Shah the New Shahenshah

The BJP President ably assisted by RSS cadres worked diligently and disingenuously from 2014 onward to achieve success in Lok Sabha election 2019

By Bhavdeep Kang

Amit Shah presided over what has been, electorally speaking, the most successful phase in the 39-

year existence of the BJP (or 65 years, if one counts the Jan Sangh period from 1951 to 1977). As party president, he masterminded victories in 11 assembly elections. His piece de resistance was the 2019 Lok Sabha, in which the BJP not only bettered its majority but broke new ground in the East.

Party office-bearers say that Shah began planning for the 2019 Lok Sabha in July 2014, from the very moment he took over from Rajnath Singh as BJP chief. Shah, like the RSS itself, believes in long-term planning and thinking ahead.

His first act was to launch a massive, phone-based recruitment drive – if nothing else, it yielded a database of 10 crore callers! In subsequent years, he effectively leveraged the unique electoral edifice of the RSS-BJP: a mass-based superstructure built over the core cadre base of the RSS.

As early as 2016, Shah announced that the BJP would target the North East, West Bengal and Kerala in order to expand its footprint. The logic was simple. The BJP had won “90 per cent of 60 per cent”, that is, it had swept the Hindi belt and the West.

Pulling off a repeat was near-impossible, so it was necessary for the party to conquer new territories in the South and East. Tamil Nadu and Andhra were in the hands of allies and Telangana in those of a potential ally. That left West Bengal, Odisha, Assam and Kerala.

The previous year had been a bad one for the BJP. It had lost both Bihar and Delhi by a wide margin. The losses were recouped in 2017, with a massive mandate in Uttar Pradesh on the back of a pro-demonetisation wave. How had he done it?

In close coordination with the RSS, Shah implemented a booth-management strategy in UP that would be upscaled in the general elections two years later.

By mid-2017, Shah’s Mission 350+ for Lok Sabha 2019 was in place. An army of three-and-a-half lakh ‘vistaraks’ (full-time workers, most of them RSS swayamsewaks) had fanned out across the country. Each one was ‘embedded’ in a community.

IN HIS FIRST THREE YEARS IN OFFICE, HE REPORTEDLY TRAVELLED 5,68,940 KM, VISITED 325 DISTRICTS, ATTENDED 575 RALLIES AND ATTENDED MORE THAN 2200 MEETINGS

He was given a motorcycle and a petrol allowance. His job was to implement a 23-point programme, for instance smartphones and motor vehicles, social influencers and sants in his area. He was also tasked with creating local WhatsApp groups to get the BJP’s message across; promoting the NaMo app which had been released in 2016, hoisting party flags and so on.

The success of ‘Plan B for booth’ was seen in Karnataka, where the BJP defied the odds to emerge as the single largest party by far.  The vistarak programme was a massive exercise in human resource mobilisation. Some vistaraks devoted six months to the job, some just a couple of weeks but at least 600 were permanently in place.

Booth-level committees comprising at least nine members, with special emphasis on SCs and STs, were formed. Tactics that had been field-tested in one state and found to work were adopted across the country.

For example, the panna prabhari tactic – putting one person in charge of each page of the electoral rolls, comprising 8-10 families – had been successfully implemented by the RSS in UP in Lok Sabha 2014.

Each booth thus had around 20 panna prabharis, whose job was to interact with voters and coax them to vote BJP, without saying so! As the prabhari was usually a member of one of the families listed on his panna of the electoral rolls, this was easier done than said.

Closer to the election, a call centre was set up at the party’s previous headquarters on 11, Ashoka Road in New Delhi under General secretary Bhupendra Yadav, to ensure top to bottom coordination.

Responsibility for social media deployment, usually left to BJP IT cell chief Amit Malviya, was more broad-based this time. Each state had a BJP central office-bearer in charge of social media content and dissemination.

He or she coordinated with a hierarchy of party workers, who were asked to create localized content at the district and even the block level.

Micro-targeting of voters on the ground was complemented by macro-level strategies. Early on, Shah and the RSS brass decided that the Ram Mandir, despite the VHP’s urging, would not figure in the 2019 campaign. It would be built wholly and solely around Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

That a face-off with Congress president Rahul Gandhi would work to the BJP’s advantage was a no-brainer, but Shah did not rely on the TINA factor alone; he wanted a positive vote. The Pulwama push provided all the momentum the Modi-centric campaign needed.

The RSS meanwhile had already been working on building big tent state-specific social coalitions, comprising upper castes, EBCs, STs and a section of Dalits and OBCs. As mentioned earlier, it tends to think in the long term.

Cultural programmes, social service initiatives and outreach to professionals and intellectuals are a big part of its propaganda machine. In Guna, for example, cultural shows celebrating Rani Laxmibai automatically eroded support for ‘Maharaj’ Jyotiraditya Scindia.

Senior BJP leaders, including ministers, were given two to five constituencies to oversee and adjured to visit them at least once a fortnight. Eight ministers were told to target 150 seats in West Bengal, Odisha, Karnataka and Kerala.

Each MLA was given charge of a second, non-BJP constituency and MPs, likewise, were given charge of two constituencies.  These efforts were supported by weekly pan-India surveys carried out by three different agencies. Of course, the BJP had its own in-house feedback mechanism.

Mid-2018 found Shah in Maharashtra Sadan, holding a series of meeting with RSS frontal organisations and BJP ministers. The RSS frontals presented reports on the effectiveness of government policies and programmes on the ground, while the ministers were put on the mat. This was classic Amit Shah.

He believes in delegation and whoever is the in-charge must take decisions and implement them independently but must be held accountable for the outcome. The media laughed off Mission 350+ when Shah announced it in 2017. The Print, for example, described it as “unreal”.

Shah went about his business quietly and relentlessly. In his first three years in office, he reportedly travelled 5,68,940 km, visited 325 districts, attended 575 rallies and attended more than 2200 meetings. West Bengal, supervised by general secretary Kailash Vijayvargia, was a focal point. A meeting was held every three months to review progress.

Vijayvargia, who had helped script the BJP’s victory in the 2015 Haryana assembly elections, parked himself in West Bengal in the months before the Lok Sabha poll. Rumour has it that he imported cadres from his home state, Madhya Pradesh, to counter Trinamool Congress strongmen and protect vistaraks and booth committee members.

There were hitches, of course. In Delhi, for example, the BJP unit was highly disorganized until the Sewa Bharati, a key RSS frontal, pitched in whole-heartedly and deployed several thousands of workers to mobilise voters, distribute slips and manage booths. 

All in all, the 2019 re-election effort was highly organized. In 2014, the BJP headquarters on Ashoka Road was chaotic, with everyone multi-tasking. This time, the BJP HQ which had shifted to Rouse Avenue, was a picture of quiet efficiency. Every office-bearer has a specific job in a delineated area.

If six sigma ratings were awarded to political parties, the BJP under Amit Shah would have certainly qualified. His disciplined and data-driven approach, conflated with a continuous improvement in voter mobilisation methodology by streamlining processes and eliminating hurdles, went a long way in ensuring the BJP’s thumping victory in Lok Sabha 2019.

One thought on “Shah the New Shahenshah

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