You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

RSS has no reason to run Modi sarkaar

LiveMint logoLiveMint 22-05-2014 Dipankar De Sarkar

An interesting talking point in India’s 16th general election has been the role of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological wellspring of many Hindu political outfits, including prime minister-in-waiting Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Its role before, during and after the election should be a matter of legitimate public interest and scrutiny. The trouble is that the RSS is not an outfit that is particularly given to public scrutiny, allowing itself to be ringed by militant defenders of the faith—foot soldiers seeking to seize and occupy the ground from village tea shops to Internet chat rooms.

Problematically in terms of transparency, the RSS is not listed as a political organization, although it has played an important role in elections and in even shaping Indian politics. It is sometimes dismissed as no more than Boy Scouts for men but its inception was seared in violence.

It straddles the vast swathe of ground from a disciplined nationwide mass movement to a think tank headquartered in the town of Nagpur (it conducts chintan shivirs, or thought camps for its volunteer force). Yet attempts to study the RSS have never been easy for the historian or political scientist, one reason being that there are few contemporaneous movements to compare it with.

Is it a band of evangelists? Is it a Moral Army in khaki shorts? Is it like the Chinese Communist Party or is it more like the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia’s Pol Pot? What does the goal of “Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation)” mean—to its leaders, to the rank and file, to Muslims and Christian, to its critics, and to outsiders? In 1976, The Economist praised the RSS for its work in opposing the state of Emergency as “the only non-left revolutionary force in the world.” In 2014, it has described the outfit as “men in shorts.”

The role of the RSS becomes particularly important now because Modi is steeped in it even as he prepares to assume a role where he may have to deal with conflicts between areas of government policy and the core of RSS ideology.

Modi’s introduction to the RSS itself signifies the influence that the Sangh wields in India—he was introduced to it by Congressman Rasikbhai Dave (there has always been, or so it is said, a rump of RSS sympathizers in the Congress, a secular party) at the age of six. He began attending the local RSS shakha (branch, of which there are some 45,000 today) at the age of eight, rushing from school to help out at his father’s tea shack at the railway station in his hometown Vadnagar and then to the shakha. Here he met his RSS mentor Laxmanrao Inamdar, who inducted the young Modi as a bal swayamsevak, or junior volunteer.

“Whenever I was facing a problem at that time, I used to talk to him. Now I have an autopilot system in my thinking process,” Modi told his British biographer Andy Marino.

By the age of 20, he had left Vadnagar for Ahmedabad where he worked full-time for the RSS.

Two years later he was formally inducted into the RSS. He shared a house with a dozen other recruits and his job, he told biographers M.V. Kamath and Kalindi Randeri, was to:

Wake up at 5 am, fetch milk, wake up everyone else, attend prayers, make tea, serve everyone tea, do the washing up, dash to the shakha for classes, come back, make “snacks” for everyone (it’s only 8.30am by now), serve everyone breakfast between 8.30am and 9.00am, clean up the entire building of eight to nine rooms (“sweeping and mopping the whole place”), lunch at a swayamsevak’s house, return, make more tea for everyone.

This was Modi’s workday for at least a year.

The only other near-contemporary leader of a major country with similar humble origins that I can think of is Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—born in abject poverty to share-cropper parents, he had to leave school after second grade to help his mother and siblings, working as a shoeshine boy, street vendor and factory hand.

Given how steeped Modi is in the RSS, many on the Indian Left think his will be an apparatchik government run by RSS ideologues sitting in Nagpur. The counter argument is based on an identical premise: since he is so steeped in the RSS, where’s the need for the Sangh to try and run him?

I spoke to a senior RSS ideologue and put some of these queries to him. A theme of skepticism about politics emerged in the conversation, held on a background basis.

The ideologue said, “The RSS does not directly work in politics but it has always been savouring a strong central government which will recognize the importance of non-governmental and social organizations.

“The RSS has its world view: it strongly believes that India’s culture and ancient civilization should be protected, but its world view does not depend on the government. The RSS strongly believes politics is not the be-all and end-all of our society, unlike Western countries which are dependent on government and politics to keep the people and country together.

“India remains united not because of politics, but in spite of politics.”

In that case, what keeps India united? “Religion, according to Vivekananda; dharma, according to Sri Aurobindo. But religion by itself is inadequate to explain India—Hinduism is not a religion.”

Will the RSS seek to run the Modi government? “No. It won’t seek to influence the day-to-day working of government, least of all with Narendra Modi’s government.”

Why not? “Because he is not going to go beyond a particular agenda, which is from the same ideological background (as that of the RSS).” That agenda could include a rethink on foreign direct investment in multibrand retail, a potential flashpoint. The “broad parameters” on it had been already suggested by the RSS, “both directly and indirectly” to the BJP.

Is he talking about Swadeshi? “The idea of Swadeshi has not been defined in the RSS, but it’s akin to what the US would say: Be American, Buy American. Why can’t Indians say that?”

Didn’t former prime minister Indira Gandhi say exactly that—Be Indian, Buy Indian—back in the mid-1970s? How are you different from the socialist wing of the Congress? Hasn’t the world changed?

“That was 10 years ago. Today what we are saying is ‘give us a level playing field’. We are talking about more than 5,000 years of retail trading in India. We give discounted electricity to foreigners who say they will build cold storage. Let’s give Indians the same incentives.”

These are robust assertions made on behalf of a muscular organization that continues to be viewed with great distrust by many mainstream political and religious sections of Indian society. But in just over a decade from today, the RSS (b. 1925) will be celebrating 100 years of its existence, and in that history, 2014 will stand out as an important stepping stone. More than anything else, India’s 16th general election signalled greater acceptability of an idea of India—through Modi and his mentor.

More From LiveMint

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon