and Australia. The rejuvenated Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, involving India, Australia, Japan and the United States, has become a key pillar of Australian foreign policy. Earlier this year, India and Australia signed a landmark trade deal that promises to boost trade.
And yet, the BJP is little known in Australia, especially in comparison with the Chinese Communist Party. So how did the BJP become such a political success?
Modi’s popularity and the BJP’s aggressive pro-Hindu politics were crucial electoral assets. But political scientist and journalist Nalin Mehta argues in his new book The new BJP that the electoral success of the party goes much further.
The BJP was once seen as a party for upper caste voters in cities, but has now managed to widen its appeal to lower castes and other social groups at the village level.
“The BJP has become the most socially representative party in northern India, except for Muslims,” Mehta says. “The BJP’s electoral victories were also notably in the seats reserved for Dalits (formerly called untouchables) and tribal (or indigenous) people. Through a strategy of mergers and acquisitions, the BJP has further expanded politically into new geographies like northeast India, where Christian voters are large and, in some states, constitute the majority.
To achieve this, the BJP enlisted party officials and local candidates from various social backgrounds, including women. It also used social welfare programs, focusing on housing, sanitation and household gas supplies, to create a new electoral class of beneficiaries called “labharthis” and target women voters.
“They really were a game changer and that’s one of the reasons why more women, especially in rural areas, are voting for them,” Mehta says.
Dr. Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, a former BJP national vice-president, says all members have the opportunity to climb the party ladder.
“The BJP emerges as a party of dedicated and credible leaders and perhaps the only party that talks about performance politics through good governance and development,” he says.
“In BJP, any of our volunteers can rise to the highest position in the party, unlike most other parties. Besides, BJP is a national party with nationalism as its core value. Naturally, joining BJP becomes an extremely attractive proposition.
Sahasrabuddhe, who has been personally involved in BJP membership drives, says one of the hallmarks of the party is that members are “active, not just limited to tokenism.”
India has experienced a digital revolution over the past decade, facilitated by very cheap mobile phone data. The BJP has skillfully exploited this tool to recruit new party members, monitor party operations, mobilize voter support and attack political opponents.
Mehta argues that the BJP’s sophisticated use of digital technology, particularly social media, is “at the heart” of what has helped make it the largest political party in the world.
“Using digital technology has given party leaders the ability to stage a large-scale campaign and verify expansion in ways that were simply not possible before,” he writes.
University of Sydney political sociologist Salvatore Babones, who studies Indian democracy, says the BJP has been able to combine deep cultural ties to the Indian community with contemporary science-based political strategies.
“It’s successful because it’s both organic and modern,” he says.
The increase in BJP membership is the result of two massive membership campaigns in 2014 and 2019. The second was combined with a village-level campaign to plant trees.
Some claim that the data on BJP membership is exaggerated, but Mehta points out that even if a third of the party’s membership is transient, the party “would still be larger than the Chinese Communist Party by 20%”.
The BJP has achieved its impressive membership despite a plethora of alternative political parties – India is the world’s largest democracy, with over 900 million registered voters in the last general election.
“The big difference between the CCP and the BJP is that Chinese party cadres are drafted into a one-party state – they don’t have the option of joining a rival party,” Mehta says. “The BJP’s expansion in India, on the other hand, is part of a multi-party democratic system. This is why the expansion of the BJP cadres on this scale, within an India where several states are not under its control and where it can often also suffer electoral setbacks – as it did more recently in West Bengal and Punjab – is staggering.
Enthusiasm for the BJP extends far beyond India’s borders. Melbourne IT consultant Jay Shah is chairman of the Overseas Friends of BJP Australia, part of an international network that “supports and sympathizes” with the party.
“We are all volunteers,” he says. “We do this out of passion.”
Shah even visited India ahead of the last two general elections, in 2014 and 2019, to help campaign for the BJP.
“There are so many like me who went to campaign for the party,” he says, “I didn’t go to the big cities but to the villages…it was an eye-opening experience.”
The BJP was founded in 1980 and gained electoral strength in the 1990s. The party’s first prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, led a series of coalition governments between 1996 and 2004. With Modi’s electoral triumph in 2014 , the BJP became the first party to win a national parliamentary majority in 30 years.
The Modi government introduced several significant economic changes, including a goods and services tax (GST), which simplified India’s fragmented network of indirect taxes, although some were disappointed with the slow pace of major reforms. Amid vexed relations with China, Modi has sought to deepen relations with the United States and other Indo-Pacific countries, including Australia.
But international indicators show that the health of India’s democracy has been declining since the BJP took office in 2014.
The 2022 “Freedom in the world” report by the US government-funded think tank Freedom House calls for freedom in India declined during the last decade.
“While India is a multi-party democracy, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Janata has presided over discriminatory policies and increased persecution affecting the Muslim population,” he said. .
India has more than 100,000 newspapers (including 36,000 weeklies) and more than 350 TV news channels, but the latest World Press Freedom Index, prepared by the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, revealed that India’s press freedom ranking fell in 2022. The report cited widespread violence against journalists, growing media partisanship and concentration of media ownership as reasons for the decline.
India’s Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur dismissed the report’s findings, saying the methodology was “questionable and non-transparent”. He said the government was committed to guaranteeing the right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the Indian constitution.
Despite everything, the annual report of the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index shows that India’s ranking has fallen markedly since the peak in 2014, the year the BJP was elected.
The unit’s latest report says there has been ‘a serious deterioration in the quality of democracy under leader Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party presided over increased intolerance and bigotry towards Muslims and other religious minorities” and that a failure to “break the persecution of religious and other minorities by Hindu nationalists continues to weigh on India’s democracy score”.
Rising from the margins of Indian politics to become the largest party in the world has been an astonishing achievement. But can Indian democracy thrive with a political juggernaut like the BJP?
Matt Wade visited India and participated in the Australia-India Leadership Dialogue as a guest of the Australia-India Institute.
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