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RSS ‘muscle-flexing’ a bid to re-invent itself?

The author is a Delhi-based commentator and analyst
Published : Sep 22, 2018, 1:30 am IST
Updated : Sep 22, 2018, 1:30 am IST

The RSS seems to be learning from the experience of the BJP that you cannot survive in politics by catering only to Hindus.

Mohan Bhagwat (Photo: PTI)
 Mohan Bhagwat (Photo: PTI)

There is really no need imagine or interpret the message of the September 17-19 event of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at Vigyan Bhavan, where by and large only functions related to the government or international organisations are held. The RSS sarsanghchalak, or supremo, Mohanrao Bhagwat, declared it at the very beginning of his first-day sermon delivered on September 17. He said: “Sangh ko samajh ne ke liye is kaaryakram ka aayojan hua hai kyonki sangh ab ek shakti ke roop mein is desh mein upasthhith hai” (This programme has been organised to enable people to understand the Sangh because the Sangh today is present as a force in the country). He also said that this was in response to the demand of the RSS’ members in New Delhi who felt that such a meeting should be organised in the national capital to explain the nature and working of the RSS to bigwigs from different walks of life. Neither the RSS nor the media have reported in any detail about who were the people who attended the three-day RSS conclave. The Bharatiya Janata Party is in power at the Centre with a bare majority of its own in the Lok Sabha, and perhaps the RSS brass must have felt that they would not have an opportunity like this ever again, because the outcome of the 2019 Lok Sabha election is up in the air. So, in the fourth year of the BJP government, the RSS had decided to have its social outing, though strictly speaking it was a political outing. It is a different matter, though, that the saffron event has turned out to be a flop politically as none of the leaders of the major parties other than the BJP had turned up at the event. And on all the three days, it was a pure Bhagwat monologue.

The media was more than a little bowled over by the open event of the secretive organisation which controls the BJP, though the relations between the political party and the ideological organisation remains as murky as ever. BJP leaders declare their allegiance to the RSS as a badge of courage, and the RSS demurs. But it is known to everyone that the president of the party is nominated by the RSS, and it is not a party affair. The RSS protests that it does not micro-manage the BJP, which is an interesting way of putting it because it leaves enough room for the RSS to manage the BJP anyway. A senior leader of the BJP had confessed that the RSS volunteers had campaigned for the BJP in 2014, and the only other time they did was in the 1977 post-Emergency election.

The RSS still claims that it has nothing to do with politics and its ambition, as stated by its founder Baliram Hedgewar, is to train “swayamsevaks”, or volunteers in every village of India, who are trustworthy, virtuous, who do not discriminate and hate anybody. And Bhagwat lets slip in the confession that this was for the rejuvenation of “Hindu” society. In the second lecture, he did not say that the Sangh ideology was different from Hinduism but that “ism” is a closed concept and it does not apply to the Hindu faith. Then he resorts to the usual term of “Sanatan Dharma”. And taking “Hindu” as a geographical and civilisation notation, he argues quite unconvincingly and sheepishly that everyone living in India is a Hindu!

The interesting twist in Bhagwat’s monotonous exposition was that he stuck to Hedgewar and passed in silence over M.S. Golwalkar, the man who took over as RSS chief after Hedgewar died. Bhagwat took care to explain that Hedgewar wanted to prepare citizens who were able to take up the responsibilities of an independent India. Hedgewar was certainly a lower middle class Hindu conservative from the Vidarbha region, who perhaps did not preach the clash between Hindus and Muslims in the militant tone that Golwalkar did. Deleting Golwalkar from the RSS discourse should indeed raise eyebrows. The RSS seems to be learning from the experience of the BJP that you cannot survive in politics by catering only to Hindus. The RSS is now updating itself.

But the devil is in the details. For both the RSS and the BJP, diabolical nationalism is the hammer that they want to use to threaten religious minorities and every other dissident group. Bhagwat could not wriggle out of this dilemma because all he could refer to was to Hindu traditions where atheists had their place as well.

It is tempting to speculate whether there is a simmering tension between the RSS and the BJP, and that the RSS too wants its rightful place in the sun. And it is important to ask whether the RSS volunteers will work for the BJP in 2019 in the same way that they did in 2014. The RSS had officially endorsed the Congress victory in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, so it should not come as a surprise if the RSS were to entertain second thoughts about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s candidacy. Whatever may be their sibling rivalries, it is inevitable that the RSS and the BJP will hang together. And the truth is that the RSS is not the force in the country that Bhagwat claims it to be. Its strength and importance are overstated both by the partisans and unflinching ideological foes of the RSS. The reason for the growing unimportance of the RSS in India is quite simple. The RSS is not liberal enough to be a cultural organisation, nor does it have the intellectual rigour to be a conservative bastion. It has fashioned itse
lf in the mould of the Boy Scouts, so it cannot but linger at the infra-intellectual level.

Tags: rashtriya swayamsevak sangh, mohan bhagwat