Song Sangh Blue

Posted on: June 1, 2014

Will the RSS continue to lead the BJP? Or will Prime Minister Narendra Modi keep it at bay? Sonia Sarkar seeks some answers.


A portrait of M.S. Golwalkar is displayed prominently in the exhibition hall of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) headquarters in Nagpur. Made of threads, it has a three-dimensional effect — the RSS strongman’s image can be seen from either side. The portrait is not signed — and visitors usually ask for the name of the artist.

“But that’s how the RSS works,” says Nagpur pracharak Ram Narayan. “RSS pracharaks don’t take credit for their work because they do it for the organisation.”


Indeed, for long years, the RSS, the parental body of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has — silently, like the artist behind the Golwalkar portrait — led the path that it expects BJP leaders to follow.But Narendra Damodardas Modi is a whole new ball game.

In RSS quarters, Modi’s smooth rise to power — he led the BJP to an unprecedented win in the 2014 elections — is discussed in whispers. And the question being asked is: will the RSS continue to lead the BJP?

“The RSS doesn’t believe in personality cults, but Modi does. He has forgotten all that he learnt during his Sangh days about taking people on board,” a senior leader at the RSS headquarters grumbles.

In fact, the RSS has always been aware that Modi works like a law unto himself. A political observer recalls the time when Golwalkar was the RSS chief and Modi, then a young pracharak, decided to keep a beard like the RSS boss. The Sangh disapproved of this, holding that only Golwalkar could do so. But Modi went right ahead — paying no attention to the RSS strictures.


Right now, however, all seems well on the RSS-Modi front. Modi met RSS leaders in Delhi soon after his victory. He acknowledged the effort of RSS workers during the election campaign in his maiden speech in the central hall of Parliament. He announced a year-long celebration to mark the centenary of RSS leader Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya. Top RSS leaders were present when Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister.


But RSS insiders say that despite the bonhomie, tensions remain. Some in the RSS are worried that Modi is not going to allow the Sangh to have a major say in governance. “It’s not that Modi is anti-RSS,” a senior BJP member explains. “But he doesn’t want to be dictated to.”


The RSS has been known to dictate. In the last BJP-led central government, the Sangh’s imprint was clear, especially in the human resource development (HRD) ministry. But Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee could also keep the RSS at arm’s length.

The RSS, for instance, did not want Brajesh Mishra, whose father was a Congress leader, as the national security adviser. It didn’t succeed — instead K.S. Sudarshan, the then sarsanghachalak, was asked to stay away from Delhi. A more pragmatic Madan Das Devi functioned as the go-between.


Will Modi succeed in keeping a gap between the RSS and the BJP? “He will give the impression that he has been consulting the RSS. But these will only be for public consumption. He’ll do what thinks he is right,” a senior RSS leader in Nagpur says.


Modi, as a former Sangh pracharak, knows how the system works. He joined the RSS as a balswayamsevak, a junior cadet, at the age of eight and became a full-time pracharak in 1970. The RSS assigned Modi to the BJP in 1985. Three years later, he was elected organising secretary of the BJP’s Gujarat unit, marking his formal entry into mainstream politics.


Modi quickly went up the rungs. As national secretary, he was credited with the BJP’s victory in Gujarat in 1998. Soon he had replaced chief minister Keshubhai Patel in the state.


But differences with the RSS sharpened when Modi became the chief minister. For instance, he gave little space to the RSS’s frontal organisations. Vidyabharati, an RSS education outfit which opposed Modi’s policy of introducing English at the primary school level, was not granted government land. Workers of other groups — the Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal — were arrested when they took to the streets. A housing scheme started by VHP leader Pravin Togadia’s brother, Dineshbhai, was stalled. RSS supporters also say that Modi did not allow anybody to campaign in the local corporation, taluka and panchayat elections. Modi’s “no repeat” (of elected politicians) helped him weed out all RSS supporters from local self-government all over Gujarat. Modi allegedly cut the RSS to size and divided it.

RSS’ frontal organisation Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) was forced to vacate its state-level office in Gandhinagar. Under Modi’s leadership, a large number of temples were razed and the police beat up VHP activists in Gujarat. VHP activists were lathicharged and even complaints were lodged against them when they vandalised an art gallery exhibiting MF Hussain’s paintings.


Also, the co-ordination committee between the RSS members and ministers that was created during Keshubhai Patel’s chief ministership, Modi disbanded it when he came to power. Patel helped in the appointment of scores of RSS supporters in boards and corporations of the government and RSS-backed organisations and unions were fully involved in government. Patel also nominated Bajrang Dal presidents as home guard commanders. Under Modi’s rule, RSS alleges that cow slaughter increased manifold. He handed over vast areas of grazing land to industrialists.

