This article of mine (co-authored with Neha Srivastava), was published on The Economic Times, over here.
The Big O Factor & what it means for the Bihar elections
The Big O of elections
The Big O of politics – Organization, is very often the thing that makes or breaks a party’s fortunes at the ballot box. Yet, it is probably the most overlooked aspect of political campaigns in this day and age when “new-age electioneering” has become synonymous with giant hoardings all over the place, catchy political jingles playing on radio & TV and mobile campaign vehicles crisscrossing constituencies with screens and speakers. The narrative that is being alluded to of late holds that elections are won or lost in war rooms, where geniuses, equipped with the latest technology do everything from making complex caste-calculations, deciding on party ticket distribution, carefully crafting campaign messaging, managing the branding associated with the party leadership and above all – the thankless job of coordinating the myriad campaign rallies all over the place.
As folks who have worked on campaigns in the past, we are of the firm opinion that while new age electioneering techniques relying on technology and PR of the world are definitely, what military strategists would call, “force-multipliers”, they are far from the “be-all” s and the “end-all” s of electioneering. The core-force (to be multiplied) however has to come from the party’s organization i.e. its cadre and volunteers. A high-tech campaign, combined with an enthused party cadre with deep roots across the state/country is like a skilled Arjuna (warrior) wielding the powerful Gandiva (bow) & Pashupatastra (mythical weapon capable of destroying the entire world) to become a Parantapa (scorcher of enemies). Remove the organizational base and all you are left with is something similar to a 5-year old child struggling to lift an M-16 gun – a sight that evokes pathos rather than fear.
Electoral Effectiveness = (Output of Party Cadre) x (Force-multiplier from Tech & PR)
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who has the best organization of them all?
We could try to model the Output of the Party Cadre before an election in a very simplistic, yet reasonably accurate manner as follows:
Output of Party Cadre = (Strength of Party Organization) x (Morale of Party Workers)
Getting to specifics, the RJD has a strong party organization[i] with a loyal cadre base drawn largely from the MY (Muslim-Yadav) demographic. In fact, Lalu’s cadre has stayed with him despite the RJD being out of power for the last 10 years – something that analysts often attribute to Laluji’s culture of taking care of those he considers loyal to him.
The JDU, say analysts, has a much less effective party organization and used to depend heavily on the BJP’s cadre when they were part of the NDA. Therefore, JDU-BJP alliance used the personal popularity of Nitish Kumar and the organizational strength of the BJP’s while fighting elections – a combination that worked like magic till the JDU broke up with the NDA over Modiji’s elevation as the Prime Ministerial candidate in 2013 [ii].
The BJP’s story is very different. The party does indeed have a strong organizational infrastructure, but for more interesting reasons than you’d expect.
- Title Inflation – A friend who is a senior office bearer in the BJP once remarked that the party seemed to have a habit of “distributing posts like chocolates”. A typical city is divided into parliamentary constituencies, which are further divided into assembly constituencies & then divisions (which elect Corporators). The BJP has the party, a student wing (ABVP), the youth wing (BJYM) and several “Cells” & “Morchas” e.g. SC Morcha, IT-Cell, Weavers’ Cell etc. Each wing often has local Conveners, Co-Conveners & bigger “wings” often have General Secretaries/Presidents, Secretaries etc., not only at the Parliamentary Constituency (PC) levels, but also at the Assembly Constituency (AC) and division levels. So, if a city has 2 PCs, 10 ACs & 5 divisions per AC, you already have up to 3 X 5 X 10 X 2 = 300 office bearers from each “wing” who have fancy- titles. You could have 2 wings, the main party and a bunch of different cells –all adding up to say 500 office bearers across the city. This is the elite-fighting force of the party’s cadre in a city, a group of people who will work their hearts out before elections, for free, often each roping in 10-15 of their friends, relatives and associates, bringing the fighting force available for deployment up to 5,000 in one city.
Title-inflation isn’t happenstance. It is a strategy used across some of the most successful organizations of the world, ranging from Bank of America to JP Morgan, to help boost employee morale and improve retention. The logic– give a person a good title & his morale will stay high on its own. Self-actualization, after all, stands at the top of Maslow’s pyramid.
Title inflation is not exclusively a BJP-phenomenon, with virtually every party adopting the strategy to some extent or the other. However, this is a double-edged sword. Office bearers with exalted titles can either work their hearts out to fulfill the responsibility that comes with the title, or fight with other exalted title-bearers to satisfy the big ego that also comes with the title. It has worked both ways even for the BJP. Herein comes the next factor which mitigates the negative effects of title inflation and to a large extent amplifies the positive effects – The RSS!
- The RSS – The secret weapon that amplifies the strength of BJP’s organization in most areas in Northern and Central India is the RSS.
Volunteer network – The RSS has a strong network of volunteers across the country, more so in places like MP, Rajasthan, Gujarat and even large parts of UP & Bihar. The “pracharaks” lead “shakhas” or branches across towns and villages, working with local communities. “Vistaraks” work for fixed periods of time and help improve the reach of the organization. Then come the affiliated organizations which aren’t directly part of the RSS but are loosely associated e.g. the SJM, ABVP. At the village level, the lines often blur between the organizations and volunteers tend to be associated with the activities of several of the “Sangh Parivar” (Family) organizations.
