Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Organizing a Victory: A Review Essay on the BJP’s 2014 Electoral Success

Ambedkar’s Critique of Recognition - Jadumani Mahanand,

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has won decisively in two consecutive national elections. In 2014, the BJP won an outright majority, the first time any party had done so in 30 years, with 282 of the 543 seats in the parliament and 31.3 per cent of the total votes. Five years later, the party consolidated its historic 2014 victory: in 2019, it won with a bigger majority of 303 seats, and its share in total votes also climbed to 37.4 per cent.

In addition to the overall win, the BJP almost swept Uttar Pradesh (UP), not just in the two national elections but also in the state assembly election in 2017.1 The state sends the largest number of legislators to the Indian parliament, and the showing in UP is in some sense more remarkable than the one at the national level as, since the late 1990s, the BJP’s vote share in the state had been on a steady decline.2

How has the BJP managed to pull off these massive wins? Scholarly studies of the 2019 elections are yet to appear, but several studies based on the results of the 2014 polls have analysed the BJP’s victory. With the 2019 results in hand, the 2014 win that seemed a bit of an aberration 5 years ago now signals a fundamental transformation in Indian politics. Therefore, analyses of 2014 elections hold immense salience today. We review four such works to evaluate what we do and do not know about the BJP’s success.

The essay proceeds as follows: the first section traces the national-level analyses of the 2014 elections by discussing the major factors behind the BJP’s performance. They converge around four themes: anti-incumbency, building a new social coalition, the ‘Modi effect’ and religious polarization. We evaluate these explanations and suggest the need for a deeper engagement with two other factors: voter mobilization and media strategy. In the second section, which deals with UP, we consider these factors alongside the organizational advantage the BJP has over its competitors. We conclude the essay by highlighting the need for rigorous conceptualizing and theorizing and the simultaneous use of different methods to study a phenomenon like the rise and dominance of BJP in India’s electoral landscape.

Big-picture Explanations of the BJP’s Victory

First, it has been argued that, in 2014, a strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the Indian National Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government prevailed among the voters (Palshikar, Kumar & Lodha, 2017; Kumar & Sisodia, 2019). This sentiment was aggravated when the ruling party at the state level was also part of the UPA. It is interesting to note that anti-incumbency prevailed despite the UPA government implementing a series of welfare schemes that could potentially benefit many. In the wake of 2014 elections, only about 20 per cent of a survey3 respondents had benefited from any of these schemes, and many could not attribute them to the UPA government (Kumar & Sisodia, 2019, p. 50). Moreover, in some states, dissatisfaction prevailed even if the ruling party was not part of the UPA, for example, in Punjab. This implies that anti-incumbency was a more general phenomenon than being specific to the performance of UPA-II.

Although the presence of anti-incumbency sentiment in 2014 is not surprising, the anti-corruption movement that began in 2011 had already set the tone for it. This was later fuelled by the UPA’s own administrative failures and the BJP’s vigorous campaign. However, we think a direct link between anti-incumbency and vote choice in 2014, specifically one in favour of the BJP, is difficult to imagine for two reasons. First, retrospective voting that evaluates the past performance of the government is common, and therefore, it seems unlikely that it could explain a backlash of such unusual magnitude. Second, even if dissatisfaction is aggravated, in a multiparty system, it may not necessarily translate into support for the principal challenger. On these lines, Heath (2015) indicates that, in 2014, only a few former Indian National Congress (INC) voters switched to the BJP; almost two-thirds of INC votes went to non-BJP parties.

The second major theme around which the arguments converge is the building of new social coalitions or, as Prashant Jha calls it, a ‘rainbow coalition’. Kumar and Sisodia’s book shows that while there was unprecedented support from the upper-castes, the BJP attracted a large proportion of votes from members of ‘non-dominant Other Backward Castes (OBCs)’, Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). Breaking down the electorate by class, Sridharan (in Palshikar et al., 2017) also shows that while the upper and middle classes’ preference for the BJP was more pronounced, the party increased its vote share among all economic groups when compared to previous elections. It also swapped places with the INC from 2009 and led the incumbent party across all classes, including the poor.

It is important to explain how despite systematic differences between different castes and classes, there can be such a convergence in their vote choices. How did the BJP manage to do this? Chapters in Kumar and Sisodia highlight two possible mechanisms: first, the BJP entered into alliances with smaller sub-state parties that commanded substantial support from a particular community. For instance, the BJP aligned itself with the Apna Dal in UP, a party that relies heavily on its Kurmi base. Second, the appeal of BJP’s leadership (more specifically, Narendra Modi’s appeal) cuts across caste groups. Chhibber and Verma (in Palshikar et al., 2017) provide a related, interesting explanation: they argue that the BJP was able to stitch together a coalition by exploiting an ideological divide that anchors India’s party system. BJP took to its advantage the rightward ideological shift that had occurred in the last decade by portraying Modi as a social conservative and a pro-market leader—a combination which is key to the coalition between socially and economically conservative voters.

