As RSS scales up Modi-for-PM chorus, a look at BJP's parental headache

Having emerged from its womb, the BJP has always drawn power from the RSS’s ideological moorings. But as successive sarsanghchalaks have sought a greater say in the BJP’s political affairs—none more than incumbent Mohan Bhagwat—the BJP is becoming to the RSS what Manmohan Singh is to Sonia Gandhi. Not an exciting alternative in an election year.

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Ajay Singh | September 4, 2013




Note: On Sunday, September 1, top Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leaders met some of the BJP’s tallest leaders – LK Advani, Sushma Swaraj and party president Rajnath Singh. On agenda reportedly was a quick decision to name Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as the party’s candidate for prime minister in the forthcoming general elections.

Advani, the party’s senior-most leader, is known to be against Modi’s elevation – at least in the immediate future. He is reportedly of the opinion that it would be prudent to wait till crucial assembly elections in five states are wound up. The differences between Advani and Modi had come out in the open during the BJP’s national executive meeting in early June, when the former union home minister refused to attend the conclave in Goa and had resigned from all party posts.

The RSS, though, has a different viewpoint from Advani’s – the Sangh reportedly wants a formal announcement on Modi’s candidature to be made at the earliest. With the Sangh’s hold on the Lotus getting stronger, we look back at an article that appeared in the June 16-30 issue of the magazine: is the RSS choking the BJP a bit too much for the latter’s own discomfort?

“The next election will not be between the Congress and the BJP but between the Congress and the RSS. It is quite clear the RSS is calling all the shots. It must give up this pretence of being a socio-cultural organisation and register as a political party. The manner in which it has manoeuvred Modi in and Advani out and the manner in which Mohan Bhagwat is travelling all over the country, trying to lobby with various people, it is no longer a socio-cultural organisation.”

That was union minister Jairam Ramesh a few days after the BJP’s national executive meeting in Goa which imposed Narendra Modi as the head of the party’s 2014 campaign with unseemly hurry. As the Congress party’s master of political spin, Ramesh often overstates his point but not on this occasion. On this occasion he had solid evidence, the statement of BJP president Rajnath Singh on June 11 while announcing his truce with patriarch LK Advani, caused in part and wholly brokered by the RSS. The statement read: “…On behalf of the Party Shri Rajnath Singh assured Shri Advani that his concerns about the functioning of the Party would be properly addressed and the President will discuss the modalities of addressing these concerns with Shri Advani. Today afternoon, RSS Sarsanghchalak, Shri Mohan Bhagwat spoke to Shri Advani and asked him to respect the BJP Parliamentary Board decision and continue to guide the Party in national interest. Shri Advani has decided to accept Shri Bhagwat’s advice.”

This statement was unprecedented in more ways than one. The RSS’s increasing meddling in the political affairs of the BJP has been an open secret. But when it was committed to print, it became an acknowledged fact for the first time. That was the obvious inference. But the between-the-lines messages were more significant. The role Bhagwat played need not have been part of the statement at all. So it was inserted at the insistence of somebody, possibly Advani. If that was so, then it conveyed two things. One, that there was nobody of stature within the party to broker peace with Advani and two, that Advani was making the RSS chief commit publicly that his concerns about the directional drift in the BJP would actually be addressed. In effect, Bhagwat became the guarantor of the deal.

And then, the master stroke: Advani has been the most stringent critic of the RSS’s increasing meddling in the BJP’s affairs. By bringing up Bhagwat’s name in a public document, he was forcing an admission of parental interference even though he was the beneficiary in this case. (Can you hear Ramesh say “hence proved”?)

That is the reality that the Sangh Parivar will have to live with after the Goa shakeout. The parivar’s philosophy of collective leadership has been blown to smithereens by the firm belief (dissensions notwithstanding) that the BJP’s future is in the hands of one man while the RSS itself is showing signs of internecine fights more akin to a political party rather than the disciplined ideological force it was known to be.

This is manifesting itself in the increasing instances of the RSS flexing its muscle and twirling its moustache to ensure the BJP falls in line.

The RSS’s influence on the BJP has been a secret known to all. Time and again BJP leaders have sought RSS intervention and ideological direction. The RSS always kept a safe distance from the BJP’s political affairs though there have been instances of former RSS chiefs pulling in their weight on party matters. But those have been few and far between, at least until 2004/05 when the RSS head started dealing more directly in political matters.

None more than Mohan Bhagwat, the incumbent. Be it installation of a ‘lightweight’ Nitin Gadkari as the BJP president or re-induction of the controversial man from Gujarat, Sanjay Joshi, in the party last year, the usual refrain from Nagpur was that it had nothing to do with politics; it was concerned only with the lofty business of nation-building.

The June 11 statement read out by the BJP president flew in the face of this consistent RSS positioning on politics. And the RSS chief may go down in the history of the organisation as the architect of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), a la Mikhail Gorbachev. Of course, Gorbachev presided over the disintegration of the USSR, and Bhagwat, it seems, is hell-bent on putting the organisation on the route to implosion.

Though Bhagwat may have averted the crisis by persuading Advani to withdraw his resignation, the hatchets are hardly buried. The RSS joint general secretary and pointsperson, Suresh Soni, and his cohorts are slugging it out openly with Advani loyalists. Rajnath and Arun Jaitley joined hands to make Narendra Modi the pre-eminent face of the party in an attempt to marginalise Advani.

All this happened in the name of ideology in general and the RSS in particular. For instance, Soni was quite assertive in Goa when he directed Rajnath to declare Modi as the chief of the party’s campaign committee for the 2014 elections. “I am from the RSS and I know what they want,” Soni is believed to have told the BJP’s front-ranking leadership when they were hedging their bets on what the RSS would want in the face of Advani’s boycott of the Goa and his stiff opposition to the functioning of the party. The chorus for Modi’s anointment was such that dissenting voices of Sushma Swaraj and M Venkaiah Naidu were drowned out.

Does the RSS really want Modi’s projection as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, as Soni made it out to be? Within 48 hours of this declaration, the RSS leadership started sending contradicting signals. The RSS is believed to have approached Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and assured him that he would be consulted before declaring any candidate for the prime minister’s post. It is a different matter that Nitish Kumar has refused to buy this argument and is preparing to pull the plug on the NDA. (This report is being filed before the June 16 meeting called by Nitish to review his ties.) But there is little doubt that even on a crucial decision like choosing the face of the BJP for the Lok Sabha polls there is a vertical division within the RSS. Quite clearly, Bhagwat’s RSS and Soni’s RSS appear to be working at cross-purposes, a scenario inconceivable till Professor Rajendra Singh, alias Rajju Bhaiya, reigned supreme in the organisation.

The Sangh Parivar’s increasingly assertive role in the affairs of the BJP first became evident when RSS chief KS Sudarshan advised old guard Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani to pave the way for the younger generation immediately after the 2004 election defeat. Advani sent in his resignation to the RSS chief (his first resignation), while Vajpayee, still active in politics, characteristically quipped: “Main kis pad se istifa doon? (From which post should I resign?)”.

Given Advani’s stature, Sudarshan was made to eat his words. Ironically, intervening on behalf of Advani then was none other than Mohan Bhagwat, who was then the RSS general secretary.

Though Advani forced the RSS to beat a hasty retreat, the struggle in the parivar did not abate. And it resurfaced in a virulent form when Advani visited Pakistan in 2005 and made the Jinnah remark. A determined attempt was made to usurp the authority from the old generation and pass the baton on to a pliable leadership kowtowing to the RSS diktat. Rajnath was found suitable for the purpose and his three-year term as the BJP chief was marked by constantly second-guessing the RSS.

“This phase marked a complete deviation of the RSS from its avowed objective of society-building, of nation-building,” says KN Govindacharya, the former ideologue of the BJP. He says the situation has been building since then as the party leadership during its years in power adopted an ostrich-like approach and ignored the coming storm. Referring to his mentor and venerable RSS leader Yashwant Rao Kelkar, Govindacharya says the Sangh Parivar has not evolved the grammar of coordination among its various constituents so far. “This is why the organisation swerves on the interpretation of Hindutva – from Vajpayee to Pravin Togadia,” he says.

Govindacharya also points out that the manner in which the Goa executive was conducted was reflective of a cognitive deficiency in the RSS. “There is no doubt that Modi is far ahead of others in popularity among the cadre and his position is unique as of now,” he says, even as he expresses concern about the ‘lumpenisation’ of the cadre that would accompany the rise of Modi. “There will be enough corporate funds to make this the costliest ever election,” he adds, alluding to the possibility that such a trend would raise personal stakes of the candidates and reduce the political cadres to margins. Govindacharya is not alone in expressing concern. Only two days after Modi’s coronation, teams of crisis managers from Gujarat pitched their camps in Lucknow and Jaipur to oversee the preparation for the Lok Sabha elections. These teams are going to function outside the existing structure of the party’s state units, causing heartburn among local party activists and volunteers.

It will be naïve to think that the RSS leadership is oblivious to these developments. Given the experience of Gujarat, where it has been marginalised in the past decade, Bhagwat must be quite sure of what awaits him in the national arena. The tragedy for Bhagwat is that he can do little to protect his turf in the face of an avalanche that threatens to change the very texture of Indian politics. Since Modi symbolises a masculine Hindutva combined with development, the RSS leadership is scared to come in the way.

At the same time, this leadership, particularly Bhagwat, finds it difficult to contain Modi’s vaulting political ambitions. The manner in which Bhagwat marginalised the political authority within the party and installed puppets like Gadkari to do his bidding is illustrative of his extreme fondness for political power. However, Bhagwat’s conduct has unleashed a new culture within the BJP where RSS pracharaks are loaned in large numbers. The party leadership in most states, except Gujarat, is being intimidated by these volunteers. Only three months back, a group of RSS-VHP workers ransacked a BJP office in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, as they found local BJP legislators unsympathetic to their cause.

Though the gradual lumpenisation of the RSS cadre is being explained as a by-product of the expansion of the RSS and its adjuncts, the reality is entirely different. Of late the RSS has found its archaic show of strength through morning shakhas drawing less and less new cadres. The growth of its affiliated organisations is similarly stymied. An RSS insider describes the trend as a “culture of political mafia” where the end justifies the means and the sole objective is to control the levers of power within the BJP by all means. Bhagwat’s own conduct, observers say, has given a fillip to this culture instead of attempting to arrest it. The BJP has always drawn power from the RSS. But as successive sarsangchalaks have sought a greater say in the BJP’s day-to-day affairs—none more than incumbent—the BJP is becoming to the RSS what Manmohan Singh is to Sonia Gandhi. Not an exciting alternative in an election year. n

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