Tete-a-tete with Walter K Andersen on Hindu revivalism, saffron brotherhood, RSS, and the rise of Narendra Modi among other issues
Ajay Singh | February 21, 2014
Walter K Andersen is one of the pioneering scholars in the study of the Hindu right. His 1987 work, The Brotherhood in Saffron: The RSS and Hindu Revivalism (co-authored with Shridhar Damle), remains a landmark. Andersen taught comparative politics before joining the US state department as a political analyst for South Asia. Now he heads the South Asia Studies Program at the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University. Of course, his India connection goes beyond the professional expertise as an academic and an officer, having studied in India and married to an Indian.
During one of his many India trips, he sat with Ajay Singh and Ashish Mehta on a Sunday afternoon for a freewheeling chat on the change – in this country and in the Hindu right. Excerpts from the interview:
How does Hindu revivalism differ from modernism? Are they interlinked or separate?
When our book was published, there was enormous criticism from the RSS for the word ‘revivalism’ in the title. They thought the term was pejorative, and ‘nationalism’ would have been a better expression. Now we need a new title [for an upcoming sequel]. ‘Revival’ is not appropriate. But how did this term come up? It was because Hedgewar and others spoke of returning to the cultural past, of how to revive a culture that would give them political clout.
As for ‘modernism’, the problem with any word with ‘-ism’ is it means different things to different people.
In your work, you have dealt exclusively with RSS-Jan Sangh and the Hindu right till 1980. Then Jan Sangh metamorphosed into BJP, and over the decades much has changed. What are your observations?
There have been growing strains of the political and the reduced role of the non-political. RSS had a moral high ground on the party, but after Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister, it began to change. The RSS does not have the same amount of influence as it used to have in the past. There is a general impression within the BJP that the party has outgrown the RSS. If you take the present context, I think Modi definitely sees the party as superior to the RSS. The very fact that Modi is elected whereas the sarsanghchalak, or RSS head, is appointed makes a lot of difference to many people – at least to Modi.
Your book, which critically analysed the rise of the saffron brotherhood, often refers to RSS’s emphasis on return to the roots and traditions to restore India’s glory. Is this emphasis still relevant?
I will have to do more research on this aspect. A changing India, with its growing middle class and more higher education, may have an impact [on these RSS objectives]. In post-independence India, the emergence of RSS was linked to various factors. But now, with an expanding middle class, things have drastically changed. Even the RSS has been changing its curriculum and trying to reinvent itself to adapt these changes. In my visits to India, I have noticed these changes.
Yet, I have also met brilliant young pracharaks. I recall an engineering graduate – I think from UP – who was assigned the task of working with Nepali refugees in the US. He went to Cleveland and arranged classes on Hinduism. The point is, they are still able to get bright people. This is a good sign for the health of the organisation. The doubling of India’s middle class had such impact on the RSS that the organisation is devising new ways of holding shakhas to attract youth.
Your work mentions Article 4B of RSS constitution, which says it will shun politics and devote itself to social work. How do you see recent instances of RSS openly participating in politics – as it did in prompting BJP to name Narendra Modi as its PM candidate? Do you see a pattern?
I wrote that in a tongue-in-cheek manner! The fact is that the RSS was always interested in politics. It had a very narrow definition of politics; thus they would not be interested in, say, candidate selection and so on, but they would certainly provide cadres (for campaigning). They used to exercise complete control over the party by lending pracharaks (whole-timers) for the Jan Sangh and subsequently the BJP. In the party’s structure, such pracharaks, often holding the posts of general secretary (organisation), are extremely powerful.
At the same time, RSS traditionally shunned individuality and believed in the collective. That is why the flag – that is, the organisation – matters (in RSS), and not the individual. That was the credo of the RSS – and the BJP. (But) that has changed. Now the question is, what has happened to their RSS training, of working as a collective? Modi still sees importance of the qualities RSS prescribes, like austerity and simplicity. He has been often quoting his mentor Vasantrao Gajendragadkar saying that ‘I am not here for long; life is short, so make good use of it.’ Of course, he seems to mean it for others! But his concept of organisation is not delinked with individuality: he sees himself as an organisation.
What do you think of the overbearing influence of RSS on BJP? Is this valid, or a convenient ploy of every disgruntled leader? Even Balraj Madhok referred to it when he was sacked.
The argument of the RSS influence more often than not is contrived for convenience by disgruntled leaders. You are right; even Madhok did it. I think the BJP was not controlled by RSS (in the past), and it is less so now. Of course, the RSS influence was always there but things are never static. If you look at the RSS leadership, I came to know that the dominance of Brahminism has been giving way to inclusion of OBCs in top echelons. This transformation is bound to have a profound impact on the saffron family.
In a changing India, equality and merit are important. If you look at the BJP leadership, it is dominated by OBCs, not Brahmins. This is why Modi’s background as a ‘chaiwala’ is not held against him within the Sangh parivar; he is promoted from the ranks.
How different is the ‘Modi phenomenon’ from the Vajpayee phenomenon?
Modi is probably a better politician than Vajpayee. Vajpayee was never a chief minister; he had no administrative experience (before becoming the prime minister). On the other hand, Vajpayee was a much warmer person and had the image of a grandfather. Modi is a tough guy. Vajpayee had a talent for attracting the old veterans whereas Modi will surround himself with young, talented people.
And I am sure he would not hesitate to opt for younger people with non-RSS background than old party leaders having trained in the RSS value system. When I met him at the Gujarat Bhavan, all the people around him were young – not a single person with grey hair. They were tech-savvy, with one educated abroad. Modi loves technology, and he would use it heavily to promote his political project.
You spoke of his image as a tough guy. Does India need a strong leader?
I am told Indian people say they need a strong leader. I tend to look at politics from the standpoint of political economy. Given the trends of the recent past, I think, India does need a strong leader to realise its full potential. And all three [Modi, Gandhi and Kejriwal] are positioning themselves as strong leaders.
And what is the difference between them?
The Congress is positioning itself as a party for social welfare, whereas Modi is more right of centre. In a sense, that is the argument between Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati and the question of development versus growth.
Of course, the poor far outnumber the rich and equality is a top concern. What difference Modi makes is in terms of capacity to deliver – on both growth and development fronts.
How do you see the controversy over denial of the US visa to Modi? In retrospect, do you see the US decision as a moral stance or a kneejerk reaction when the Bush administration was battling an image crisis in the Islamic world?
No, it had more to do with US politics; with Christian fundamentalism that has clout in the US (and) in the administration. Riots (of 2002 in Gujarat) gave them an excuse to deny visa to Modi and it worked, even though he is not convicted by any court. But Modi doesn’t seem offended by it. It has actually helped him here. I have a feeling he doesn’t care about the US visa. I think he wants the US to invite him rather than seeking visa himself. India is too big a country for the US to continue ignoring Modi.
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