As Modi’s BJP Stalls, Can the Congress Party Rev Up?

Last week’s elections showed the Hindu nationalist party isn’t invincible, but the opposition will need to change tactics if it wants to stage a comeback.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy.
Supporters of the Indian National Congress party supported the Communist Party of India’s march during the fifth phase of legislative assembly elections in Siliguri, India, on April 13.
Supporters of the Indian National Congress party supported the Communist Party of India’s march during the fifth phase of legislative assembly elections in Siliguri, India, on April 13. Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, the results for legislature elections in four Indian states (Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal) and one union territory (Puducherry, which is under the administrative control of the national government) were announced.

In Kerala, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which heads the national government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, failed to win a single seat. In West Bengal, a populous state where the BJP had hoped to dislodge the regional party, the All India Trinamool Congress (AITMC), it came up well short of that goal. In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, regional party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) won handsomely. Only in Assam, a state in India’s northeast, did the BJP win—and even there, only as part of a coalition. In Puducherry, a tiny former French colonial enclave, it also assumed office as part of a coalition government.

The electoral outcomes suggest the BJP, whose dominance over Indian politics has recently seemed almost unshakable, may have faltered. The results suggest some of its campaign strategies went awry and its colossal mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic has also diminished its luster. The latter is especially damaging for the party as it first came to office in 2014 promising to provide sound governance and end political paralysis.

The BJP’s record in keeping that promise has been mixed. But even after a series of missteps, including a deeply flawed demonetization policy in 2016 and a botched rollout of a much-needed national goods and services tax in 2017, it nonetheless held on to national office and won a resounding majority in the 2019 general elections.

In considerable part, the BJP’s sweeping victory that year could be attributed to three factors. First, the principle national opposition party, Indian National Congress, had shrunk to a shell of its former self. It had been in a state of steady organizational decline for more than a decade, suffering from rudderless, anemic leadership that failed to provide a clear-cut ideological alternative to the BJP. Second, the BJP ran a highly sophisticated, data-based election campaign the Indian National Congress party could not even begin to match. And finally, the BJP made blatant appeals to India’s Hindu majority in its quest for an electoral advantage.

The 2019 victory without a doubt convinced Modi and his trusted lieutenant and minister of home affairs, Amit Shah, that the electoral tide had turned in favor of the BJP for the foreseeable future. The tactics that had been employed so effectively in the 2019 national election campaign could now be utilized to similar effect elsewhere.

In some states, the BJP had only hoped to make inroads this year and little more. For example, in Kerala, it could hardly demolish the grip of a communist party that had handled the COVID-19 pandemic with considerable skill and efficacy. In the state of Tamil Nadu, where a regional party, the DMK, has long held sway, it also hoped to make only limited headway.

Instead, the BJP set its sights on Assam, a state in India’s northeast, and on West Bengal, on India’s eastern fringe. In West Bengal, in particular, it had planned to end the AITMC’s dominance, which has been in power for a decade. In part, it had counted on anti-incumbency sentiment there.

Modi invested vast resources in this effort. To begin with, despite the ongoing pandemic, Modi visited West Bengal 17 times during the course of the campaign. Shah also held a spate of election rallies. In a crude attempt to rouse regional pride, both of them invoked the names of two members of West Bengal’s cultural pantheon: 19th century sage and social reformer Swami Vivekananda and 20th century Nobel laureate in literature, Rabindranath Tagore. These gestures, emanating from two individuals who do not share either Tagore or Vivekananda’s commitment to religious and cultural pluralism, came across as hollow. Further, the men had no viable riposte against West Bengali Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s charge that the BJP and its leadership amounted to little more than “outsiders.”

Such regional loyalty exists in other parts of non-Hindi speaking India. The BJP lacked a strong organizational base in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. In the eyes of many Tamils, meanwhile, the party is seen as a quintessentially north Indian, Hindi-speaking, party. Given the long tradition of linguistic and cultural sub-nationalism in the state, it is hardly surprising the BJP won a mere four seats in a 234-seat legislature.

In the southwestern state of Kerala, long a communist stronghold, the BJP had few prospects of making significant gains, especially given the considerable resolve shown by Kerala’s communist chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak in his state. Moreover, he arranged the return of vast numbers of Keralite expatriates stranded in the Gulf following the outbreak there. The BJP, not surprisingly, fared disastrously in the state, failing to win a single seat in the legislature.

Its success in Puducherry in a coalition with two regional parties, most notably All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIDMK), probably brought it little cheer given the inconsequential size and significance of this territory in national politics. Only in the northeastern state of Assam, but once again in an alliance with two local parties—Asom Gana Parishad and the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), did it eke out a victory.

Of all these setbacks, the one in West Bengal must be especially galling to BJP leadership. The prime minister himself had staked claim to the state and held multiple election rallies in the middle of a raging pandemic. Yet all his dramaturgy, in the end, proved to be for naught. If there is any comfort for the BJP, it may be that the Indian National Congress party, which remains the main national opposition party, performed even more miserably across all four states.

For its part, India’s congress must thus confront a series of unpleasant truths. To begin with, it needs to face the fact that the era of Gandhi dynasty leadership is drawing to a close. Rahul Gandhi, the most prominent public face of the party, is a political neophyte who, since 2014, has abjectly failed to revive the electoral fortunes of the party. Despite his inability to generate electoral support, the culture of sycophancy that permeates his party has prevented it from asking him to step aside. Unless he and other, lesser-party stalwarts forthrightly confront this situation, the party will hobble its chances for any electoral comeback. Under these circumstances, the BJP would remain in the catbird seat.

Simultaneously, the party and its leadership need to spell out a clear-cut electoral platform and affirm their historic commitments to equity, social justice, and pluralism. Attempting to try and outbid the BJP by appealing to the Hindu electorate, which the party did as the election campaigns unfolded, is a wholly flawed enterprise with no prospect of paying serious electoral dividends. Instead, it would be better off if it focused the BJP’s myriad failures of governance as well as quotidian bread and butter issues.

Finally, the Indian National Congress party needs a strategy of active outreach to various regional parties that have no fondness for the BJP. To that end, the party should affirm its commitment to secularism, promise to forthrightly tackle regional grievances, and offer to strengthen India’s eroded federal structure. In the absence of such a concerted strategy, the respite these elections have provided from the march of the BJP juggernaut will be short lived.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.