A look at Shah’s data-driven, micromanaging team in Bhiwadi, just one of about 100 of his teams operating across the state.
There’s a hush of wonder and perplexity that descends when the political class talks about the Amit Shah-Narendra Modi election machine, especially post the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. It also helps that mainstream media celebrate the duo as a “Jadu Jodi”, gushing and fawning about every election victory as a masterstroke, conquest, coup and other such adulatory narratives.
What is this election machine that Bharatiya Janata Party President Shah has set up that drives and enthuses his party workers and animates his political rivals and challengers? Why does Shah rely predominantly on his “Super Teams” who fly in from Gujarat, and who overrun and oversee the state local party organisation? How does their multi-pronged strategy work? Has Shah’s poll roller, replicated from the Gujarat model and brought to the rest of the country, changed the way elections are fought today? Do political party rivals now have to adopt the Shah model to take the BJP on?
And crucially, can Shah’s mega poll roller of statistics, data and micro-managing win against voter disappointments, rejection and anti-incumbency?
First, let it be remembered that post 2014, the mainstream media’s fave Jadu Jodi has also lost a few elections—a spectacular loss in the Delhi Assembly, barely eight months after Modi swept to power in May 2014; then came Bihar in November in the same year when the BJP was trounced; in 2016, the BJP could barely make a mark in the elections in Kerala, Pudducherry, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu; it lost Punjab in 2017 and wrested power in Goa surreptitiously the same time. However, it has jumped from seven in 2014 to rule 20 states either on its own or in alliances today and has 17 of its own chief ministers.
To check out how Shah’s machinery works, we set out to Bhiwadi, in Rajasthan, the state government’s industrial township, just outside Delhi, and in the throes of election fever, to be held on December 7. Dusty and brown Bhiwadi, where factories belch out toxic smoke and exhaust even as patches of the season’s sunny yellow mustard fields burst out between houses and buildings, is one of the constituents of Tijara Assembly constituency, which the BJP won in the last election in 2013. Bhiwadi is one of Tijara’s five mandals. Its MLA is the BJP’s Maman Singh Yadav, and Tijara is known for its dominant Yadav community and also Meo Muslims, and it has elected at least five Yadavs since Independence.
However, Tijara, which falls in the Alwar parliamentary constituency, gave a shock to Shah’s BJP earlier this year in the January by-poll when its candidate Jaswant Singh Yadav lost out to the Congress’s Karan Singh Yadav by a stunning 1.96 lakh votes. The late Mahant Chand Nath Yogi, whose death necessitated the by-poll, had won the election in 2014 with 2.64 lakh votes. The BJP has denied sitting MLA Maman Singh Yadav a ticket, giving it instead to a Bhiwadi local, Sandeep Dayma, the youthful former Kabbaddi champion and present chairman of the Bhiwadi municipal council. He is pitted against Aimaduddin Khan of the Congress and there are three other Muslim candidates, most notably from the Samajwadi Party.
Dayma is one of the fortunate candidates to have the BJP president’s “Super Team” to work for him, who have swooped in from Surat, Gujarat, and are a band of Shah’s most trusted workers. There’s Dinesh Raj Purohit, the BJP’s in-charge of Surat’s Limbayat assembly constituency, and his two party colleagues and friends, who exude an air of nonchalance as they breeze through the lobby of the four-star Golden Tulip Hotel in the industrial township. Purohit is a hotelier himself running the family business in Surat, and his colleagues are businessmen too.
Purohit says he is in Bhiwadi to do a personal favour to his friend, Dayma, but there is no doubt from his demeanour that he is in complete charge of the campaign, which will go right up to the final day of voting. “There are at least a 100 teams from Gujarat who are active in Rajasthan, micromanaging the election.” The party already has in place its election organisation on the ground months ahead—from the multi-tiered organisation of booth samitis, mandal leaders and shakti kendras (which oversee a clutch of booths). There are the Kendra palaks (in-charge) who work in tandem with the panna pramukhs or “page leaders”.
Purohit is satisfied the “panna pramukhs”, who are entrusted with one page of every voter list (about 60 names on each page), have done their job already of meeting families on a regular basis. “They’ve sent their reports on how many are for, against and neutral to the BJP,” he explains, “and they’ve been tasked to work on those who are undecided, to bring them to vote for the party.”
Purohit says it is not a difficult task as the voter lists consist mostly of neighbours or residents on the same street, so reaching out to them is not a difficult as they are familiar and recognisable faces. There are 2.23 lakh voters in Tijara, according to Purohit, and with an average of 60 voters per page, there are at least 4,000 panna pramukhs who have been drawn from volunteers and party workers.
