INDORE, Madhya Pradesh — Last September, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) organised a party workers’ conclave in Bhopal that it claimed would be the biggest in the world. The line-up at the event, which it called Karyakarta Mahakumbh, included Prime Minister Narendra Modi, party president Amit Shah and then Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. As the date approached, the news reports flew thick and fast: nearly 10 lakh BJP workers were expected to attend; the party had booked nine special trains to bring them to the venue; Madhya Pradesh was starting to run out of rental chairs.
On the day of the event, the BJP claimed a full house, even as the Congress circulated videos showing empty chairs and bored party workers reading newspapers during Modi’s speech. By the end of the evening, the BJP had put all rumours to rest by issuing a press release saying the event had been certified as the “world’s largest cadre based convention of any political party” by the World Book of Records (WBR). Several leading news outlets unquestioningly published a wire story that quoted a BJP spokesperson as saying that 15 teams from the “London-based” body had surveyed the conclave on several parameters before conferring the honour on the same evening.
On its website, WBR calls itself “one of the mammoth organisations that catalogues and verifies a huge number of world records across the world with authentic certification”. It is registered in India, Australia, the US and the UK, and its patrons include Virendra Sharma, a British Labour Party MP of Indian origin, and Congress leader Rajeev Shukla.
But an investigation by this correspondent reveals that an organisation that promotes itself as “London-based” is mainly run by a motley six-member team from a two-storied office in Indore. Its founder president Santosh Shukla, a 46-year-old former Supreme Court advocate, told this writer that he is eyeing a Rajya Sabha seat and eventually, the United Nations.
“The World Book of Records,” he said, “is a medium to get there.”
He seems to be on the right path—a few weeks ago, claims WBR’s website, PM Modi met Santosh and appreciated the organisation’s work. After the election, said Santosh, the BJP has promised to give him an office in “North Block”—where the Cabinet Secretariat is located in New Delhi.
BJP spokespersons Meenakshi Lekhi and Sambit Patra did not respond to emails from this writer.
“60% of my work for the UN is now done,” said Santosh.
In the two years since WBR was established, it has awarded records to over a dozen BJP leaders, initiatives and allies.
The tale of WBR and Shukla may sound like a made-for-Bollywood story starring a lawyer-entrepreneur who may just succeed in hustling his way to a UN position. But it’s also a reminder that India’s largest political party yearns to be validated by international (sounding) organisations (remember the Philip Kotler award fiasco?).
“Hindutva forces like RSS and the BJP are often known to hanker for international repute due to want of intellectual rigour and calibre,” says political scientist Suhas Palshikar. “Given the choice of the WBR’s ‘records’, there’s no question of their politics. But in it, you can also find a typical route for many right-wing organisations to gain acceptability, one that goes beyond attempts at intellectual intervention... It’s a sad comment on how the cultural universe operates in India.”
The creation, acceptance and promotion of the World Book of Records thus lead to two conclusions, neither too flattering for the BJP. At best, it reveals its lack of diligence on the people and organisations it associates with. At worst, it shows that India’s ruling party has been peddling the honours and certificates of a body with dubious antecedents to exaggerate and amplify its initiatives.
At first glance, the WBR record for the world’s largest party conclave reads much like a BJP press release.
On its website, the WBR did not mention how many people attended the BJP meeting, nor did it explain who previously held this record. Instead, it said that “BJP workers from 65,000 polling booths spread across the 230 Assembly seats in the state” took part in the “mega congregation”.
A simple Google search would have shown that 10 lakh may not be that big a number— former Pakistan PM Benazir Bhutto wrote in her memoir that around 30 lakh party supporters greeted her on her return from exile in 1986.
Exaggeration? Maybe. Worth checking out before announcing a record? Definitely.
A look at WBR’s awards shows that it excels in coming up with tailormade categories that ensure a low entry bar.
Shivraj Singh Chouhan was honoured for ‘anointing the statue of Hindu spiritual guru Adi Shankaracharya with soil of 51 districts of Madhya Pradesh’; MP governor and former Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel accepted a certificate for ‘largest simultaneous book reading programme’ and Rajya Sabha member Sonal Mansingh (nominated by the BJP to the upper house last year) for being an ‘iconic cultural personality who has mastered multiple Indian classical dance forms’.
There are also a number of ‘records’ for organisations promoting so-called Hindu culture and sensibilities, a pet project of the ruling party’s parent organisation, the RSS. These include the records created by a Bangalore-based priest for “distinct deity adornment and worship” and a Pune-based brahmin organization for “socio-economic development of the country”.
From coconuts to certificates
The past five years have brought home the BJP’s instinct to use scale and spectacle to grab eyeballs. Modi has led from the front, participating in carefully curated events designed to dominate headlines, from leading World Yoga Day celebrations to hosting rallies and interactions that jostle for a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. Like Modi, his party members have also been busy attempting records on a global scale: building the tallest statue in the world, constructing the largest party office in the world, even cooking the most khichdi in the world.
The World Book of Records seems to fit right in here. As Rajeev Shrivastav, vice-president of the WBR, put it, “Our work, straightforward, is motivating people. Earlier, it would be done with a shawl and shrifal (coconut). Now, it’s a certificate.”
