Rahul Gandhi’s recent disqualification from the Lok Sabha following his conviction in a 2019 defamation case could be the turning point in Indian politics in the run-up to the 2024 general election – or so say wishful thinkers.

They are certain that the victimisation of the Congress leader will galvanise Opposition parties to unite and reverse the course of Indian politics. Sceptics, though, are unconvinced.

No matter how divided opinion is on the matter, one thing is clear: this is a do-or-die moment – not only for the Opposition but also for ordinary citizens. This is not a political conflict any more. It is a full-scale war between those who believe in the idea of an inclusive India and those who aim to establish a majoritarian nation.

Since 2014, the Hindutva juggernaut powered by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has been riding roughshod over everyone and everything seen as a bump on the road to the saffron-soaked India of its dreams.

At the level of governance, there has been an unleashing of ideas, policies and programmes to facilitate the creation of a Hindu rashtra. At a social level, non-state actors belonging to the Sangh parivar are waging vituperative campaigns to advance this majoritarian objective – with full state protection.

The street violence of the Sangh’s foot soldiers must be understood in the context of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat’s constant refrain: “The government will do the tasks cut out for it but the government will not be able to do everything. Society [samaj] will have to pitch in by performing its role.”

From attacking Muslims and Dalits to organising massive rallies promoting Islamophobia and jailing key critics of the idea of a Hindu rashtra, the Sangh ecosystem has escalated its war on the Constitutional idea of India.

In these circumstances, it goes without saying that the space for dialogue, which is the bedrock of democracy, has been closed.

Nothing illustrates this more sharply than the unprecedented blocking of Parliament proceedings by the Bharatiya Janata Party over remarks by Gandhi in the UK last month that the ruling party claims were “anti-national”.

With the Sangh parivar and its protectors in government leaving no doubt about their intention to obliterate their political and social opponents, those who care for an open and liberal India need to formulate a coherent, decisive response to this unprecedented challenge.

What should be their line of action and who will have to be motivated to act?

It is necessary to fight this battle at the political level – but that will not be sufficient. The political class has not shown enough resolve to fight the BJP. Their frailties and compulsions limit how far they can go and how strongly they can fight. It will require a massive push by civil society as well. This is, after all, a question of protecting liberal values.

Those who care for India’s Constitutional values will have to forge a national network of like-minded people from all walks of life and diverse ideologies who share liberal values.

To defeat the BJP, they will have to try to undermine its main pillars: Narendra Modi’s popularity, its massive electoral machinery, its Hindutva narrative and its politics of welfarism or labharthi. There is also an illegitimate pillar: its misuse of Constitutional institutions.

Modi remains very popular, the BJP’s election machinery is as formidable as ever, the Hindutva narrative only seems to fire up the party’s voters more strongly and its welfarist politics is unchallengeable since it is the sole preserve of the party in power. The same goes for its misuse of the enforcement agencies.

In reality, only three of these five pillars can actually become targets: offering an alternative to Modi and the BJP’s ideological narrative, while exploiting the flaws in the party’s election machine.

Though Modi remains the main electoral weapon for the Sangh parivar, the situation for the BJP may not be as easy in 2024 as it was in 2019.

This is largely due to a huge image makeover Rahul Gandhi has got following his popular Bharat Jodo yatra from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. The Congress leader has emerged as a far more serious challenge to Modi this time round.

Of course, the Congress needs to build on this relentlessly – something it has shown no sign of doing even two months after the walk has ended. Gandhi’s decision to visit the UK in March rather than joining the campaign for the North-East elections indicates that. Though the Congress has announced plans for a door-to-door campaign aimed at reaching voters of 10 lakh polling booths, there has been no mobilisation on the ground for this effort.

In the meantime, the BJP has pounced upon Gandhi’s frequent observations in speeches and interviews that Indian democracy is in trouble. The Hindutva party has used this to reignite a debate on nationalism – claiming, of course, that it is the only custodian of this spirit.

But the Congress could turn this adversity into opportunity. The nationalism debate has the potential to cut both ways. It is very possible that the more intensely the BJP projects itself as the only nationalistic and patriotic party in the country, the higher the chances of it actually proving counter-productive given the antipathy of Indian voters towards the excessive vilification of an individual for reasons right or wrong.

Pulling out the victim card may have helped Narendra Modi in 2014: to some voters, he was seen as having been hounded for the role he played as chief minister of Gujarat during the 2002 riots. There is no reason why this same sentiment will not help Rahul Gandhi in 2024.

The BJP is likely to aggressively push two narratives in the run-up to 2024 elections – nationalism and claims of corruption by Opposition leaders. It knows too well that problems such as rising prices, unemployment and other issues connected to the daily lives of people do not really damage its reputation.

Voters have also failed to be dissuaded by the BJP’s hypocritical conduct of halting corruption actions against rival politicians who join the Hindutva party and unleashing the enforcement agencies against those who refuse to sign up.

It is clear that the Opposition is facing an unconventional and asymmetric war. That should make them realise that there is nothing left for them to leverage except a broad ideological plank.

A fact that goes in its favour is that even today at least 60% of India’s voters are still not buying into the Sangh parivar’s ideological narrative. However, their votes are split between several political parties.

It should also be noted, though, that many of these non-BJP voters aren’t actually casting their ballots to protest against the Hindutva party’s anti-minority parties. In some cases, they are motivated by the caste appeal of their preferred party (such as the Samajwadi Party, Janata Dal (United) or Bahujan Samaj Party. In others, they are enamored of the party leader’s personality. This holds good for many who vote for the Biju Janata Dal or YSR Congress.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah at a public rally in Nawada in Bihar on Sunday. Credit: PTI.

Along with a strong ideological counterpoint, the Opposition will also have to work out how to effectively take on the BJP’s election machine.

The massive financial and human resources available to the BJP and its network that gives it the ability to reach out to voters on each page of the electoral rolls can be countered effectively only through smart Opposition alliances.

In this respect too, the situation isn’t as easy for the BJP this time as it was in 2019. There is a strong possibility of Opposition unity this time, as is evident from recent protests they have organised.

Though there are many bumps to overcome, there is no reason to believe that the Opposition will choose to be decimated by fighting individually rather to stand together to face the BJP.

As for the question of who will lead the combined Opposition, this has already been answered by the BJP when it began to posit the Narendra Modi vs Rahul Gandhi binary.

These political strategies will have to be supported by a push from civil society. The more vigorously civil society counters the BJP’s Hindutva narrative, the greater will be the moral pressure on the Opposition to perform its duty to uphold the Constitutional idea of India. Else, it will remain fixated on the political expediency of surviving in the BJP storm.

If these efforts fail, the BJP and the Sangh parivar will hammer the last nail into the coffin of the secular, constitutional democracy created by the freedom-era generation.

Vivek Deshpande worked with The Indian Express and is now a freelance journalist in Nagpur.