A prominent anti-communalism activist held a press conference last year to release a fact-finding report on the Hindu-Muslim violence in Muzaffarnagar and the adjoining areas of western Uttar Pradesh. "The Amit Shah effect is showing," she said. Throughout the press conference, she described the UP government only as "the administration". When asked about the role of the ruling Samajwadi Party in the state, she merely said they also had a lot to answer for.

Ever since the Akhilesh Yadav government took power in UP in 2012, the state experienced several small incidents of communal violence. It was obvious that the violence in Muzaffarnagar and other parts of western UP, which caused 60 deaths and left thousands displaced, would help the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Lok Sabha elections. While it is true that Amit Shah had been appointed the BJP's UP campaign chief just a few months before the violence, it was actually SP leader Azam Khan's diktat to the police to go slow against the violence that really fueled it.

Despite this, the secular activist could not so much as name the SP, let alone demand the resignation of Azam Khan or his chief minister.

It is not that she couldn't see their faults, but if she started targeting them, she would be joining the BJP in doing so. This is a central problem with the liberal intellectuals trying to save secularism in India: they are so caught in the communal-secular binary, they are unable to criticise the supposedly "secular" side.

Hindutva supporters have constantly asked why secularists have not made the Congress untouchable for its role in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots even as Narendra Modi is anathema to them for similar actions in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom against Muslims. There are many answers to that question. To begin with, Left-liberals did speak up against 1984. They were the ones making noise, writing reports, helping Sikhs. They are the ones who have kept its memory alive. Even when the BJP was in power from 1998-2004, it did not try to bring justice to the victims.

But for Left-liberals, the fall of the Babri Masjid changed everything. After December 6, 1992, a date that came as a shock to them, they realised they would have to choose between the BJP and the Congress, or Congress-like "secular" parties at the state level. This has meant that they have to exonerate all sins of the Congress and these alleged secular parties. However, doing so only helps Hindutva advocates: they use the hypocrisy of this position to win new supporters.

For months now, the prospect of Modi becoming prime minister has been cause for great anxiety for Left-liberals. In their fervent conversations, you can read the Freudian desire to actually see Modi as prime minister. This is how a Facebook friend responded to the exit polls predicting an easy victory for Modi: "One good thing about Modi becoming PM will be the daily opportunity to dissent."

He seems to have missed the daily opportunity to dissent provided by the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance's second term. UPA-2 did a lot of things people now fear a Modi government will do. There was the corruption of the Commonwealth Games, they blamed the auditor for exposing the telecom scam, they put Anna Hazare in jail for asking for a Lokpal and even killed a Baba Ramdev supporter making the same demand. Students came out to protest against rape and they responded with tear gas. They passed a draconian anti-terrorism law and put Muslims in jail for fake terrorism cases. They hanged Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru to appear strong, weren’t able to do anything about anti-Muslim violence in Congress-ruled Assam, let the situation in Kashmir deteriorate, allowed the economy to tumble, let Maoists get the better of them, slapped sedition cases against people who didn't want a nuclear power plant next to their homes, put people in jail for criticising the government online, and created a Central Monitoring System to snoop on all phone and internet communication. Acts like this, if committed by a BJP government, will be more vehemently opposed in the name of fascism.

To each crisis, the Congress leadership responded with arrogance, compounding their mistakes, losing the trust of the judiciary and the media, reviving the moribund BJP. Had it not been for the self-destructive performance of UPA-2, Modi would arguably not have chosen this election to make a bid at the top job. If the independent Left sees Modi as a problem, it should criticise the factors that encouraged the BJP leader's rise in 2013-2014: the failure of Sonia Gandhi, her son Rahul and her chosen Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Instead, when Modi was sharpening his knives, Left-leaning intellectuals and activists were attacking the Anna Hazare-Arvind Kejriwal-led Jan Lokpal movement. They said that the Lokpal movement was a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh conspiracy to make the Congress look bad, as if the Congress needed any help with that. Over the past three years, I have seen more bile, fear and frustration over Hazare and Kejriwal on my social media timelines than over Modi. Rants about how the Lokpal movement was proto-fascist and full of RSS workers all served to show how the Indian Left is still traumatised by the Babri demolition.

Perhaps it is only fair that the Hindutva brigade gets to rule a country whose liberal intelligentsia has shown such great poverty of political imagination as to trap itself in the Congress-BJP binary, ceding altogether the once-vibrant space for anti-Congressism to Hindutva supporters, and thus falling into their trap.

One thing is clear. The Left still matters. While the party Left – the world's first communists to contest democratic elections – have been in self-destruction mode, the independent Left plays a crucial role in shaping political discourse. They used that power to the hilt to discredit the Hazare movement. They propped up dalit politician Udit Raj to suggest that dalits are opposed to the Lokpal bill. (Udit Raj has since joined the BJP.) They said the Lokpal movement was not questioning corporate corruption but then Kejriwal took on the Ambanis. They said Kejriwal was not speaking against BJP corruption but then he took on the BJP president, Nitin Gadkari, accusing him of a scam that forced him to resign from his post.

It was only when Kejriwal demonstrated in the Delhi assembly elections that he could take on the BJP that secular intellectuals started showing sympathy for the Aam Aadmi Party. A "No More" campaign on Facebook has argued for tactical voting to elect the candidate who can defeat the BJP in every constituency. Leftist activists from across the country descended upon Varanasi to tell the people to not vote for Modi.

This is the wrong way to go about it: simply backing the candidate than can keep the BJP out is not going to take them anywhere. Keeping the BJP out cannot constitute an entire political imagination. The Left needs an agenda, an idea, a cadre. Perhaps the AAP is not that option either, but India does need a substitute for the Congress. The Congress will keep making mistakes, keep showing its elitist arrogance and being blasé about corruption, and the BJP will keep exploiting its mistakes. This is how the BJP first came to power, defeating Narasimha Rao after he liberalised the economy and put it on the right track. And that is repeating itself. The party that opened the gates of the Babri Masjid cannot be the guardian of secularism.