We argue that alliance with smaller parties representing particular castes can explain the movement of only a few castes to the BJP and not the whole set of castes that fall under groups such as ‘non-dominant OBCs’ or ‘non-Jatav SCs’. Why did voters from so many different caste groups choose the BJP? A possible answer could be the co-optation of local candidates for mobilizing different caste groups in favour of the BJP on a constituency-by-constituency basis. Explanations for crafting winning coalitions could also be derived from showing that there are concrete incentives that party or party-affiliated organizations can provide to bring together disparate groups, as Thachil (2014) does to explain the success of the BJP among poorer voters. The reviewed works do not account for such explanations.

The third theme—the ‘Modi effect’—was at the centre of the buzz during the 2014 elections and in most writings on the topic. In opinion polling from January 2014, Modi was more popular as the prime ministerial choice than Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh combined (Kumar & Sisodia, 2019, p. 52). The Modi effect can be gauged from the fact that a quarter of the respondents who voted for the NDA said they would not have done so had Modi not been the candidate for the top job. He was considered a leader who was ‘caring, trustworthy/reliable, capable of getting things done, and experienced’, when compared to his main opponent, Rahul Gandhi (Palshikar et al., 2017, p. 223). According to Jha, it was Modi who brought together the marginalized and the privileged classes together under the rainbow coalition. Similarly, Chhibber and Ostermann (2014) argued that it was Modi and not the party that attracted ‘vote mobilizers’ or activists who campaigned and drove the vote for the BJP. Most of these mobilizers were characterized as conservatives, who helped stitch the coalition of socially and economically conservative voters (Palshikar et al., 2017, p. 22).

However, despite the ubiquitous references to Modi, it is not clear from the works reviewed what the ‘Modi effect’ means. Is it a model of leadership? Is it a campaign strategy? Or, is it just a personality strong enough to change political preferences? The books stick to descriptions related to the Modi effect and do not attempt to conceptualize it. A few, however, disentangle the possibility of other factors being mixed up with the ‘Modi effect’. For instance, Shastri and Syal (in Palshikar et al., 2017) note that the role of leadership has to be read in the context of poor performance of the INC, indicating that anti-incumbency had implications for leadership as an explanatory factor. Further, the focus in 2014 remained, according to Kumar and Sisodia (2019, p. 21), on national and not on state-level leadership that they argue cannot be factored out. For instance, the BJP’s victory in Madhya Pradesh was built upon the chief minister’s popularity, which they say was ‘consolidated by the Modi wave’ (p. 248). Unfortunately, they present no evidence to bolster this interesting argument, which explores the role of state-level leadership in what has been commonly described as a very national and presidential campaign.

The fourth theme that has been often invoked is religious polarization exemplified by the Muzaffarnagar riots and BJP’s Hindu nationalist stance. But how did religion play out as a factor in concrete terms? Sardesai and Gupta (in Kumar & Sisodia, 2019) tease out the role of religious consolidation: they show that the turnout among Hindu voters in 2014 increased significantly from the previous election, while that among Muslims did not change; Hindus voted en masse for the BJP, more than they did during the communally charged post-Babri period in the 1990s, while the share of Muslim and other religious minorities in the BJP’s vote remained very low. Although Palshikar et al. do not touch upon religious polarization directly, the chapter on UP deals with Muslim voting behaviour. More specifically, it finds that religious polarization favoured the BJP by consolidating the Hindu vote on the one hand and dividing the Muslim vote among the Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) and the INC on the other.

With Hindus comprising 80 per cent of India’s population, the BJP had to benefit with their consolidation around the party. It is difficult to untangle whether religious polarization is something that is unique to 2014 or is a result of a longer-term drift towards majoritarianism in India. Survey findings suggest that more Indians could be identified as ‘majoritarian’ in 2014 compared to 10 years ago (Palshikar, 2015). These findings are a reminder that the BJP’s ‘broad’ winning social coalition was limited by religion.

Voter Mobilization and Media Strategy

The role of turnout has been given limited attention in the works reviewed here, but understanding it is important alongside other explanations for the BJP’s victory. At 66.4 per cent, turnout in 2014 was the highest ever in a Lok Sabha election, rising about six points from 59.7 per cent in the 2009 elections. Another remarkable feature of the 2014 election was the addition of 1360 lakh names to the electoral roll (Heath, 2015). Given that the BJP is known to have improved its performance in constituencies which saw a higher increase in turnout, it is surprising that the effects of this increased political participation on the BJP’s vote share are missing in most explanations. Heath (2015) suggests that the BJP’s victory hinged on appealing to these new voters and mobilizing them in constituencies where it had not done well in the previous election. It is possible that given the increased turnout, the new voters were predominantly Hindu.