RSS leaders such as Manmohan Vaidya and Madhubhai Kulkarni were shunted out of Gujarat. Modi stopped talking to  Vaidya. He was sent off to Chennai and replaced by Praveenbhai Otia, who proved more trouble-free. At mega events of the government, he barely invited Vaidya and other RSS leaders.


But, Gujarat watchers point out, Modi also had a channel open for “friendly” talks with RSS leaders Suresh Joshi, Ram Madhav and Suresh Soni. Despite the ups and downs, the RSS knew that Modi was the best choice for the BJP for the general elections. The tipping point was in May 2012 at the Mumbai national executive. Modi refused to attend the meet in the presence of his old bete noire Sanjay Joshi — whom Gadkari had put in charge of UP for the 2012 elections. The Modi-Joshi rivalry went back to the days when both played for control of the BJP turf in Gujarat. Joshi triumphed once — Modi was sent packing to Delhi till he returned to Gandhinagar as chief minister in 2001. Not surprisingly, Modi waited for his chance to strike. And he did so before the Mumbai meet. The RSS, which regarded Joshi as its own, asked him to leave — and it was then that Modi showed up. Since then Joshi has been kept out of the BJP.


In September 2012, three months before the Gujarat polls, Modi was summoned to the RSS headquarters by RSS chief Mohanrao Bhagwat and told to go ahead and give his best to the Gujarat polls. He was also assured that he would lead the 2014 elections. The RSS leaders knew that Modi had the unstinted support of its cadres.

“The top leadership couldn’t have said no to Modi’s candidature for the prime ministership because the cadre would have revolted,” says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.


Once it was decided that Modi was the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, the RSS workers came on to the field to help in the campaign. “All Sangh parivar frontal organisations worked for him. Now it’s payback time for Modi — or that’s what the RSS wants,” Mukhopadhyay believes. “But will the RSS be able to control this tiger?”


The RSS’s policy of swadeshi will be its leitmotif — but may face opposition from the new government. The RSS doesn’t want foreign investment in retail, which the BJP government may want to open its doors to (though in a recent interview Ram Madhav stressed that the RSS was not an “economic fundamentalist”). The RSS may want the BJP to go slow on labour reform. And its frontal groups may want movement on the Ram Mandir front.

“Modi says the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya will not solve all our problems because he prefers to fill empty stomachs first. Hindutva was not an issue in this elections but the aspiration of 125 crore people was. For the RSS, Ram Mandir continues to be an issue,” says RSS man Virag Pachpore.


When it comes to HRD, the RSS hopes to bring in change. “We want the government to revise the school curriculum. We want specific chapters on Hindu rulers such as Maharana Pratap and Shivaji,” Nagpur-based Ramesh Shiledar, an old RSS hand, stresses.

In Delhi, RSS men are more circumspect. “If Modi has to deliver, he has to stick to the BJP manifesto,” says Prafulla Ketkar, editor of the RSS mouthpiece Organiser. “As Prime Minister, Modi will abide by the Constitution of India; he will not be guided by the RSS,” adds R. Balachandran, national convener of the BJP intellectual cell.


Some, however, believe that the RSS is not going to give up what was once a superior position without a fight. Earlier this week, there were reports that home minister Rajnath Singh had had a talk with RSS chief Mohan Rao Bhagwat over the fate of Article 370 which gives special status to Kashmir. But on Twitter, RSS spokesperson Madhav denied the meeting focused on this issue.


“We will never interfere in the functioning of the government. But we will articulate our views,” he says.


The RSS, political observers hold, is in a catch-22 situation. “It feels emotionally thrilled that someone who is its own is the Prime Minister. But it also knows that Modi will not allow the RSS to call the shots,” a BJP leader says.

It’s not hard to detect bitterness among some senior leaders in the RSS headquarters. “What does RSS lose even if Modi has dumped it? It doesn’t have any expectation either. We are better off without the BJP and Modi,” Nagpur-based RSS ideologue R.H. Tupkary stresses. “It takes more than 25 years to cultivate leadership in the BJP and only the RSS can make leaders,” he adds.

Meanwhile, a new set of leaders is being groomed at the annual training centre in Nagpur’s Hedgewar Smarak Smruti. Some 700 men in khaki shorts are learning how to wield lathis and batons. This is going to be followed by a discussion on a Hindu nation and the qualities of a swayamsevak. Clearly, for the RSS, the work carries on. —



( A shorter version of the story has been published in The Telegraph, June 1,2014:


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