A novel strategy used by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for one-one-one engagement with voters in the 2014 Lok Sabha election is being expanded for the ongoing Uttar Pradesh elections.
Panna pramukhs or page supervistors – workers responsible for reaching out to voters listed on one page of an electoral roll – have been rechristened and put to work under a new slogan: “One Booth Twenty Youth.” This strategy was crucial to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s remarkable electoral performance from Uttar Pradesh in 2014 – where it won 71 of 80 seats.
In 2014, the RSS had created a lose army of panna pramukhs in the Hindi heartland state, each focusing on about 60 voters. Each pramukh had to focus on voters listed on the assigned page, connect with them and ensure they turn up to vote.
Dividing the area covered by a polling booth into 20 units – each booth caters to around 1,200 voters – was something no party had done before. Conventionally, most parties put one person – or, in some cases, two or three – in charge of a polling booth, who reaches out to voters in the area and builds ground support.
The impact of the RSS’ strategy in 2014 was immediate and immense. Apart from acting like an important conduit for disseminating the Sangh Parivar’s political message, panna pramukhs worked as an excellent means of voter-mobilisation. The RSS and the BJP then decided to give concrete shape to the idea of panna pramukhs before the Uttar Pradesh polls.
“Our effort to translate ‘one booth twenty youth’ slogan into practice began nearly four months before the announcement of Assembly elections in UP,” said Arvind Singh, a senior RSS office-bearer of the Sevapuri Assembly seat in Varanasi. “The Sangh played the role of a facilitator and helped the BJP constitute groups of 20 youths in every booth.”
To get the required 20 youth per booth, the BJP relies heavily on cadres provided by the RSS, from among its grassroots workers in the state. However, the saffron party’s ideological parent has cleverly stayed in the background, letting the new slogan appear to be that of the BJP.
Each group of 20 youth is headed by a booth pramukh, who in turn is under a sector pramukh. Supervising this entire structure is the Vidhan Sabha kshetra pramukh, who looks after voter outreach in the entire Assembly seat, coordinates with party candidate and also oversees the support given by the RSS for each constituency.
“For every level – booth, sector and kshetra – the Sangh has created its own parallel structure to provide back-up support to the BJP and to ensure party’s coordination with other Sangh affiliates,” said Singh. “The heads of these RSS’ structures are called samanvayaks [coordinators].” Singh is RSS’ Vidhan Sabha kshetra samanvayak for Sevapuri. In these committees, members are comprised of different Sangh Parivar members, which works as a support structure for the BJP’s pramukhs and organisations, complementing their work and helping them drum up support.
Second time unlucky?
But many in the RSS fear that the panna pramukhs may not be able to work wonders for the party the way they did in 2014, despite the unusual effort that has gone into making them highly organised.
“The slogan may appear attractive but factionalism and casteism in booth-level groups and the structures above them have rocked its operation on the ground,” said Narayan Patel, the sarpanch of Jayapur vilage in Varanasi, which Narendra Modi had adopted with great pomp and months after he became the Prime Minister, to turn it into a “model village.”
This is because the RSS is dominated by upper castes, while the BJP is working hard to woo Dalit and Other Backward Classes voters for this election. In 2014, the widespread anger towards the Congress that had been in power in the country for a decade, coupled with the groundswell of support for the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate – the so-called Modi wave – had pushed most voters towards the saffron party, overriding caste and other concerns.
There is also infighting among the various booth-level workers. “In 2014, panna pramukhs led almost every voter in this village to polling booths,” Patel said. “But this time they are seen fighting among themselves.” Many panna pramukhs feel that lower castes were discriminated against while identifying the 20 youths per booth.
Manoj Kumar, a BJP supporter in neighbouring Jamuni village said he found the panna pramukhs in his area arrogant. “No one knows how the selection of youths for booth-level committees was made by the RSS,” he said. “In my village, these youths are generally from upper castes, and almost all of them are arrogant. Instead of motivating people to vote for the BJP, they are only creating bad name for the party.”
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