I met Santosh Shukla in the third week of March at his office in the nondescript Pardeshipura area of Indore. The WBR staff work out of the top floor, which has three rooms with multiple work-stations. Visitors waiting outside Santosh’s chambers on the ground floor can spend their time looking at a large pinboard covered in letters from politicians from both the BJP and the Congress, acknowledging Santosh’s postal correspondence or wishing him luck in his professional endeavours. Among the names that stand out are BJP president Amit Shah and senior leader Murli Manohar Joshi.
“Our work, straightforward, is motivating people. Earlier, it would be done with a shawl and shrifal (coconut). Now, it’s a certificate”
A black-and-white board outside the office identifies Santosh as a Madhya Pradesh High Court advocate (he told this writer he was a Supreme Court lawyer, and his social media profiles also identify him as such), although he stopped practising in 2003. His dimly-lit chamber is lined with the latest issues of legal journals and books on Indian jurisprudence, some still in their plastic covers.
Over the course of our two-hour conversation, Santosh was warm, soft-spoken and unflappable, offering me tea thrice, saying at one point that he was “having fun” with my “cross-questioning”.
So how did a lawyer born in a farmers’ village in Allahabad end up founding an “international” organisation that validates anything from “largest number of innovative objects created by eco friendly corrugated boards” to “Most Double under Rope Skipping in a minute”?
The answer seems to lie in caste networks and political patronage.
When Santosh came to Indore after finishing Class XI, he wanted to work with Vishnuprasad Shukla, a BJP leader from the city.
“I had heard that he helps brahmins and gives them employment,” said Santosh.
But working for the politician, whom Santosh described as a “bit of a don”, meant roaming around with a danda and hurling abuses. Within a month, he realized that he wasn’t cut out to be a henchman.
“I wasn’t satisfied. I took babuji’s leave.”
As he studied further—a degree in science followed by two in law—Santosh kept in touch with his politician “patron”. In the early 2000s, when he launched Alma Limited, which claims to provide diplomas and degrees in IT services, he made Vishnuprasad Shukla its chairman. When Santosh launched WBR in 2017, he made the politician’s son Sanjay Shukla, now a Congress MLA from Indore, a board member.
“That’s how [political] contacts happened,” he said.
According to Alma’s website, its “national patrons” include senior BJP leader Joshi, Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan, Congress’s Rajeev Shukla (whom it identifies as “Minister, Govt of India”) and Sandeep Dikshit.
Joshi, Mahajan and Rajeev Shukla did not respond to emailed queries about their association with WBR.
“According to Alma’s website, its “national patrons” include senior BJP leader Joshi, Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan, Congress’s Rajeev Shukla (whom it identifies as "Minister, Govt of India") and Sandeep Dikshit”
Santosh says Alma’s success played a major role in the rapid rise of WBR. The ‘IT education and training institute’, Santosh said, was launched “19 years ago” and has “five lakh students over 650 centres” across the country now.
But for an organisation claiming to be this large, it has little online presence. The company’s profile on the website of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs lists it as having been launched in 2006 with a capital of Rs 5 lakh. Its last balance sheet was filed in 2009. On the weekday afternoon that I visited Santosh’s office, which doubles up as Alma’s headquarters, there were no trainees to be seen.
Nevertheless, the Alma brand is associated with a slew of companies: Alma News, Alma Foundation, an online journal called Alma Today and Alma Kidz, a children’s school. There’s little evidence of any of these firms running flourishing operations as their respective websites claim. Their patrons, however, include many recognizable Indian politicians. The website of Alma Today, for example, lists Joshi and Rajeev Shukla again, along with former Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit and Congress leaders Manish Tiwari and Shobha Oza.
Whose record is it anyway?
Santosh has no qualms in admitting to WBR’s dubious origins.
Sometime in 2017, said Santosh, his associate MLA Sanjay Shukla, had organised a thread ceremony for hundreds of brahmin children. “He told me, let’s make a record out of this.” Over the next few days, Santosh wrote to many record-recognition organisations he found on the internet: Guinness Book of Records, Limca Book of Records, Golden Book of World Records and India Book of Records. Guinness never responded. Others, Santosh found, either charged high processing fees or lacked credibility.
The night before the ceremony, Santosh designed a certificate under the fictitious name ‘World Book of Records’. The next day, it was presented to the organisers.
“I was scared,” said Santosh. “I had done something wrong. It had even received media coverage.”
But nothing happened.
“The night before the ceremony, Santosh designed a certificate under the fictitious name ‘World Book of Records’. The next day, it was presented to the organisers.”
Over the next two weeks, Santosh studied the functioning of record-certifying organisations. He already had a name, so he planned the design, sketched out organisational details and wrote emails to a London-based acquaintance, Dr Diwakar Sukul, and British-Indian MP Virendra Sharma, soliciting their help.
“I said, I want it to be like Guinness... I want it to be all legal and would like [supporting] letters from six or seven MPs. If I go by the normal process, they won’t give it at all. They responded. I had six letters... I went to London and processed it. It took three days to register it. Now, I have this,” said Santosh, handing me a framed copy of the registration certificate from London.
