The RSS needs to rediscover the India of the 21st century
By Swapan Dasgupta
Last week, eyebrows were raised over yet another media appearance by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, Mohan Rao Bhagwat. This time, the fuss centred on his categorical public announcement that the next national president of the Bharatiya Janata Party would not be a Delhi-based leader, and that L.K. Advani would soon relinquish his post as leader of the Opposition. Fortuitously for the Indian foreign policy establishment, his prognosis that Pakistan and Afghanistan “are a part of us and will return one day” did not arouse corresponding attention.
That a person who is not a primary member of the BJP could presume to lay down the line and blackball the party’s four prominent second-rung faces has profound ramifications. It suggests that the RSS has not merely acquired control over the decision-making of the BJP but is no longer squeamish about saying so openly. The niceties and the elaborate protocol that earlier marked the RSS’s expression of interest in specific decisions of the BJP have been replaced by an in-your-face flaunting of the political role of a so-called “socio-cultural organization”. The whispered “request from the Sangh” that earlier influenced the odd selection of candidates and office-bearers has been replaced by a command-and-control regime.
Nor does the exercise of control depend on a three-line whip to professional politicians. Since the advent of Rajnath Singh in 2005, the RSS has strategically placed its full-timers in crucial organizational posts in the belief that politicians with an eye on electoral politics are incapable of institution-building. Whereas in the 1990s the RSS despatched only a dozen or so full-timers on deputation to the BJP, their numbers are in the region of 350 today. Apart from the state organizing secretaries whose identities are prominently displayed on the BJP website, these include large numbers of district sangathan mantri who form the nucleus of a parallel party organization in the localities. In the words of a BJP leader, many of those entrusted with organizational responsibilities are “unfit to be employed as primary school teachers.”
In the past, the RSS was very wary of involvement in the political arena, seeing it as a corrupting influence and a diversion from the organization’s priority of injecting nationalism into civil society. RSS old-timers were fond of comparing the role of politics in society to the toilet in a household: a necessity but hardly something to be showcased. Today, these inhibitions have been set aside and there now appears to be a marked enthusiasm among full-timers to be deputed to the BJP. Compared to the other ‘fraternal’ organizations of the RSS, such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Kendra, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, there is glamour and self-importance attached to rubbing shoulders with the political class. Predictably, some of the lifestyle distortions that come with exercising authority and hobnobbing with political power are evident among the full-timers. The joke in political circles is that the RSS full-timer is extremely malleable and is easily won over by modest ‘gifts’ that range from mobile phones, stitched kurta-pyjamas, air conditioners and a good, home cooked, vegetarian meal — a case, as one ‘fixer’ called it, of “low investments and high returns”.
What has compounded the problem is the RSS’s brazen non-accountability to the party. It is remarkable that despite holding positions of authority in the BJP, the pracharaks on deputation are neither appointed nor can they be removed by the BJP state and national presidents. A few months ago, the president of the West Bengal BJP did something inconceivable: he issued a show-cause to the local RSS-appointed sangathan mantri. The outcome was predictable: the state president was peremptorily sacked by the national president for his audacity. Likewise in Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje successfully secured the removal of a disruptive organizing secretary. But, as a quid pro quo, the RSS demanded Raje’s removal as leader of the Opposition, despite the fact that a majority of the members of the legislative assembly was backing her. She resisted her removal for nearly three months, but ultimately had to succumb. Once again, Rajnath Singh played the part of an obliging executioner.
RSS full-timers in the BJP are spared the obligations of ordinary members. A 2005 amendment to the BJP constitution stipulated that a sangathan mantri was ineligible to contest elections. Since endorsement by the electorate is the basis of politics, the RSS appears to have insulated itself from the principle of popular endorsement. It is this detachment from the numbers game, without which democracy is meaningless, that explains the RSS’s obsession with ‘ideology’, the shorthand for the pursuit of abstruse and cranky themes. It may also explain why mass leaders such as Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti, Narendra Modi, Vasundhara Raje and B.C. Khanduri have been at loggerheads with the RSS.
A small example may illustrate the distance that separates the RSS from the mass politician. In its manifesto for the Haryana assembly election held last month, the BJP included an assurance to ban “Western music and vulgarity” in the unlikely event it was voted to power. The manifesto, which had apparently been drafted by a local RSS ‘intellectual’, took the BJP completely by surprise. Confronted by the ridiculous imagery of motorists switching off alien sounds the moment their cars crossed the Gurgaon toll bridge from Delhi, a red-faced BJP had to issue clarifications and denials. Later, when some national leaders enquired from the state unit why the absurd promise had been inserted in the first place, they were given an ingenuous explanation. The production of milk in Haryana, it was claimed, had suffered because cows were disturbed by loud disco music in villages!
There is a huge gulf that separates the RSS’s priorities and the BJP’s perception of politics — though there are moments of convergence. The world view of the RSS leadership is shaped primarily by interactions with its own full-timers and lay swayamsevaks. It’s a relationship shaped by two factors: unflinching faith in the sangh’s role as the vanguard of Hindu resurgence and timeless certitudes. A remarkable degree of group solidarity— including a very distinctive use of language — has contributed to a ‘groupthink’ and discouraged scepticism and inquiry in the sangh. The RSS has nurtured an enviable degree of loyalty and dedication among its followers but its efficacy has been tempered by an inability to engage with ‘non-believers’. From being an instrument of Hindu re-awakening, it has become a variant of the Freemasons, a self-aggrandizing brotherhood.
This distortion is at the heart of the RSS’s desperation to control the BJP. In the past 15 years, the BJP has outgrown the RSS. It is the country’s premier Opposition party with a stake in at least eight state governments and umpteen district bodies and municipalities. Its social reach far exceeds that of the RSS’s. More important, the BJP has acquired relevance at a time the RSS is declining in its traditional catchment areas. Lifestyle shifts fuelled by prosperity, cosmopolitanism and leisure have made the daily bout of callisthenics less appealing to pre-pubescent Hindu boys. And yet, there is no direct correlation between the RSS’s diminishing appeal and the fortunes of the BJP. It’s only after the RSS decided the BJP was its exclusive charge that both graphs showed a southward incline.
It takes decades of good politics and sensible leadership to build a national party; it takes a few well-publicized acts of misguided zeal to demolish it. Bhagwat has got his diagnosis wrong. It’s not the BJP that needs either chemotherapy or surgery; plain detoxification will be sufficient. It’s the RSS that needs to discover the India of the 21st century.