How did the BJP manage to mobilize so effectively? We believe that this is where the BJP’s campaign and organizational structure come into play. According to Rajdeep Sardesai, one of India’s prominent TV journalists, the BJP designed a ‘360-degree campaign’ (Sardesai, 2014). He focuses on the digital campaign, which he says had the following features: one, it was the most tech-savvy campaign in India’s history and used social media innovatively; two, it was personalized around Modi, with instructions to strategists to project him as a ‘credible and decisive leader’; three, it was hyper-localized, with ad films released in local dialects in several states and with separate campaigns created for different regions of UP (pp. 240–249). He also points to the dark side of the BJP’s social media campaign, which had anonymous trolls, who, in the words of an insider, were tasked ‘to take down Modi’s critics’ (p. 239).

What was the impact of this digital drive? Surveys, as analysed by Verma and Sardesai (in Palshikar et al., 2017), reveal a greater preference for Modi in 2014 among voters better exposed to all forms of media, including television. However, Rajdeep Sardesai warns against playing up the role of media in BJP’s victory. According to him, the media was ‘at best a force multiplier’ (p. 242). But, of course, to have a concrete understanding of the role of media, we need adequate frameworks of analysis. Perhaps incorporating models of media and campaign effects including agenda-setting, priming, framing and socialization would tell us which communication strategy affects vote choice. We should also think about when media use should be considered an individual-level variable and when it can be seen as a contextual variable (Bimber, 2017). The use of political communication frameworks also sits well with the interest of scholars of political finance, as media campaigns are often the main expenses of political parties.

Organizational Machinery and Uttar Pradesh

The BJP’s showing in the state of UP, where it won 71 of the 80 seats in 2014, has also been attributed to the factors discussed above. Specifically, AK Verma and others (in Palshikar et al., 2017) argue that Modi’s leadership and his promise of good governance attracted a diverse set of groups towards BJP, particularly the Jats, the Kurmis, and to some extent, even the Yadavs. On a similar note, Sajjan Kumar (in Kumar & Sisodia, 2019) argues that the BJP’s success among all castes in UP signals a clear edge of development and governance issues over identity. He does not discount the subtext of religious polarization but sees it mainly confined to the western parts of the state.

We believe there are aspects of UP that limit the role of big-picture explanations in understanding the BJP’s success in the state. Specifically, building social coalitions and mobilizing voters are not very straightforward tasks in the state. To contest, in 2014, in UP, BJP tied up only with Apna Dal, the social support of which is restricted to just one numerically small community. Moreover, the BJP’s competitors in the state have had a relatively stable vote share (Palshikar et al., 2017, p. 94). This implies that the main parties were left to compete for the same pool of non-aligned castes beyond their own traditional base. Further, UP is notorious for having a large number of candidates with a substantial personal vote, which may shift with individuals and not with party alliances.

Considering the BJP still managed to increase its vote share substantially (by 24.8%), we believe that its unique organizational capacity deserves central attention in understanding the scale of its victory. Of the books reviewed, only Prashant Jha, a journalist who extensively covered the 2014 elections, focuses on this crucial dimension.

Jha argues that Amit Shah transformed the BJP party organization into a ‘machine’. As he describes it, BJP began with the recruitment of foot soldiers at the booth level who were given enough training and information to observe a number of tasks pertaining to mobilization and persuasion. Gradually, a tiered structure from the booth, block and district, all the way to the zonal level, backed up by the Sangh Parivar network and the team of election strategist Prashant Kishor, was built to work in unison at the behest of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. It is this factor that helped the BJP keep up with its game of ‘image, message, and signalling’, generate mass contact, run membership drives, organize hundreds of rallies and yatras, and most importantly, make the party and Modi relatable to diverse groups.

In addition, we think that the BJP localized the national election to a great degree in UP. Using its decentralized organizational structure, it had the potential to fuel local campaigning with tones of development, alongside tactically polarizing at the constituency level using rhetoric like ‘Love Jihad’ and ‘Majority as Victim’. Furthermore, it was sensitive to the constituency-level caste arithmetic and adept at mobilizing new voters. Jha also documents important details which show that the BJP had several feedback channels to understand the dynamics at the booth level. The BJP inducted local elites outside its core, despite the ideological compromise this required. It also was very careful in its ticket distribution. It made use of the booth-level data that Prashant Kishor’s team had collected and accordingly decided if an incumbent should be given a ticket or if a new face had to be introduced to evade retrospective voting of any kind. Finally, the party also shared the expenses of campaigning and canvassing with its candidates. Local economic elites lent vehicles and provided offices, fuel and other necessary currency to keep up a vigorous campaign for the BJP.

Jha’s book is an excellent example of what one would call a ‘thick analysis’. His description is empirical and processual and marks very clearly the political relevance of events that made BJP’s victory possible. However, details on the opposition’s campaign alongside the difference, if any, with the BJP’s modus operandi would have led to a more comprehensive explanation.

Parties like SP and BSP may have strong loyalties among their base and a large number of political elites with personal vote, but they do not have an organization to bolster the local campaigns, nor do they share the cost of election with their candidates. Moreover, unlike in most cases with the BJP, candidates first have to literally buy their ticket and then grease the palms of district-level functionaries to draw any support. This reduces the capacity of SP and BSP to mobilize beyond their traditional base. Given this, it is not surprising that both parties coming together in a ‘Mahagathbandhan’ to fight the BJP in 2019 was also not very successful. The immense organizational capacity of the BJP becomes crucial in explaining how a party could turn around its steady decline beyond employing the Modi effect, anti-incumbency, social engineering and religious polarization.


The plausibility of the factors identified in the works reviewed is undeniable: anti-incumbency, building new social coalitions, the Modi effect and religious polarization are important to explain the 2014 outcome. To what extent each of these factors has played a role in the BJP’s win in 2019 is not yet clear. However, from the available post-election analyses, one could argue that except anti-incumbency, other factors discussed in this essay presumably hold good for 2019 as well. One possible addition to the list could be the issue of national security which cropped up after the suicide attack on Indian soldiers in Pulwama in February 2019 (Gupta & Shrimankar, 2019).

We believe that ample attention should be paid to two factors, the Modi effect and the BJP’s organizational capacity, as they give the party an edge over its competitors more decisively. The preference for Modi as the leader of the Lok Sabha has consistently overshadowed the choice for any other leader across the country since he first became the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. Conceptualizing the Modi effect more concretely thus becomes crucial to drawing any substantive inferences about vote choice. A recent argument of Chhibber and Verma (2018) that leaders who project themselves as ‘transformational’ provide an ideological vision which attracts support for the party may aid in understanding the outsized influence of Modi. By 2019, the BJP’s organizational resources surpassed that of any other political party by a long stretch. It is the wealthiest party, with more than 1000 crores to expend (ADR, 2019) and lakhs of volunteers and mobilizers, including the RSS and its affiliates, as foot soldiers (Andersen & Damle, 2018).

We have also highlighted the importance of looking into high voter participation as a factor to account for BJP’s performance and the need for frameworks to study the effect of political communication on vote choice—points that remain relevant in 2019. Lakhs of new voters have entered the electoral rolls since 2014. The BJP’s emphatic re-election despite reports of poor job creation and widespread agrarian distress signal its ability to effectively communicate its welfare schemes on cooking gas, housing and toilets.

With regard to the works reviewed in this essay, we have a few other general comments. Firstly, we do not know if and how the factors attributed to the BJP’s win interact or whether any one of them stand head and shoulders above the others in explaining the results. Moreover, as many chapters in the four books focus on what the BJP was doing, they give the impression that ‘the winner is always right’. While the scale of the BJP’s victories is overwhelming, any critical evaluation of the outcome would be incomplete without paying more attention to the weaknesses in the winner’s approach. It would also have to be theory driven to avoid biases and incomplete narratives.

Among the four books, we found little focus on conceptualizing and theorizing the BJP’s victory. The 2014 (and now 2019) elections provide an excellent opportunity to conceptualize models of leadership, test questions related to media and campaign effects on vote choice and revisit the organizing and mobilizing strategies hitherto used by parties and politicians. Calls for the rigorous theorizing of voting behaviour in India are not new: Pradeep Chhibber articulated something along these lines on a public panel last year.4 He stated that we need to have a well-articulated theory of voting behaviour grounded in the baseline readings of voters’ political preferences.

Admittedly, this is not a straightforward task. This takes us to the next point on methodology. As seen in most of the books reviewed in this essay, academics widely use statistical methods to explain the story of India’s elections, while journalists have employed approaches including participant observation and in-depth interviews. Statistical methods may allow us to determine significant relationships between key variables and the size of average effects, but we also need to know the political mechanisms and processes which depict pathways to the outcome for the purpose of better theorizing. In this attempt of using mixed methods to study electoral politics in India, systematic descriptions by journalists can be especially valuable. The main thrust should be on using different techniques of data collection and analysis simultaneously, rather than in isolation.


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