After elections: RSS and the new status quo

The resultant tremors, triggered by a greatly consequential verdict, are likely to impact future strategies, alignments and trajectories of parties across the political divide.
Last Updated : 23 June 2024, 01:17 IST

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By denying the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a clear majority, the Indian electorate did not just herald the return of coalition governments after a decade of one-party hegemony, but also triggered a political churn. The resultant tremors, triggered by a greatly consequential verdict, are likely to impact future strategies, alignments and trajectories of parties across the political divide. 

More importantly perhaps, a momentous shake-up appears to be in the offing within the Sangh Parivar, the political fraternity headed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The RSS, it must be recalled, acts as the ideological fountainhead of the BJP and more than 50 other affiliated organisations spread across every conceivable sector of India – from the working class to peasantry, tribal affairs, students, culture, history and even think tanks. But over the past decade, it had to yield its pre-eminence to the Modi-led BJP and its leaders would now seek to regain their moral leverage at least.

While some of this rumble has already surfaced in the form of statements and articles by several key individuals associated with the RSS, the biggest turmoil has been caused by a speech delivered by Mohan Bhagwat, the Sarsanghchalak of the organisation at a formal event. The function, where he made several awkward observations which are open to multiple interpretations, is among the annual occasions when the RSS chief formally addresses not just gathered swayamsevaks, but the entire political fraternity through mass media. 

Although not as keenly awaited as the Sarsanghchalak’s speech on the occasion of Vijay Dashami or Dussehra every year, this one is delivered at the conclusion of the Karyakarta Vikas Varg, previously called Officers Training Camp (OTC) – a periodic training programme for RSS workers, at Nagpur.  

The speech was extremely crucial because it was Bhagwat’s first public address after the results of the Lok Sabha election were declared. That Bhagwat was to speak at the conclusion of this significant event evoked considerable interest given BJP falling below the majority mark and reports of the RSS cadre remaining unenthusiastic during the electoral campaign.

Before that, the first indication that not all was harmonious within the Sangh Parivar came from a highly unlikely quarter: Former Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu. He was considered an improbable originator of disillusionment over Modi’s ways because as Parliamentary Affairs Minister in the government in 2016, he described Modi as “God’s gift to India”. Yet, while addressing graduating students of the Institute of Rural Management Anand, Gujarat, he said that the Lok Sabha elections “gave a message to all, right from the top to bottom”. 

Clearly, his choice of words made it unambiguous that even though his message was not exclusively for anyone, it certainly did not omit the BJP and its top leaders, including Modi. Moreover, the ‘missive’ was noteworthy: The verdict, according to Naidu, taught everyone that “values – work for the downtrodden, taking care of the oppressed, suppressed and depressed people, Gandhiji’s Antyodaya, Ambedkarji’s Antyodaya – taking care of the poorest of the poor, should be at the top of our mind.” There is unanimity that the election campaign’s emphasis had not been aimed at promises to obliterate burdens of the poor. In the backdrop of unemployment and inflation being factors behind the BJP’s diminished performance, there was no ambiguity as to who Naidu addressed.

Bhagwat’s speech came two days later, on June 10, not insignificantly on the day Modi held the first Cabinet meeting after the oath-taking ceremony. In the history of RSS, Bhagwat’s predecessor, K S Sudarshan frequently bluntly criticised the BJP leaders of that time, principally, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In contrast, not only does Bhagwat speak in nuanced tones, but his ties with Modi date to the early 1970s, when they were young swayamsevaks. The latter also considered the former’s father, Madhukarrao Bhagwat, as one of his early mentors. 

Although Bhagwat took no names, there was little doubt as to who he had in mind when talking about the essential attributes of a ‘true sevak’: That he should not ever be arrogant. Modi refers to himself as India’s Pradhan Sevak but paradoxically, humility is not among his best attributes. Bhagwat tossed more homilies without taking names. But, in the context they were made, the targets were clearly not the political adversaries of the RSS fraternity. Bhagwat also grumbled that the RSS was needlessly drawn into a controversy, an obvious reference to J P Nadda’s interview with a newspaper in the middle of the campaign. The principal points in that conversation triggered an upheaval within the Sangh Parivar, as Nadda announced BJP’s autonomy from the RSS and asserted that the party no longer ‘needed’ the latter.

Power of the people

Besides Bhagwat and Naidu’s statements, an article in the Organiser, the weekly organ of the RSS written by a long-time insider, bluntly asserted that BJP needs to go in for course correction. Another article by Ram Madhav in a leading newspaper spoke about the results being a “mandate for humility.” Coupled with Bhagwat’s observations, the message was blunt — the BJP paid for the hubris of the party’s brass. Even before the storm died down, another RSS veteran, Indresh Kumar reiterated Bhagwat’s thoughts, albeit wording them differently. The flow of veiled criticism of the BJP and its leaders by people associated with the RSS has not ebbed, giving rise to various speculations.

Quite clearly, the RSS has not taken Nadda’s assertions very kindly, more so because it is common belief that he would not have uttered such a categorical statement without ‘clearance’. It would be easy to be critical of Bhagwat and ask why he chose silence since 2014 even though Modi’s traits on display now, were evident then too. 

But the Sarsanghchalak’s strategy was guided by the same assessment he made when giving the green signal to Modi’s anointment in 2013 – that the strongman had the people lined up behind him. Although wanting to point out his anomalies, Bhagwat always seconded Modi because of his perceived electoral invincibility. Additionally, Modi delivered on even those ideological issues that were considered extremely difficult to accomplish – for instance, the abrogation of Article 370 and even speeding up the Ayodhya verdict in favour of Hindu parties.

Within the Sangh Parivar, Modi is an enigmatic figure. His ideological commitment to Hindutva cannot be questioned like that of Vajpayee, often referred to as a Nehruvian in khaki shorts. Unlike the deceased former prime minister, Modi has never camouflaged his majoritarian worldview. But, he has long outgrown the work ethos of the RSS and its affiliates. Undoubtedly, Modi does not believe in the primacy of the sangathan (organisation) over vyakti (individual). His style of functioning is also not collegial and instead, his outfits are always one-man shows. Furthermore, at times he gets fixated on pushing just the religion-based facet of Hindutva and ignores its espoused egalitarian objectives. RSS old-timers, in conversations, provide reminders that they collaborated with the Left when opposition to economic liberalism was mounted in the early 1990s. 

The RSS is unlikely to upset Modi’s cart immediately. But the message has gone to other affiliates that they need to focus on their objectives. Consequently, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad presented a memorandum to Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan on the NEET issue, and on many campuses, backed spontaneous student protests. Other affiliates too will no longer be reined in by the RSS.  

Unless Modi gets back to his winning ways, the RSS and its affiliates are unlikely to relent and will maintain its standoffish stance. However diverse as they may have been, Modi shares a trait with Vajpayee – both looked solely at their tenures. In contrast, the RSS indeed has a long-term view. When Modi talks about Amrit Kaal, Viksit Bharat and about Indian glory in 2047, he does so to secure his present. But for the RSS, these notions are not for the moment, but are actually goals for the future to ensure that Hindutva becomes completely dominant and the entire samaj or society is metamorphosed into the Sangh and vice versa. The different paths of Bhagwat and Modi and the disharmony between the two stalwarts and their core teams, stem from this. 

(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi-NCR. His latest book is ‘The Demolition, The Verdict and The Temple: The Definitive Book on the Ram Mandir Project’)

Published 23 June 2024, 01:17 IST

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