What makes the Bharatiya Janata Party so invincible and is there any way to halt its juggernaut? Unless the Congress and Opposition parties throw themselves into trying to find answers to these questions, they face the likelihood of being crushed in the Lok Sabha elections in 2024. That is obvious from the BJP’s impressive performance in the elections in five states, the results of which were declared on November 3 and 4.

The defeat of the Congress in Rajasthan did not come as much of a surprise given that the odds were stacked against the party. For one, Rajasthan has demonstrated a tendency to vote out incumbent governments. After five years in power, the Congress faced an anti-incumbency sentiment while factionalism in the party’s state unit did not help either.

But in Madhya Pradesh, the BJP triumphantly proved analysts wrong. Since the Hindutva party had been in power for about 20 years – barring the 15 months when the Congress was in power after a slender victory in the 2018 assembly elections – it was battling high anti-incumbency sentiment. Though there was no overt factionalism, the BJP Central leadership’s decision to send three Union Ministers, four Lok Sabha members and one party general secretary to fight the elections created some confusion: it indicated that the party would have multiple centres of power in the state in the event of victory.

The biggest shock for the Congress was in Chhattisgarh, where many analysts had predicted that it would retain power comfortably. The only bright spot for the party was Telangana, where its profile improved only a few months before the elections.

It is abundantly clear that the BJP continues to rule the hearts of voters in the Hindi-speaking belt of North India. This is due in part to the undiminished popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the election strategies framed by his closest confidante, Home Minister Amit Shah.

There are other strong drivers too, especially the party’s welfare handout politics and its weaponisation of Central investigative agencies against its opponents. Most of all, it is Hindutva and nationalism that continue to imbue the BJP with seeming invincibility. For the BJP, this narrative is a protective armour against factors that dent the Opposition.

Anti-incumbency sentiment, for instance, hurt the Congress governments led by Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh and Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan but did not harm the Shivraj Singh Chouhan regime in Madhya Pradesh.

This narrative has also enabled the BJP to convince its supporters to ignore allegations of corruption and incompetence against the party, for instance, sluggish job growth while rich Indians and businessmen amass wealth – including the rapid expansion of the Adani Group whose leader, Gautam Adani, is close to the prime minister. The party continues to thrive despite the undermining of autonomous government bodies that have become BJP appendages and the ill-conceived demonetisation of currency overnight in 2016.

Allegations of corruption in the purchase of Rafale fighter jets from France in 2018 as well as the opaque functioning of the PM-CARES fund, which received crores of rupees in donations, have also been brushed aside. The party’s aggressive and well-organised social media and public outreach machinery have turned around the narrative on the devastating mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic as well.

Rahul Gandhi and priyanka Gandhi Vadra with A Revanth Reddy. Credit: Priyanka Gandhi Vadra @priyankagandhi/X.

This is not to say that the Congress has not attempted to re-energise itself. The 4,000-km Bharat Jodo Yatra led by Rahul Gandhi played a key factor in helping the party win a huge victory in Karnataka in May. But the momentum apparently remained restricted to South India.

Why do the BJP’s strategies work in the Hindi belt but not in South India?

The only plausible answer is that South India is not so enamored by the BJP’s Hindutva pitch and nationalism – yet. South India has seen vibrant social justice movements against the discriminatory Brahmanical order of the Hindu religion for several decades. The perception of the BJP as a Hindi language party continues to hold sway over Dravidian voters.

Undermining the BJP’s Hindutva plank will be hard work for the Congress. There are at least three measures it will have to take: weave a new narrative, promote new leadership and forge new strategic alliances.

Unfortunately, the BJP has so successfully vilified secularism, presenting it as “appeasing minorities”, Muslims in particular, that the Opposition is now afraid to champion it for the fear of being seen as “anti-Hindu” and losing voters. The messaging of the Bharat Jodo Yatra was carefully crafted to project the idea of love versus hate instead of Hindutva versus secularism.

Since then, however, the Congress has reduced its focus on communal concerns and chosen to question the BJP on matters such as inflation and unemployment that affect the everyday lives of ordinary Indians. It has highlighted the rapid growth in the fortunes of the Adani Group and linked it to Modi’s patronage.

The party has also re-invented the plank of welfarism, promising a range of benefits to voters. But the BJP was quick to copy this, offering its own basket of handouts. Here too, voters refused to see the paradox of how Modi, who has criticised opposition states for giving out handouts – which he derided as “revdis” or sweets – used it himself.

With any appeal to a secular identity and culture failing to cut ice and its welfarism being more than matched by BJP, what option is the Congress left with ahead of the 2024 general election?

Narendra Modi greets the Indian diaspora in Dubai. Credit: Narendra Modi @narendramodi/X.

Its best bet is to build a workable alliance with the other players in the Opposition arena – who still command over 60% of the vote share. It has already started this process by forming the INDIA grouping – Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance.

But the alliance does not appear to be shaping up well, with partners throwing barbs at each other – and the Congress in particular. This makes it incumbent upon the Congress to give its alliance partners respectable leeway, even if that means restricting itself to a limited space within the group. These are not the times to fight for smaller gains but to show the large-heartedness that befits its stature.

What the Congress could do is restrict itself to winnable constituencies and leave the rest of the field to its alliance partners. It can ill-afford to score ego points and cling to prestige at this juncture.

The Congress also needs to re-jig its organisational setup and do away with its old guard, which no longer guarantees success but could instead prove to be a drag on the party’s prospects. There was never a more appropriate time to bring young leaders to the fore.

The most important thing is to craft a narrative that can neutralise the vitriolic appeal of Hindutva. This is obviously the narrative of social justice. Not only the Congress, but the entire Opposition must hammer home the message that Hindutva is a Brahmanical project to re-establish the hierarchical structure in which upper castes reclaim their superior position and relegate the backward castes, Dalits, tribals and Adivasis and women and minorities to an inferior status.

This is not the time for euphemisms. The Opposition must show Hindus how they have been tricked by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its offshoots, especially the BJP, into believing that it is trying to safeguard their interest. Unless the Opposition relentlessly exposes Hindutva’s real face without the fear of being labelled anti-Hindu, it will fail to appeal to the vast majority of Hindus who still do not vote for the saffron party.

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