Abhay Singh is the panna pramukh entrusted with Booth No 28, and he is confident that 60 per cent of his voters will vote for the BJP. “Only 20 per cent is with the Congress, and 20 per cent is neutral.” However, it’s with caution that Sube Singh Bhiduri, local BJP councillor and dedicated party worker, reminds us that in the recent Alwar parliamentary by-election, not only did the BJP lose, but there was a high of 15,000 NOTA votes.
Purohit and his team are unfazed as they head to the spanking new BJP office where, unlike the hordes of local party workers who swarm in the grounds and loll around on sofas in various rooms, their “call centre” comprising of seven people are crackling on their mobile phones with various leaders. The call centre is just a day old and will work until the last evening of polling. “Pramukhs and mandal heads have been given a dedicated number in the call centre and the latter’s job is to keep the flow of information running smoothly —from getting feedback on voter mobilisation and their numbers, especially on polling day, which is handed to us and to the local leadership on an immediate basis.”
Doesn’t the local leadership feel besieged and overwhelmed by outsiders? There are sniggers of derision and mock about the “outsiders” who have no clue about local issues, says a leader. But Purohit says Shah’s Gujarat teams are welcomed by local leadership because they come only to assist, not to intrude. “We use our data to tell them how to reach the voter scientifically and reliably,” he says, adding, “we show them how data can save time and find accuracy, after that it all depends on the candidate, the leadership, contentious issues, people’s demands, and other usual election time concerns and topics.”
So, what’s Purohit’s data crunching and micro-management in clash with in Bhiwadi? On one side, the laptops are rolling out figures like 1.5 lakh mobile numbers of new members, volunteers, or the merely curious of Tijara; and the call centres from Jaipur to Delhi are bombarding them with daily messages and calls to vote for the BJP. Then there are the voter lists duly transferred on excel sheets, which are photo-copied into thousands for the panna pramukh, which lists the name, family name, address, ward number, and—most notably—caste; apart from a list of 38,000 Aadhaar card holders and the benefits they received from both central and state government schemes.
In fact, contacting the beneficiaries of schemes is Shah’s new strategy, such as Rajasthan’s touted Bhamshah health insurance scheme for the poor, or the central pension scheme, or the Aadhaar card holders in the constituency who get funds directly to their bank accounts, to cash in and swing votes in their favour. “There are 15,000 families in Tijara who have benefitted from the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala scheme of giving subsidised cooking gas cylinders,” says Purohit proudly. “I am sure the women who were granted the welfare scheme will not need much convincing to vote for the BJP after the panna pramukhs meet them.”
On the other hand, the fervour and gusto boil over when it comes to emotions and feelings of the people in the state, and worse, in the party structure. There is palpable anger among local party workers with the “Maharani”, chief minister Vasundhara Raje, says a leader, as she has gone over the heads of the party to rely and work solely with bureaucrats and the administration. The organisational structure, which is the workforce on the ground, has been ignored and by-passed in handing out contracts, work assignments and making policy decisions, at the cost of the lowering their significance in the constituency. “We’ve become a laughing stock as we neither have a say in the distribution of schemes and contracts nor are we able to give any handouts to our people. Our authority has diminished, even the local SHO ignores our requests in any dispute. All decisions are taken in Jaipur,” says a leader angrily.
Another reveals that the anti-incumbency against first timers—there were as many as 90 first-time MLAs when Raje won in 2013, with a resounding 163 seats out of 200 seats—who did not really find their ground, which also goes against the BJP this time. Also, while the selection of candidates and distribution of schemes was mostly decided in the state capital, several pramukhs have helped themselves as beneficiaries if they are eligible, says a leader helpfully, as it’s seen as a reward for their loyalty and dedication.
Mercifully, says another leader, the confusion in the Congress state leadership, the power clash between newbie Sachin Pilot and old horse Ashok Gehlot, their faulty selection of candidates in many constituencies, apart from old caste rivalries and affiliations, can make rival Congress’ job even harder for electoral victory, despite a wave of anti-incumbency in the state.
So, how confident is Purohit about Shah’s electoral machine working in Rajasthan this time? The Surat BJP leader had also worked as part of Shah’s team in both the Karnataka and Bihar state elections, but the BJP lost in both states. Purohit is cocky when he points out that though the party did not win the elections, it had doubled its last tally, gaining 64 seats, and was just nine seats short of hitting the majority in the Assembly. In Bihar, he points out, the JD(U) and RJD combine was bulletproof, but the JD(U) is now back as an ally of the BJP.
The contest, it seems is between an extravagant, multi-crore, data-driven micro-management election machine, versus the heated and intense emotions of the electorate, which rises and falls in proportion to their enthusiasm and disinterest. Can an aroused and charged electorate take on a sleek and techno-savvy data machine? The results of the Rajasthan state elections and the other three states on December 11, will tell which is going to stay in the future.