When the Indian National Congress rallied its forces in the electoral trenches of three populous and electorally salient Hindi-speaking states of North India, it did so with stores of energy and optimism even though it was mindful that it fought a formidable adversary in a severely skewed contest.

It did not foresee the humiliating defeat that awaited it. The November polls to five state assemblies were no ordinary elections. These were the runner-up to the grand battle of the general elections of 2024. Large sections of secular democratic opinion consider the defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party imperative for the defence of India’s constitutional democracy because of the party’s dangerous resort to Hindutva politics targeting Muslim and Christian minorities with fear, hate and exclusion.

But after the results revealed the dismal electoral drubbing of the Congress in all the elections to state assemblies in North India, both supporters and opponents of the BJP saw in the defeats definitive signals of the demise of any significant opposition to the Narendra Modi juggernaut in the midsummer elections of 2024 that lie ahead.

Slogans celebrating the third term of the Modi-led union government resounded from the treasury benches in Parliament on the opening day of its winter session. A pall of gloom enveloped not just the ranks of the political opposition but also the large segments of citizen opinion that feared that this marked the triumphalist march of the Modi-led Bhartiya Janata Party in the 2024 general elections. Obituaries of the political opposition to the BJP grew rife in print, television and social media.

However, the story of the November elections is not just of the emphatic defeat of the Congress in three North Indian states and Mizoram. It is also the story of the triumph, for the first time after its separation from Andhra Pradesh, of the Congress in the southern state of Telangana. This and the victory of the Congress in the Karnataka elections in May confirm that while the barriers to the electoral success of the opposition parties are formidable, they are not insurmountable.

Both dizzy celebrations and dark despair are premature. The victory of the BJP in the 2024 elections is still not a done deal. The decisive defeat of the Congress in three northern states is not definitive evidence of the termination of any credible opposition to the BJP in the general elections. But it does underline how difficult the battle that lies ahead is.

What is needed then is not a postmortem, but a careful diagnostic of what went so drastically wrong. The crush of commentaries after the election results largely missed identifying what the paramount failure of the Congress was. In a fierce and bitter ideological electoral contest, the Congress abjectly failed to muster the necessary political and moral conviction to combat its challenger with its core ideology of secular democracy. Refusing to front-end pluralism, secular democracy and social welfare, the Congress instead cynically appropriated the language and symbols of Hindutva, especially in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

In so doing, the Congress also wrote the story of its defeat foretold.

This is not to deny the gravity of the odds against the Congress. The Congress was trammelled by the colossal money power of its principal adversary and BJP’s throng of dedicated grassroot cadres. The BJP was also abetted by many actions and selective inactions of the Election Commission that stir reasonable doubts about its impartiality, and by the deployment of both massive public funds and the state administration to advance the interests of the party in the elections.

The credibility and independence of the Election Commission has never plummeted to such a low as in recent years. The fair and transparent selection of members of the panel was cast aside for those clearly favoured by the ruling regime. The panel responds differently to violations of the model code of conduct by members of the ruling party as compared to those by the opposition.

It is silent even when public servants are deployed for propagating the accomplishments of the government in the run-up to elections, and does nothing to restrain the massive deployment of public funds for publicity on television, newspapers and large hoardings. It takes no action when appeals are made to voters on the grounds of religion, which the law considers a corrupt electoral practice.

Legislating to allow anonymous donations to political parties through electoral bonds enabled the ruling party to accumulate nearly six times the funds that are available to the Congress. A study by the think tank Association for Democratic Reforms shows that nearly 95% of all electoral bonds are in denominations of Rs 1 crore, indicating that these are by business houses, including foreign companies, rather than individuals.

BJP supporters at a rally in Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh. Credit: Narendra Modi @narendramodi.

Even after the Election Commission announced the schedule of elections to the five states on October 9, the Union government opened the sale of electoral bonds from November 6 to November 20, in violation of the model code of conduct. Bonds of more than Rs 1,000 crore were sold during this election cycle.

Reports abound from the ground of massive cash bribes just days before voting day, untrammelled by local authorities. The Union and state governments also announced, just months before the elections, massive cash transfers into the accounts of millions of voters as a battery of benefits variously for women, youth, farmers and older persons.

Even more disturbing was the reticence of the Election Commission to act when video evidence surfaced of postal ballots being illegally taken out of the strong room or doubts raised about the tampering of electronic voting machines. All of this stoked misgivings about the fairness of the elections.

