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

Between Vajpayee and Modi era, RSS has learnt many political lessons

The Print logo The Print 22-02-2021 D.K. Singh
a close up of a person © Provided by The Print

Let me start this column with a teaser. Here is the itinerary of a prominent personality for the past 11 weeks, and you have to guess who he is:

Guwahati (2-5 December): A series of meetings, including with Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, during his four-day stay in a secluded ashram in Adimgiri Hills.

Guwahati (12 December): Visit to Kamakhya Temple before flying to Kolkata.

Kolkata (12-13 December): Meets intellectuals and young achievers excelling in space science, microbiology, medical sciences, etc. It was his fifth visit to West Bengal since August 2019.

Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram (29-30 December): Releases a book; meets Kerala governor.

Chennai (13-14 January): Celebrates Pongal; performs ‘gau puja’; recites a couplet from Tamil classic Tirukkural by celebrated poet Thiruvalluvar to a girl.

Coimbatore (17-19 February): Releases a book; he was in the city for three days last October.

Rings a bell? All these places are in poll-bound states. You must be wondering if it’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, or Bharatiya Janata Party chief J.P. Nadda. Given that there is so much travel in such a short span of time and that too, within the country, I guess you may have ruled out Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. All right, here is a big clue: Before leaving for Coimbatore, he visited actor and former Trinamool Congress MP Mithun Chakraborty in Mumbai.

Yes, we are talking about Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat. If you thought the itinerary looked like that of a busy, much sought-after politician in election time, you weren’t wrong. The RSS chief has been visiting poll-bound states as frequently as, if not more than, any politician.

It’s nobody’s case that the RSS has started indulging in politics. Because it always did and does— both directly and indirectly — notwithstanding Bhagwat’s repeated assertions that the Sangh has nothing to do with politics. There is no point starting the same RSS-and-politics debate for the millionth time. What Bhagwat’s itinerary tells us is that the Sangh has developed a better appreciation of the dynamics of political power and ideological agenda now than ever before.

Not that the RSS was ever detached from the BJP’s electoral politics. Its cadres at the grassroots have always lent a supporting hand to the BJP during elections, even if they have had strong grouses against some leaders — say, Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan. But it’s also no secret that the RSS has been uneasy about Modi’s personality cult, which runs counter to its conviction that too much focus on an individual undermines the ideology in the long run. The RSS wasn’t very happy about the way it lost its veto in a government-run by its pracharak, Narendra Modi, on substantive issues.

But the way Bhagwat has thrown himself in the coming elections indicates a nuanced shift in its strategy — a subtle acknowledgment of the need for political power for its larger ideological mission.

Also read: Emperor Aurangzeb broke process of establishing Hindu-Muslim unity: RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat

Expansion of ideological agenda

In the current context, West Bengal and Kerala are constant reminders of RSS’ unfinished ideological agenda. MS Golwalkar, one of the principal architects of Hindutva and the second RSS chief, saw Communists, along with Muslims and Christians, as ‘internal threats’ to India and his idea of a Hindu nation.

The BJP might have decimated the Left in Tripura, but its mission remains incomplete in Kerala, where the Left is still a dominant force, and in West Bengal where the Communists, though marginalised politically, remain a force ideologically. It goes without saying that West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, even without a hammer and sickle in her hands and Marx on her lips, is barely different from a Leftist. A BJP victory in West Bengal, if at all, may sound the death knell for Communists — a result that the Sangh and the BJP would treat as their homage to Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the Jana Sangh founder.

The Sangh’s biggest peeve has to be Kerala where it has been fighting with the Communists since the 1940s. Way back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Golwalkar’s meetings in Kerala used to witness ‘violent disruptions’ by Communists, including one in Kozhikode where Bhagwat released a book on the RSS’ struggle in the state where hundreds of RSS-BJP workers have been killed.

Assam, of course, has a special place in the RSS’ scheme of things. The Sangh had established its base in the Northeast even before Independence. In a conversation with me last week, Silchar MP Rajdeep Roy recalled how an RSS pracharak, Ram Singh, had landed in Assam way back in 1948 but it took 68 years for the BJP (previously Jana Sangh) to come to power in the state. Incidentally, the MP’s father was one of the Jana Sangh corporators, who went on to become a two-term BJP MLA. Roy was instrumental in making the Citizenship (Amendment) Act a reality as he had initiated the legal battle against illegal immigrants in the Supreme Court and the political battle by bringing delegations of BJP leaders from Barak Valley to impress upon the central leadership the need for such a law.

As for Tamil Nadu, the RSS had its first footprints in the state way back in 1939. It couldn’t, however, gain ground in a state where Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement, with anti-Brahminism at its core, guided the political philosophy and discourse. The Sangh never gave it up though. It had the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha in Coimbatore, the first in its 92-year history, in 2017.

Also read: How BJP became TMC’s challenger in Bengal, wooing elite and working-class Hindus

RSS embracing Modi brand of politics

While these details explain the background for the RSS push in poll-bound states, there is also a larger narrative here. With all its reservations against personality-based politics, the Sangh is gradually realising the long-term benefits of it. If the BJP is seeking to break its image of a cow-belt party — an unfair description today given its dominance pan-India except southern states — why shouldn’t the Sangh synchronise its expansion plans in the south with the BJP? Bhagwat is doing exactly this.

The RSS has come to understand the power dynamics. If its first brush with power during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government showed its desperation to control its ideological protégé, the BJP, it’s now seeking to build on the political capital of another pracharak, Modi, for its expansion. It’s no longer snobbish about ‘outsiders’ who defected from different parties to join the BJP — as long as they help in the acquisition of power. The Sangh can reconcile itself with personality-based politics if it furthers its ideological agenda. It’s willing to let its pracharaks run the government the way they want although it can have its way on occasions, such as India’s walk out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

The RSS won’t do more than making perfunctory noises about privatisation of banks or insurance firms, given how the Modi government run by its pracharaks is fulfilling its core agenda, like the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. In educational and cultural affairs, the government goes by the Sangh’s wish and command, anyway. Unlike Vajpayee’s time when Madan Das Devi, RSS joint general secretary, was the chief source of liason between the RSS and the BJP, the coordination between the two happen smoothly across verticals today— say, Mukul Kanitkar of Bharatiya Shikshan Mandal guiding education minister Ramesh Pokhriyal and Atul Jog of Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram holding the hands of tribal affairs minister Arjun Munda. Bhagwat has one-on-one meetings with Modi four-five times a year, though away from media glare.

As it is, much of the apprehension in the RSS leaders’ minds about their ideological mission getting subsumed in personality-driven politics is giving way to optimism. After all, between its two pracharaks — Vajpayee and Modi — the latter has been a much bigger ambassador of the Sangh ideology. Therefore, it makes more sense for the Sangh to synchronise its efforts with the BJP’s to ride on his popularity to expand its footprints. And that explains Bhagwat’s itinerary.

Views are personal.

More from The Print

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon