How Modi, Shah recast BJP's membership drive into a political juggernaut

On July 6, coinciding with the 118th birth anniversary of Jana Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee, PM Narendra Modi launched the sadasyata abhiyaan in Varanasi, his Lok Sabha constituency. Photo: PTI
On July 7, when J P Nadda, working president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), convened a meeting of the chiefs, conveners and co-conveners of the party’s 19 departments, his thrust was on the ongoing membership drive, which started on July 6 and is expected to end on August 11. 

Nadda likened the “foot soldiers” who are enlisting members to warfighters and said they “mattered more” in the schema than those “leading from the front”. Nadda was quoted as saying: “When you are in a war, it is people holding up the combatants from behind who are more important.” The BJP won a war just two months ago and believes it’s engaged in another. 

The membership “campaign” — the BJP celebrates it as sangathan parva (organisational festival) — is nothing more than meeting a stipulation laid down in the party’s constitution that states although new members must be enrolled every six years, mid-way through the third year, at least 20 per cent new members must be recruited to infuse fresh blood into the system. 

The process is intended to fulfil another requirement. The three-year term of the incumbent president, Amit Shah, ends in December.  Before a successor is “elected”, the multi-tier organisational elections in 50 per cent of the states — from the booth level to the state level — must be carried out before the national apparatus is reconstituted. Inducting new members is the first step.

In the Narendra Modi-Shah masterminded regime, organisational elections have acquired the gravity, authority and colour of a national or state poll.  R Balashankar, co-convener of the BJP’s training department, said: “The message is: The organisation is the backbone. Earlier, membership drives meant perfunctorily registering members with a fee. But, 2014 marked a beginning — the BJP seriously experimented with geographical and social expansion and the use of technology in the exercise.” Prime Minister Modi and Shah, who had taken over the reins from Rajnath Singh, transformed the inauguration into a political jamboree. Shades of Modi’s election rhetoric were visible in the slogan “sashakth Bhajapa, sashakth Bharat (strong BJP, strong India)” that was unveiled on the occasion with an appeal to prospective members to join the endeavour of “nation-building”.  The process entailed calling a 10-digit membership number, feeding in the name and address and receiving confirmation through a text message. No cross-verification was required. But when the titles were checked, the BJP discovered that nearly 1.8 million names were spurious. This brought down the trumpeted figure of 110 million entrants that was initially put out.

Suresh Pujari, MP from Bargarh (Odisha), who is part of the committee set up to oversee the membership drive, claimed that five years hence, technology was “refined” to place a “premium on quality”.  To thwart spam and automated data extraction from websites, the programme uses an OTP (one-time-password) and CAPTCHA, elicits biographical details that are personally cross-checked later by designated workers, and ensures that each member uses his/her personal mobile number and not a shared one.

In 2019, too, the occasion befitted a parva. On July 6, coinciding with the 118th birth anniversary of Jana Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Modi launched the sadasyata abhiyaan in Varanasi, his Lok Sabha constituency, ensuring that his autographed appeal that every new member must become a stakeholder in the “$5-trillion economy” he was about to conjure would become the campaign’s signature message. Shah was relatively down-to-earth and defined the venture as a “sarva sparshiya, sarva samaveshi (all-encompassing, inclusive)” one. “This time, the emphasis is on reaching out to social groupings that are not with us. Geographically, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala will be the focus areas,” said  Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, party vice-president and Rajya Sabha MP.

Elaborating the objectives of the campaign, Anil Jain, party general secretary and Rajya Sabha MP who is closely involved in it, said: “The main criterion for signing up new members is he or she must be ready to work in booths and faces no criminal charges.” To underscore the organisation’s primacy, Jain said there were 175,000 shakti kendras (nodal points), and each kendra has five booths under its superintendence. As long as the membership venture is on, each worker — be he/she a central or state functionary, or an MP or MLA — has to give seven days to the organisation. Jain stressed that a new member’s job wouldn’t end with clearing the formalities.  He/she, along with other workers, has to take up the swachhata (cleanliness) mission, plant trees, and search out and felicitate the oldest BJP/Jana Sangh member in his/her area.

Asked what “quality” membership implied, Jain said there are two groups. “Teachers, doctors, dharmacharyas and sportspersons, and former village pradhans who might have lost elections but continue to be local influencers,” he explained. The only heads-up served to the field workers is when visiting Dalits, their numbers must not exceed five so that the hosts were not “inconvenienced”.

Who're on the membership panel


Shivraj Singh Chouhan: Former Madhya Pradesh chief minister was appointed national vice-president, along with his Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh peers Vasundhara Raje and Raman Singh, after losing the state election in 2018


Dushyant Gautam: National vice-president and Dalit leader from Delhi who headed the BJP’s SC wing. He was put in charge of parts of UP during the Lok Sabha polls 

Arun Chaturvedi: Former Rajasthan BJP president and ex-Cabinet minister in the state government

Suresh Pujari: Won his first election from Odisha’s Bargarh Lok Sabha constituency in 2019; national secretary and co-convener of the BJP's West Bengal unit

Shoba Surendran: She heads the BJP’s Kerala women’s front. She was arrested in connection with the Sabarimala protest

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