Come election time and the party has the support of this entire network of volunteers – unpaid passionate individuals who work for a cause rather than for money.
Management –on-deputation– A lot of people don’t know that the RSS deputes key leaders to the BJP at the national and state levels. These leaders become the General Secretaries (Organization). Their key mandate is to build up the party’s organization in their states, train party workers and keep the machine running smoothly. They typically live Spartan lifestyles, with many of them not even using air-conditioners in their offices. You are much more likely to find them sipping road-made “chai” in the party offices while interacting with party workers than giving long speeches in 5 star hotels.
These people are the real bulwark of the party’s organizational structure, commanding respect from across the party’s network of ‘karyakartas’ or volunteers – a natural consequence of their clean image, passion and frugal lifestyle. Possibly as a direct result of this, they are able to resolve any disputes that crop up and act as rudders, carefully steering the otherwise hard-to-manage behemoth network of party workers, volunteers and well-wishers. Conflict stemming from title-inflation is almost non-existent where the Sangh leaders on deputation are effective and active, thus addressing the potential problems cropping up in the previous section.
Neither of us are experts on the JD (U) or RJD, but isn’t it quite obvious that without the support of an RSS-like “mother organization” to build up the cadre-base, iron out management wrinkles and help effectively steer it, the core organization of these parties is no match to that of the BJP’s ? (This, is less of a problem with the RJD, where Lalu Yadav holds absolute sway.)
So, what about 2004 and 2009?
One could easily ask the question – “So, if the BJP’s organization and its RSS support base are so great, then why did it lose 2004 & 2009”? The answer, we think, lies with the “Morale of Party Workers” term of the model outlined before.
Morale is especially important in the case of the BJP’s workers who are motivated by ideology more than anything else. In 2004, the Vajpayee government seemed to have been unable to articulate its achievements succinctly to its cadre. The Food-for Work program which eventually became NREGA, the PM Gram Sadak Yojana, the Golden Quadrilateral etc.-all of which should have become election issues, were eclipsed by the ill-fated “India Shining” campaign [iii]. This, coupled with what was perceived to be a lack of a significant change from the “Establishment policies” of the past, seemed to result in a cadre that was not enthused. It certainly didn’t help that the government was seen to be at loggerheads with the RSS Chief K Sudarshan [iv]. Because of the lack of enthusiasm of the party workers, it seems as if the base was simply not pumped up enough to get out to vote.
Before the 2009 elections, NREGA had put in large amounts of money into the rural populace’s pockets, economic growth seemed to be going well and not insignificantly, Jinnah turned secular[v]. The cadre had no major reason to be pumped up, nor did independent voters have a reason to rush to the BJP’s side. And that what it was.
Ground level chemistry, Cadre-morale and the Bihar polls
What does all this mean for the upcoming Bihar polls? For starters, the party workers of the Mahagatbandhan face an interesting predicament. They have to work with their former foes and against their former friends and allies. Further, the ground-level chemistry between the party workers can be queered by the following factors:
Yadav-Kurmi rivalry: How do you think the Kurmi section of the JDU’s party organization will gel with the Yadav-centric RJD cadre given the legendary Yadav-Kurmi rivalry? While the Muslim-Yadav demographic forms ~ 28% of the electorate, the Kurmis- to whom the Chief Ministerial Candidate Nitish Kumar belongs, form only about 3%[vi]. Will the Yadav base of the RJD be able to make peace with not just voting but also campaigning for a Kurmi CM candidate? Only time will tell.
Sushasan babu + Perception of Jungle raj?: Another pertinent point is the potential lack of synergy between the party worker who, until 2013 touted his leader as being ‘Sushasan Babu’, who saved Bihar from Jungle Raj and the party worker who belongs to the party which is accused of bringing about Jungle Raj in Bihar. The leaders may have become allies and friends now, but can the average worker stomach this and work together with his former adversary? Would the burden of not just voting for the party that is accused of brining Jungle Raj to his state, but enthusiastically getting others to vote for it be too much for the conscientious JD(U) party worker? Again, only time will tell.
It is not that the NDA is problem free. With Manjhi and Paswan openly sparring[vii], cadre-chemistry among the Mahadalit and Dalit sections could possibly be queered, but the scale of the problem, we think, is not of the same order of magnitude as that faced by the “Mahagatbandhan”. In fact, the very presence of Narendra Modi in Bihar as the campaigner-in-chief is likely to boost the morale of the party organization and goad them to work with enhanced vigor.
The last word
In summary, the Big O factor of electoral politics gives the BJP-led alliance a distinct advantage. If the Mahagatbandhan wins despite anti-incumbency, lack of organizational-level chemistry and the Modi wave, it will be a miracle. After all, a well-trained Ninja with a stick can beat the hell out of a 6 year old who stares blankly at his new Walther PPQ M2 pistol.
About the authors
Ashwini Anand has worked extensively in the political campaign management space and was formerly, a Founder Member of one of India’s premier socio-political organizations.
Neha Srivastava is an alumna of Columbia University and works with a leading Wall Street firm.