Why London? Did he consider registering it in India?
“If I give you a certificate from London and one from New Delhi, which one would you take?” he quipped.
The WBR certificates also include signatures from Dr Sukul, its chairman, and British MP Sharma, who is also a board member.
In an email, Sharma said that Shukla had contacted him through Dr Diwakar Sukul soliciting support for the WBR.
“I have supported the World Book of Records in their aspiration to found a competitor to the Guinness Book of Records,” he wrote, adding that he had “no knowledge of the other issues raised”—the disproportionate representation of BJP-affiliates among the record creators—“and do not believe I have signed a letter for WBR.”
After London, the WBR was registered in India, the US and Australia. Santosh handed me the registration certificate from each country as proof of authenticity. In India, he claimed, he even had an endorsement from the office of Sushma Swaraj, the minister of external affairs. Swaraj did not respond to emailed queries from this writer.
Soon, the WBR had a global presence, a team of patrons from Santosh’s social and political network and a website. Today, one can even find the record-making thread ceremony among its early recognitions.
To bolster WBR’s credibility, Santosh created four more firms in the past two years: the Asiatic Liberal Multifarious Association to recommend people and events for WBR records, Aufait International Law LLP to deal with legal matters for the WBR, Cyber TV and Social Media Broadcasting to look after WBR’s publicity and South Asian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to raise revenue and facilitate record attempts.
In each of these firms, according to the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, Santosh or his family members—wife Sanchita Shukla and mother Manorama Shukla—are listed as directors.
You get an award, and you get an award
Although modelled after Guinness, most of WBR’s records and their holders are of Indian origin. Shrivastav, WBR’s VP, said that in most cases, the organisation approaches the people in question. While it often asks for supporting documents, it doesn’t follow a standard verification procedure to recognise someone or deem an event worthy of merit.
“Sometimes, it’s only two of us, sometimes it’s only bhaiyya [Santosh Shukla],” he said. “A lot of it is based on faith and trust. It’s not a jury like the court.”
While Santosh often takes the initiative to confer awards, at times BJP leaders inform him about their events. Shrivastav told me that “the Madhya Pradesh mahasachiv [general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya], a close friend of bhaiyya”, had invited the WBR to the BJP conclave last September.
“We verified it, said the numbers were correct and felicitated them,” said Shrivastava.
It wasn’t an independent verification, however, and largely relied on estimates provided by BJP members. Contrary to the BJP’s claims that there were 15 teams from the WBR at the conclave, Santosh said there were only five staffers there.
“You can’t possibly count 10 lakh people. No one can,” he said.
Some record-seekers contact the WBR themselves. In June last year, 18-year-old Ankit Verma, author of a self-published psychology book, posted a screenshot of an invoice for Rs 35,000 from the WBR on a crowdfunding website.
“I have applied for a world record and get selected but they are asking for money but don’t have a money to pay so, can you please help,” he wrote.
Verma’s bid received no funds, but his parents eventually paid up, he told me over the phone. A few months later, the WBR honoured him for writing the ’The Fastest Revised Book Edition’.
“You can’t possibly count 10 lakh people. No one can”
WBR claims to have felicitated over 130 people so far. These recognition ceremonies are held at high-profile public events—at the venue of an ongoing record attempt or the organisation’s annual award function at a five-star hotel. Most of the honours are made on Santosh’s recommendation and handed out by Bollywood personalities—actor Raza Murad, singer Bappi Lahiri (who joined the BJP in 2014)—or politicians. There are also photographs of Himachal Pradesh chief minister Jai Ram Thakur and Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan releasing WBR publications.
Santosh has no misgivings about the disproportionate number of BJP cadre, initiatives or allies making it to the WBR. The honour is for their work, he explains. And they can work because they are in power. It’s as much a business consideration: more felicitations mean better visibility for his brand.
“If it was the Congress which was in power, they would’ve received the awards too,” he said.
Next on the list, says Santosh, is home minister Rajnath Singh, who will be felicitated for the successful completion of Kumbh. Singh was chosen because the office of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath didn’t get back in time. Santosh said that when he met Singh on the sidelines of the Padma award function in New Delhi in March, the minister asked him to wait until after the elections because of concerns about the ongoing model code of conduct.
Santosh is not unaware that he is being unusually candid about his organisation. But he also seems confident about his position and the WBR’s legal standing: “Today I can work confidently because I have done everything in the last two years,” he said.
It’s an effort, he says, by an ambitious Indian—one who rose from a village with no electricity, sold his wife’s jewellery for capital and travelled the country to build networks and garner goodwill—to recognise others like him.
“If you go to the Madhya Pradesh governor’s house [Anandiben Patel] today, you’ll see three of WBR’s certificates hung prominently in its waiting room,” says Santosh. “It’s a matter of pride for us. They’ve now even started recommending others for our honours. It shows that they’ve accepted us.
“Now my next target is the PMO. The day they start telling us to make records for them, we’ll know we’ve made it.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that Sanjay Shukla is an MLA and that Santosh Shukla was born in Allahabad.