Written by Dishil Shrimankar.
Gujarat, a state in Western India, went to polls in late December 2017. Effective party competition in Gujarat is restricted to two polity-wide parties, the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP has been continuously in power in the state since the 1995 regional elections. Despite facing strong anti-incumbency pressures, a major agrarian crisis, disenchantment over some of the BJP’s national-level policies such as Demonetisation and the Goods and Service Tax (GST), as well as anger within the party’s core support base (the Patidars), the BJP was able to win the 2017 regional elections with 99 seats in the 182 member legislative assembly.
Modi’s rally in Dharampur on the 4th December mobilised many booth pramuks and page pramuks. It instilled a sense of enthusiasm and energy that was previously not seen.
The party even managed to increase its vote share to 49.1 percent from 47.9 percent in the 2012 regional elections. A number of excellent commentaries exist how the BJP won the 2017 regional elections. However, in this piece I analyse the elections by focusing on the role of party organisation in helping the BJP win the elections. Moreover, the analysis is based on my observations from one assembly seat in South Gujarat, namely Dharampur. I spent considerable time in Dharampur following the campaign trail of the BJP and the Congress Party. I had a chance to interact with a number of BJP and Congress workers in this particular assembly seat.
Dharampur assembly seat is a Scheduled Tribe (ST) reserved seat in Valsad district in South Gujarat. The seat comprises of 108 villages from Dharampur block (or taluka) and 52 villages from Valsad Taluka. The Congress Party consecutively won this seat in the 2002, 2007 and 2012 regional elections only to lose it to the BJP in 2017. A BJP national level member who was visiting Dharampur explained that the BJP national level leadership, and in particular Party President Amit Shah, placed a particular importance on winning this seat from the Congress Party.
In line with Amit Shah’s micro organisational approach in other states, the party had appointed booth-level heads called booth pramukh. In Dharampur seat there were 281 polling booth stations. In theory this would mean that the BJP had appointed close to 281 members as Booth Pramukhs. I met a number of booth pramuks in villages that fell within the Dharampur seat. Most of them were either village heads or sarpanch associated with the BJP, whereas in other places they were local strongman who belonged to the dominant caste group in the villages. While I acknowledge the role of booth pramukhs in helping the BJP mobilise voters right from the lowest level, I argue that this alone is not sufficient in explain why the BJP won the election. From my observations from the Dharampur seat, I found the Congress Party to have equal number of booth representatives in a number of villages. This was particularly evident on polling day (9th December 2017) where I observed both the parties to have their booth pramuks (for the BJP) and booth representatives (for the Congress) work as polling agents.
However, interestingly, what distinguished the two parties was the hierarchical set-up above the booth pramuks. For the Congress Party, the booth representatives were reporting to the candidate or affiliates of the candidate whereas in the BJP the booth pramuk reported to the selected representative of the Shakti Kendra. Shakti Kendras were a new experiment by BJP President Amit Shah. Each Shakti Kendra comprised of a few booth pramuks within their jurisdiction. One such representative of the Shakti Kendra in Dharampur said that there are as many Shakti Kendras as there are block (Taluka) panchayat seats. These representatives were also in close contact with the Taluka general secretary of the party. In theory, Shakti Kendras representatives were different from the Taluka Panchayat general secretaries, but in practice I found the same individuals holding both roles. Importantly, the representatives of the Shakti Kendra reported to the BJP district presidents. Certainly, many of the Shakti Kendra representatives were also in close touch with the BJP candidate for their particular seat, but the fact that there existed an active chain of command independent of the party candidate meant that the organisation had more avenues of controlling the booth-level party workers in comparison to the Congress Party.
The second difference between the BJP and the Congress Party lay in the official organisational post created below the booth pramuks. The BJP had appointed page pramuks or page representatives. Every polling booth has an electoral roll that runs into several pages. The BJP appointed a representative for every single page of the electoral roll who was responsible for mobilising voters in favour of the party on that page. On average, every page would consist of 40 names with an electoral roll running into 20 odd pages.
Importantly, the representative is also supposed to have his/her name listed on that page indicating familiarity with other family members whose names are listed on that page. In theory, the Congress Party has also emulated this strategy of booth management, but in practice the party finds it increasingly hard to activate these volunteers. It is here that we see the importance of party leaders. Modi’s rally in Dharampur on the 4th December mobilised many booth pramuks and page pramuks. It instilled a sense of enthusiasm and energy that was previously not seen. The very act of mobilising voters to attend Modi’s rally acted as a sort of precursor to Election Day where they would be persuading and convincing voters to come and vote for the party. This gave the BJP a particular edge over the Congress Party in Dharampur. It would have been a very interesting contest to watch had Rahul Gandhi held a similar rally in Dharampur. But in absence of such a rally, the advantage in Dharampur clearly lay with the BJP.
Both the parties try to emulate each other in terms of party organisational strategy wherein the key distinctions between the two are down to subtle differences in terms of their hierarchical set up and how the army of volunteers at the lowest level are activated at a critical time. In Dharampur, Modi’s rally was critical in activating the BJP’s ground-level army. This confirms existing commentaries on Indian politics, which have underlined the importance of leaders in helping political parties mobilise workers and voters in favour of the party.