Despite recent setbacks, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is still the dominant party at the central level. In case it turns out that victory is not at hand for India’s opposition – that it may not be able to win the next elections of 2024, which currently appears likely – then the main party of opposition, the Indian National Congress, will probably have to work out a new long-term strategy. By this, I mean a wider engagement plan, not just a way to counter the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the next election campaign. In that case, it seems such a plan should include broader social engagement, as this is exactly one of the BJP’s central advantages.
Let us briefly compare the history of both parties. The Congress was the main party that opposed the British during the late stage of colonial rule, during which it become deeply engaged and entrenched in society. In turn, the Hindu nationalists, who were to later establish the BJP, were rather marginal in electoral politics at that time. Thus, when independence was achieved in 1947, the Congress rode into this new chapter of Indian history as a winner, despite the creation of Pakistan and the bloodbath of Partition. The party won the first national elections of 1951-52 and remained in power nearly without interruption for decades, thus becoming a party of power. In other words, the Congress’ level of popularity was now mostly dependent on how much it was helping the people in its official capacity, not its unofficial one.
For Hindu nationalists, the situation was the reverse. After independence, Hindu nationalist parties remained on the electoral margins for a long time. Yet the main organization – not party – of the Hindu nationalists, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), kept growing. It is this body that sits behind the BJP today; the membership of the two groups overlaps closely. The RSS does not neglect politics, but focuses on social and ideological work. The organization has established charities, trade unions, women’s organizations, associations of professionals, religious reform suborganizations, overseas branches, media outlets, and many other types of bodies – many of which offered help to various social groups, all the while spreading the ideology of Hindu nationalism.
Thus, the RSS’ unofficial social standing was in certain ways the reverse of the popularity of Congress governments. Whenever the Congress governments offered people enough, the popularity of the ruling party, and its ideas of socialism and secularism was retained. But the popularity of Hindu nationalists had a chance to grow in all of those fields when Congress rule failed the expectations of the citizens. For instance, it is unquestionable that the sector of Indian public education has not delivered as much as it should have. The Hindu nationalists of the RSS used this opportunity to build up its network of private schools, Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan, to a point where it has become the largest such network in the country.
In 2014, the BJP won the elections under Narendra Modi’s leadership. It was not the party’s first victory, but it was its most resounding one. Many commentators focused on the electoral side of this turn of events: Modi’s charisma; the powerful media and social media machine which the BJP had built to back it; and the party’s correct reading of the electorate’s expectations, such as promising a lot to the poorer sections, and talking much more about development than ideology. But that was not all: The party has finally capitalized on the decades of the RSS’ social engagement strategy.
This is what Soundarya Chidambaram wrote in an unpublished Ph.D. thesis completed in 2011 and focused on the RSS’ social work:
Since the Hindu nationalist movement is often understood narrowly as the electoral success of the BJP, the defeat of the BJP in the last two national elections [2004 and 2009] has begun to be seen as the decline of the movement itself. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The literature has tended to ignore the fact that Hindu nationalism is social movement with a wide network of organizations that have a significant presence beyond the electoral sphere.
These words appeared in a work finished three years before the BJP’s success, in a period where many were questioning the capacity of Hindu nationalists to win the next election, and nobody was yet speaking of Modi’s charisma as an essential factor.
The Congress now finds itself in the BJP’s past position. It has been electorally decimated and may have to live with the thought it may not win the next election, despite already losing the past two national polls in 2014 and 2019. Now the BJP is mostly judged by the electorate by how its governments perform – but the RSS still remains socially involved. The Congress has neither of these two cards to play. Thus it probably should take a leaf out of the RSS’ playbook: Build a large body of socially involved organizations, which could offer services wherever and whenever the government does not deliver sufficiently, and which would promote the ideas that the Congress stands for, as well as the image of the party. This, of course, would not happen quickly: it took the RSS decades to become part of the political mainstream.
Recent events have confirmed that this may be the right approach. In May 2021, when a terrible wave of COVID-19 swept through India, taking many lives, the citizens rightly criticized the lack of preparedness of governments at both the central and state level, including those of the Congress (although the BJP has a major role among these). At that point, one opposition politician who came to the forefront was Srinivas Bhadravathi Venkata, the leader of the Congress youth wing. By replying to private requests for help, such as for oxygen equipment, and thanks to vigorous activity on social media, he and his team apparently gained a lot of popularity, which even included words of gratitude from some of the foreign missions in Delhi, which benefited from his help. Had the governments thwarted the crisis, the initiative of the Indian Youth Congress would have not been that needed, nor that popular.
To be sure, this does not mean that the Congress is otherwise not socially involved. It does have its social service wing, Congress Seva Dal, but for some reason it remains much less known than the RSS. The Congress also seemed to be long aware of the RSS’ social work and the threat it posed to the Congress’ own position. And yet somehow its attempts to counter this process have been marginal and unsuccessful. For instance, noting the popularity of RSS private schools, some Congress politicians once established their own school network in the region of Vidarbha: the Vidya Bharati Shikshan Prasarak Mandal. Yet, in comparison to Hindu nationalists’ efforts, this network remained little-known. During the aforementioned COVID-19 crisis in India, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey donated $2.5 million to Sewa Bharati – the international charity wing of the RSS – even though Twitter and the BJP’s central government are at loggerheads.
The Indian National Congress should do now is to build its own version of the RSS, similar in structure but promoting its own ideology, until it too is a household name.