As India approaches the 2024 general elections, it does not seem that the Bharatiya Janata Party will have a cakewalk as it eyes its third consecutive term at the Centre.

Indications about this have come not from the Hindutva party’s rivals but by its parent organisation – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

In an editorial in its official publication, Organiser, on May 23 about the Karnataka elections headlined “Opportune time for introspection”, it said, “Without strong leadership and effective delivery at the regional level, Prime Minister Modi’s charisma and Hindutva as an ideological glue would not be sufficient.”

This editorial is a throwback to the 2005 outburst by KS Sudarshan, who was Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief at the time. He had vented ire at senior BJP leaders Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani for not pursuing the agenda of the Sangh when they were in power between 1999 and 2004. He also told them to prepare to introduce young blood into the party.

Many analysts blamed the BJP’s defeat on its “Shining India” campaign, which claimed that the nation was going through a period of unprecedented prosperity – despite the ground reality being very different. In a way, it presaged Narendra Modi’s claims that India is living through “amrit kaal”, an era of nectar. Still, the BJP’s defeat at the time must also be seen in the context of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh detaching itself from the Vajpayee-Advani-led National Democratic Alliance government.

What the Organiser editorial has essentially said is that the party cannot bank on only one leader to ensure election victory. Instead, it said that regional leadership needs to be promoted. One could draw a parallel between this observation and Sudarshan’s 2005 call to the BJP’s two tallest leaders at the time to step down from their positions in the organisation.

This time, of course, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is not directly asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi to step down but is certainly calling for a team effort. Perhaps, the Sangh also wants to create viable alternatives to Modi in case of an unseemly eventuality.

The fact that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had to say this indicates that it has put its ear to the ground to ascertain the truth about Modi’s appeal and the result is not very reassuring.

Credit: PTI.

In its editorial, the Sangh admitted that neither the appeal of Modi or Hindutva was sufficient to clinch an electoral victory.

In fact, that is precisely why the Sangh’s warning this time has not come from a position of strength as did in 2005. At that time, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was unhappy that its agenda was not being rolled out. But now, it cannot push any complaints on that front because it has got more than it can chew. Hence, the subdued tone.

The immediate reason for the newly-dawned sense about the reduced efficacy of Hindutva as an election-winning factor, or possibly as fatigue-inducing ideological overkill, is the Karnataka assembly elections. When the results were announced in May, it turned out that the Congress had handed down a massive defeat to the BJP in its pulsating Hindutva laboratory of South India.

Until then, the Sangh had been quite upbeat about what it thought was a growing public leaning towards the organisation. It now seems to realise that this was perhaps more of a curiosity than a leaning.

This curiosity was spurred by the Sangh’s massive propaganda through mainstream and social media and was not because Indians were genuinely convinced about its ideology.

The Hindutva organisation seems to realise that the tide for Modi and the BJP is receding if not turning. Though Modi still seems to be getting carried away by his success so far, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is more perceptive and has been quick to call for a course correction.

But is the BJP in a position to do that, now that it has gone so far down on the path it chose nine years ago? If it is, what options does it have other than communal polarisation in the name of Hindutva and nationalism?

Going by the party’s current mood, it does not seem eager to change its strategy at this stage.

In fact, with Opposition unity looking distinctly possible, the BJP might actually reinvigorate its divisive agenda to keep its core Hindutva voter base intact.

What the BJP could do – as some observers have predicted – is to advance the general elections and hold the assembly elections in states like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan along with the general election in order to cash in on Modi’s popularity, which while waning still remains high. After the Karnataka election results, it is not clear how effective such a move could be.

As far as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s advice to put regional leadership at the vanguard goes, it is perhaps too late to be effective now. Importantly, Modi has shown disdain at the idea of empowering regional leaders.

So what does one expect the BJP to do to keep itself afloat? Modi, of course, has the demonstrated ability to spring shocks and surprises.

As of now, though, no matter how badly the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh wants, the BJP’s electoral arsenal has nothing new in it. It will consist of the heady mix of Modi cult and Hindutva.

Priyanka Gandhi in front of a statue of Durgavati, a queen who fought the Mughals, in Madhya Pradesh in June. Credit: Congress @INCIndia/Twitter.

How could the Congress take advantage of the BJP’s seemingly dwindling winnability?

The obvious answer: follow the Karnataka pattern of campaign – addressing local issues, rolling out its own labharthi agenda of welfare programmes and putting the regional leadership in the front.

It should also take the BJP’s Hindutva agenda head-on – like it did in Karnataka by promising to ban Bajrang Dal.

In Madhya Pradesh, though, where elections are due in around November, the Congress seems to be mimicking the BJP. All its leaders seem hell-bent on proving their Hindu credentials.

In a bid to counter Sangh parivar’s Bajrang Dal, the party has taken in its fold an organisation with an obscurantist agenda called the Bajrang Sena.

Kickstarting the party’s election campaign in Jabalpur on June 12, Priyanka Gandhi performed a puja of the river Narmada and garlanded the statue of Rani Durgavati, who had died fighting the Mughals.

Having regained its ability to win elections (in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh) on completely secular planks, the Congress strategy to put its religious foot forward in Madhya Pradesh seems like an about-turn. If it eventually proves to be its best foot, the party will be tempted to incorporate it in its regular scheme of things, at least in the Hindi heartland. In the process, it will only strengthen the BJP’s claim that it has forced the so-called secular parties to espouse Hindutva.

This strategy runs contrary to the alternative ideological narrative party leader Rahul Gandhi has been trying to push through his Bharat Jodo Yatra. It also diminishes the Congress’ claim that it aims to re-establish the quintessentially secular idea of India.

It also makes little political sense. At a time when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh realises that the BJP’s Hindutva appeal is getting stagnant, it is absurd for the Congress to adopt the same plank.

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