Anand K. Sahay | Will RSS do a rethink over Modi if he takes hit in UP?

Mohan Bhagwat, in an address, had made barely camouflaged critical observations on the government's handling of the pandemic last summer

The February-March 2022 Assembly elections in five states — Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur — seem different from any other state polls since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, and that can leave the RSS with a giant-sized headache. A big part of the RSS’s expected concern is that these elections potentially cast a shadow on the BJP’s chances in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

In the earlier Assembly polls on Mr Modi’s watch, the expected results were usually a matter of guesswork, with clear bets hard to make. Else, they were thought to be weighted in the BJP’s favour even if the outcome turned out an anti-climax. We saw the latter most vividly in Gujarat in 2017 when the Congress nearly snatched the state from the saffron party though its campaign was led all the way by Rahul Gandhi, who had been written off as a bumbling spectacle.

In contrast with preceding elections, this year’s polls seem to have a very different flavour. No matter what the end outcome — in the Modi era this usually means the BJP buying up MLAs of other parties post-election and earning praise for this from the elite for showing chutzpah — there is an emerging feeling that the ruling party is not looking dominant on the ground. In public perception, its stock is down.

In Uttar Pradesh in particular, there appears to be a wide measure of agreement among observers -- a shared belief almost -- on these lines. UP is always important, but is especially so this time around. Most BJP MPs, the PM included, won from this state. Hinduism’s most vaunted pilgrim sites and religious symbols, which the BJP has sought to milk to buttress its communal appeal, lie here. The BJP won the state by a yard and more in the 2017 Assembly polls.

In short, if there is a setback for the ruling party in UP, ominous signs for it are likely to be read nationally, affecting all-round political dynamics, casting gloom in the ruling party’s top leadership as well as its rank and file, even if state polls aren’t necessarily a predictor of national results.

Ordinarily, after seven years in power, an electoral setback is deemed quite normal. Anti-incumbency is common in democracies. But Mr Modi has run the show in a highly personalised, super-dominant style, with a centralising, homogenising, focus. He has built a cult of personality. He lives in many avatars simultaneously. He has sought to create an aura of being unstoppable. If the voter administers a shock even to this carefully manicured personality despite its “charms”, then there’s a question: Is the BJP’s future safe with him? The RSS can hardly duck that question.

The Sangh, which sets the BJP’s ideological moorings and — away from the glare — guides its political destiny, lives in the shadows. It is thought to be a careful tracker of the public mood. Without being conspicuous, and frequently shunning overt publicity, it manipulates the BJP’s organisational strings. Its silent cadres work hard to shape opinion to advance the BJP’s agenda, through calibrated media interventions and social media bold-facing.

In the months before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, in pursuit of the Hindutva agenda, the RSS decided to hand the baton in the PM stakes to Mr Modi, then Gujarat’s CM. This was accomplished by ensuring the sidelining of potential rivals like Lal Krishna Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Nitin Gadkari, Rajnath Singh, and from among the younger set Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj.

No one was left in any doubt that it was the Gujarat CM alone that the RSS was pitching for. Then everything fell into place in the BJP. The episode established yet again that only the RSS’s writ runs in the BJP.

If anything prospered under Mr Modi’s stewardship as PM, it was the Hindutva agenda. There is a question mark on nearly everything else —most notably the economy, the employment and inflation situation; even the handling of national security; until six months ago the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic; and decidedly the mishandling of the farmers’ question and of their year-long agitation.

Also, Centre-state relations have nosedived. Social cohesiveness has taken a beating due to the attempt at deepening fissures as between religious as well as social communities. Official data cannot hide the fact that nearly every section of India, except the very rich, has been pushed down at least one step on the economic ladder. Impoverishment of the people is the motif of the Modi Raj.

On the plus side for Hindutva, Ayodhya was a low-hanging fruit but Kashmir was not. But it’s now in the bag, thanks to the PM’s manipulative cleverness. The RSS cannot but be very satisfied. For the foreseeable future, however, there is no clear objective of a similar order in view which needs to be worked at right away.

Indeed, Mr Modi himself appears to have moved on to other things — such as perpetuating his agenda of continuance in office through the outsize use of relentless propaganda.

Is this in accord with the RSS’ organisational ethos, that places primacy on the utility value of leaders in its constellation rather than their image or aspirations? Remember, Atal Behari Vajpayee — whose persona had a spread outside the RSS’s cloister system — is not an automatic favourite of the Sangh Parivar due to his perceived catholic temperament.

Mr Modi has lived his politics and governance on his own terms so far. How does the RSS view him? The answer isn’t evident, although we do know that its leader Mohan Bhagwat, in an address from New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan, had made barely camouflaged critical observations on the government’s handling of the pandemic last summer. On the year-long farmers’ agitation too, the RSS had to intervene at various levels to get the government off its high horse.

It appears that in the RSS’s reckoning, the Modi government has adopted a work agenda that hasn’t brought dividends, and this is a serious error of tactics, disenchanting voters, especially in UP. While being the BJP’s organisational mainstay and its ideological mascot, the Sangh is known to take steps to shield itself from the downside of government policies since it has to live among the people.

To make assumptions about how the RSS will view Mr Modi if UP goes badly will be speculative. But in the field of politics allies like Bihar CM Nitish Kumar could get restive. At the BJP’s top levels too, there could be unease leading to a search for other options.

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