Moreover, the Congress lacks a dedicated cadre that works at the levels of the booth, village and the urban ward, in vast contrast to the massive army of staunch and loyal cadres of the BJP at every level. These factors rendered the electoral battle vastly but not impossibly unequal.

The Congress also suffered because of its haughty rejection of alliances with other smaller parties. The Congress leadership arrogantly refused to share seats with smaller parties, including those representing Adivasi interests and alliance partners of the INDIA coalition. The results indicate that if the vote share of smaller parties was transferred to a combined opposition, the seats that the BJP harvested could have been significantly diminished.

Still, the main reason for the comprehensive defeat of the Congress lies elsewhere. It did not lose because it could not match the BJP in its access to money, state muscle and funds, and grassroots cadre. The victories of the Congress in Karnataka and Telangana indicate that even all of these are not enough to guarantee the success of the BJP.

The truth is that the Congress as the main opposition in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh chose to fight the BJP by abandoning its own ideology. The paramount reason for the trouncing of the Congress lies in its disingenuous and disgraceful resort not just to conspicuous displays of Hindu religiosity but to the principal symbols of the aggressive Hindutva juggernaut of the BJP-RSS: namely Ram, the cow and the cultivation of saffron-clad leaders and vigilantes who stoke hatred against Muslims and Christians.

Ram has long been a revered deity in the vast and diverse Hindu iconography, for his qualities of duty, compassion, righteousness and valour. But Hindutva elevated Ram to become the paramount and militant icon of its brand of Hinduism through the violent mass movement to build a temple at the site of a medieval mosque in Ayodhya. The demolition of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in 1992 altered the course of Indian politics, giving rise to a politics increasingly marked by hate, especially targeting India’s Muslims.

Despite this, Madhya Pradesh Congress leader Kamal Nath thought it fit to front-end in his electoral promises the pledge to develop the Ram Van Gaman Path, a route through the forests of the state which Ram is believed to have taken during his years of exile. Nath also organised a massive Ram Katha in his constituency Chhindwara, built a huge Hanuman temple and promised to help construct a grand temple to Sita in Sri Lanka.

In Chhattisgarh, former chief minister Bhupesh Baghel organised Ramayana festivals and in 2021, he inaugurated the Ram Van Gaman Tourism Circuit marking the places where Ram is believed to have stayed during his exile. But the greatest fall was when Nath claimed credit for the Congress for enabling the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya because it was Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who had opened the locks of the Babri Masjid for Hindu worshippers.

The cow was also made centre-stage in the programmes, politics and promises of Nath and Baghel, again unmindful that Hindutva has weaponised the professed love for cows by Hindus to demonise and lynch Muslims and Dalits. In the 2018 Congress manifesto, Nath had pledged to build cow shelters in each of the state’s 23,000 panchayats. Baghel instituted programmes to purchase cow dung and urine from farmers and cattle-rearers and to assist women’s self-help groups to convert these into compost.

Nath even patronised and prostrated himself before Dhirendra Shastri, the 27-year-old head priest of Bageshwar Dham, notorious for his discourses that routinely contain vile abuses against Muslims. Shastri has frequently spoken of converting India into a “Hindu Rashtra”, the central ideological plank of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that would mark the demise of the country’s secular democratic constitution. Nath himself went so far as to declare that India was a de facto Hindu state when quizzed by Shastri. He also engineered the merger of a Hindutva militia, the Bajrang Sena, into the Congress, months before the elections.

Baghel was not far behind. He signalled his government’s hostility to religious minorities first by awarding Rs 10 lakh as compensation to a Hindu man killed in a communal riot with nothing for the two Muslim men killed in the same incident while tacitly supporting vigilante attacks on Christian Adivasis. Muslims constitute only 2% of the Chhattisgarh population. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has engineered a major social fracture in the state between Adivasis who converted to Christianity and those who follow their traditional forms of worship or the Hindu faith.

If the INDIA alliance has any chance of victory in the 2024 general elections – and the battle is still wide open – it hinges on the clear-eyed and emphatic recognition that reason for the defeat of the Congress, especially in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, was the duplicity, the futility as well as the moral betrayals inherent in “soft Hindutva”.

It is tempting to repeat the acerbic words of Manoj Jha, doubtless one of India’s parliamentarians with the most steely moral spines, in a public discussion with me and others on secularism after the lost elections. “When will my political comrades recognise that there is no such thing as ‘soft’ Hindutva. Is there a ‘soft’ devil and a ‘hard’ devil?” he asked. “All Hindutva is hard, because it is a dangerous assault on India’s core constitutional values.”

