Over the past decade, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has considerably undermined the country’s democratic institutions. The union government under the BJP has manipulated the judiciary, silenced the press, jailed critics, and utilized the bureaucracy through dirty politics to undermine its opposition in order to pursue its ideological vision of a Hindu Rashtra (nation). Under the Narendra Modi government, the guardrails of India’s democracy have systematically been removed.
Yet, the BJP as a political force is not omnipotent. While the party is in charge at the national level, its hegemony is far from ingrained at the state level. In order to rein in the BJP and reverse India’s democratic decline, the opposition Congress Party must rebrand itself and form an effective coalition with state-level political parties that arguably delivered the BJP’s recent electoral landslides. The opposition must present an alternative and equally attractive vision for Indian voters that simultaneously targets the source of the BJP’s political power.
The BJP derives much of its legitimacy through the support of the Sangh Parivar (Hindu nationalist organizations) and markets itself as the only party acting on behalf of India’s Hindus. Modi has effectively sold the narrative that the Congress’ adherence to secularism is tantamount to a betrayal of Hinduism. As a result, the party claims, Hindus have become victims in their own homeland. Countering this message and offering an alternative will be no easy task, but it is essential to a Congress victory if the party wants to preserve both the character of Indian democracy and the country’s cohesion.
The BJP’s hold on political power is a by-product of India’s “first-past-the-post” system. In the 2019 elections, the BJP received 37.36 percent of the vote, the largest share of votes received by a single political party since 1989. The BJP’s primary source of support comes from north and central India, encompassing much of the Hindi belt that stretches from Rajasthan in the west to Jharkhand in the east. Presently, the BJP controls 16 out of 30 Indian state assemblies. While it seems that the BJP has amassed a considerable level of support, analyzing the extent of the BJP’s political influence at the state level reveals a more nuanced picture.
Out of the 16 assemblies which the BJP controls, the BJP only won in 10 states without having to build a coalition with regional political parties. But in three major states (Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra), estimated to have a combined population of around 280 million, the BJP relied on defections from opposition state-level parties in order to gain a majority. While the BJP has effectively centralized power over the Federal government, its influence is considerably weaker at the state level. Furthermore, the Congress party would be wise to observe and learn how regional parties – such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, the Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party (YSR) in Andhra Pradesh, Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal, and the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS, formerly TRS) in Telangana – retained support in India’s southern and eastern states, effectively halting the BJP’s expansion in the south during the 2019 elections.
Further supporting the view that the BJP’s strength is not all that it seems would be the most recent disqualification of Rahul Gandhi, the only viable contender to Prime Minister Modi, on a dubious defamation charge. Gandhi’s disqualification comes shortly after a stint of high-profile political acts that effectively challenged the BJP’s electoral control and the party’s moral authority. Gandhi’s successful 3,500-kilometer Bharat Jodo Yatra (“bringing India together”) march, remarks condemning the decline of Indian democracy at the hands of the BJP at Chatham House, and relentless questioning in parliament that scrutinized the prime minister’s cozy relationship with billionaire Gautam Adani effectively touched a nerve. It’s ironic that the BJP feels threatened by Gandhi, considering their go-to nickname for the opposition figure is pappu (dimwit).
The Congress party has already realized that the only effective counter to the Hindu nationalist narrative espoused by the BJP is exposing the threat that it poses to the integrity of the state. Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra march was a prime example of now to expose the weakness inherent in the BJP’s brand of Hindu nationalism. As the BJP continues to prioritize the Hindu majority, other minority groups continue to be sidelined and marginalized. The recent revival of the Khalistan movement and the subsequent crackdown in Punjab are reminiscent of the turbulent ‘80s and ’90s that many feared was a prelude to the balkanization of India. Furthermore, the BJP’s Hindu nationalist policies, such as attempts at establishing Hindi as India’s national language, have sparked significant pushback and raised tensions from non-Hindi speaking states in the south and east of the country.
The recent Raipur declaration and the Congress party’s plan to decentralize and empower local party officials hearkens back to the political party’s origins that constructed a robust infrastructure throughout India to gain independence from the British. While changes to the party’s organizational infrastructure and revision of its message is a substantial improvement, going back to the basics will not be enough to defeat the BJP. The party must rebrand itself and drop the appearance of being a dynastic political party. It is exactly this characteristic of the Congress party that reinforces the BJP’s criticism of the party as intrinsically corrupt. It is vital that the party unanimously agree on a new figurehead in place of Rahul Gandhi that can carry the party through the upcoming election.
Furthermore, Congress and its allies must muster all of the courage and financial resources at its disposal be resilient against the BJP’s attempts to stymie their messaging efforts. The most prudent strategy (and arguably the most important to regain the majority) would be to prioritize the creation of a sizable coalition of regional parties, especially in light of their fears and concerns, to take on the BJP. In order to do this, significant sacrifices from the top leadership will be required. Regional parties should also realize that partnering with the BJP to maintain their influence is only a short-term solution and that mutual compromise will require concessions on their behalf as well.
Tackling Modi, a cunning and charismatic politician, will be a fight like no other. Any united opposition must continue to challenge the BJP’s assertion that any criticism of their policies is anti-Indian. They must chip away at the relevance of Hindu nationalism to advancing India, without alienating Hindus.
Lastly, senior political leaders must convince media owners still dedicated to a free press that their objective reporting is far more important than the government’s threats of raids or their profit margins.
The BJP is a significant political force that will not easily give up its power. If India is to regain its title of the world’s largest pluralistic democracy, the Congress party must effectively convince regional political parties to support its cause. But most importantly, it must paint a vision for the Indian people that both alleviates their concerns and provides them with something to believe in.