October 24th, 2020

Counter Music

ELECTORAL STRATEGY

India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has dominated Indian politics in the past decade, upending the country's long-standing Congress Party rule at the national level and competing with regional and ethnic parties in state elections. While the BJP's Hindu nationalist ideology and economic agenda appeal to elite Hindu voters, the party has also secured votes from marginalized communities, using tactics that fall outside of well-documented clientelist models.

In a 2011 paper, political scientist TARIQ THACHIL examines the role of nonstate service provision in building lower-caste support for the BJP, which has been central to the party's electoral success.

From the text:

"The Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) efforts to woo lower castes were seen as particularly daunting, given that the Brahminical ideology it espouses has largely been understood as one appealing to Hindu elites and not to those subjected to the daily humiliations of caste practice or to those whose spiritual traditions have been denigrated as improper or even uncivilized. Further, the party supported policies that largely appealed to upper castes, whose economic interests and preferences were the diametrical opposite of those of most poor voters. However, recent electoral evidence suggests several instances of counterintuitive support for the BJP from two of India’s most marginalized communities: Dalits (former “untouchable” castes) and Adivasis (India’s indigenous tribal populations).

I analyze how the upper-caste BJP has relied on the services provided by its grassroots affiliates in the Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar (family of organizations) to make unexpected inroads among lower-caste voters in India. I argue that even when used to win votes, service provision should not be narrowly classified as simply a variant of clientelist strategy. There can be no doubt that a major part of the appeal of services for poor communities is material, particularly in areas where basic health and educational services remain woefully inadequate, as they do still in many parts of India. Yet to be successful, service activists had to provide services over multiple electoral cycles without linking provision to the quid pro quo protocol that underpins clientelist exchange. Further, to provide services reliably, activists must literally embed themselves within communities. This embedded quality generated several nonmaterial mechanisms through which activists could affect political choices, including even those of many voters not directly benefiting from their services. Providers exploit their formally nonpartisan status and the high regard accruing from their dedicated provision to garner credibility and influence within their local communities."

Link to the paper.

  • "Vidya Bharati ran approximately 6,000 schools in the late 1980s, and by 2003 this number had reached a total of 19,741." In an earlier paper, Thachil argues that India's defunding of education facilitated the growth of private schools (called Vidya Bharati) run by Hindu nationalist group RSS, which played a key role in service provision to rural communities. Link.
  • Susan Stokes' definitive account of clientelism emphasizes the centrality of excludable benefits and qui pro quo exchange. Link. James C. Scott's earlier work defines patron-client relationships through their socioeconomic asymmetries. Link.
  • For more on the BJP's rise, see Pradeep Chhibber's 1999 book on the transformation of India's party system and Christophe Jaffrelot's 1996 book on the Hindu nationalist movement. Link, and link.
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