Let me respond to two related arguments for this ideological sleight of hand that I often hear among senior Congress leaders and their influential advisors. It is significant that these are both “tactical” and not moral contentions.

The first of these is that for secularism to emerge victorious and Muslim and Christian minorities to be protected, it is strategic to publicly push both these concerns to the back-burner. If these are front-ended in the electoral battles according to this opinion, defeat is certain.

I am bemused first by the implied reversal of a central moral axiom underlined by MK Gandhi, that wrong means can never accomplish the right outcome. But those who put forward this argument also wilfully ignore the empirical reality that in two elections in which the Congress fought on the emphatic platforms of secularism and minority rights, in Karnataka and then Telangana, it defeated powerful opponents. Telangana Congress leader Revanth Reddy, who was elected as the first Congress chief minister of the state, publicly visited temples and mosques in equal numbers during his campaign, and promised to dedicate significant budgetary allocations for minority development.

Narendra Modi at a temple in Telangana during campaigning. Credit: BJP Madhya Pradesh @BJP4MP/X.

On the other hand, the two states in which the Congress leadership resorted to Hindutva saw ringing defeats. In Rajasthan, where public displays of Hindu religiosity could be found but the election was fought mainly on the back of significant rights-based social legislations and programmes, the vote share that separated the electoral performance of the Congress and the BJP was the smallest, at around 2%.

A related argument is that Muslim leaders themselves have urged the opposition to the BJP to be silent about Muslim rights and secularism as a stratagem to defeat the Hindutva party. Even if there are Muslim leaders who urge political parties to “save us by abandoning us”, surely the fitting response to such heart-breaking counsels of despair is not to abide by it, but to reassure them in word and action by bringing both Muslim leadership and Muslim concerns into the mainstream of the electoral contest.

Instead, with staggering cynicism and audacity, Congress leaders in the two states resorted to political deception, claiming to fight a party that is belligerently unapologetic in its pursuit of its ideological opposition to constitutional secular democracy by adopting its key symbols of social division. It is not the righteous Ram and the gentle cow that are chosen markers of Hindu religious belief and devotion of the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In the popular imagination, both Ram and the cow have been mutated by Hindutva into terrifying icons of hatred and violence against religious minorities, especially Muslims.

Do the leaders of the Congress seriously believe that they can fight the Hindutva combine by speciously appropriating the metamorphised symbols of their hate politics? Do they believe that the Hindu voter who might be in search of Hindutva is so simple-minded as to be unable to distinguish the genuine from the fake imitation? Is it not an insult to many voters of Hindu identity to believe that they are all radicalised and will therefore reject a party that upholds secularism and minority rights?


A third-time victory of the BJP in the parliamentary elections of the summer of 2024 will mark, many fear, the demise of the soul of the Constitution that guarantees equal citizenship and rights to the country’s religious minorities.

No national election since freedom was as critical to the future of the Indian people as the one that lies ahead will be. At stake is nothing less than the survival of this country as a humane, secular democracy that guarantees equal rights of citizenship and belonging to people of every faith, caste, language, ethnicity and gender. At stake are key pledges of the Constitution, of equality and fraternity, and all freedoms of all people: the freedom of thought and worship, the freedom to dissent, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear.

The electoral battle in the summer of 2024 will be staggeringly unequal. The ruling party will hammer down on the political opposition with the crushing power of money, its army of fervent cadres, compliant and compromised democratic institutions, a fawning cheer-leading media, the barefaced misuse of state power and the intoxicating ideology of hate. The political opposition will never be able to match the brute power of the ruling establishment, except if it rises tall with moral courage and conviction.

The people of India will be called upon next summer to choose if they will pull back the country from the abyss of hate, inequality and fear into which it has been led. If the political opposition to the BJP fails to fulfil its responsibility at this momentous juncture, history will record that the descent of the country into a land of fear and hate was enabled by the unconscionable betrayal by secular parties of the values of India’s freedom struggle and of India’s leaders and of the pledges of the Constitution.

The political opposition must not let them down. The Indian people may not have another chance to redeem themselves for at least another generation.

Harsh Mander is a human rights activist, peace worker, writer, and teacher. He works with survivors of mass violence and hunger, and homeless persons and street children.