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Extent of BJP's 'dependence' on RSS for communal polity as it turns into mass party

By Anand K Sahay*

Recent observations on India’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic emanating from the highest levels of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) -- praised by many as a selfless, nationalist outfit given to social service, and denounced as a “fascist” or “militarist” body by a range of critics -- have left the country mystified. This is because the RSS is the inspiration behind the founding of the BJP.
RSS can obfuscate, speak assertively, but also as a ventriloquist, when needed. It works in a bamboo curtain kind of an inner culture. As is the case with China’s power pyramid, words coming out of the RSS headquarters lend themselves to multiple plausible meanings.
Probably this is because the organisation has been suppressed in certain periods like after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, but also because before the rise of BJP to power, it had sought to play down its ambition that its creation should proceed to capture power.
Now that the BJP is at the pinnacle of political power and not any rival, the RSS should no longer have to deploy the artifice of stealth in negotiating relations with the holders of national power. But here lies the irony: although the BJP, the election-fighting instrument it created, is in power in New Delhi, the RSS still appears to be careful in the way it says things out aloud. Reasons are up for speculation.
However, in the context of the Modi government’s conspicuous failure to deal with Covid phase two, as well as its striking failure to offer the country hope- with crematoriums and graveyards becoming increasingly out of reach, oxygen, medicines and hospital beds running short, and hundreds of (presumably Hindu) corpses floating downstream from UP in the holy River Ganga- the top RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat’s piercing words- although couched in calm delivery- may give the regime cause for anxiety.
On May 15, winding up the several days long lecture series entitled “Positivity Unbounded” sponsored by the RSS, its chief Mohan Bhagwat gave a pep talk on “collectively” facing the present “difficult” times, when there might be a death in every family one may know, and go into a fight-back mode against the virus instead. But he also said, “The people, the administration, the government each got into gaflat!” In other words, they goofed up; they failed to gauge the situation and respond appropriately.
These may have been the words of an opposition leader, except that they weren’t. The RSS no doubt intends that the Modi government regain its composure, and is ready to help to that end. But perhaps there is also something else implied here: There is no immediate rush. But should there be a run on the bank, the RSS may prefer to be forearmed.
Some state elections are due next year, including in UP, the biggest state in the country where the BJP did far from well in the recent panchayat polls. If popular disenchantment surfaces in a big way in voting behavior in the Assembly election early next year UP, which sends up the largest contingent of BJP MPs, the RSS is not likely to settle down to regard the situation with equanimity.
And the way to prepare for any eventuality may be to start cultivating the ground from now to be able to guide key changes in the top tier of government if push came to shove. All of this must be done in good time and none of this can be spelled out. But it is hard to miss that a new particle now hangs in the air.
Through one policy disaster after another -- demonetisation, GST roll-out, the sapping farmers’ agitation (which continues), the disconcerting unemployment graph -- the RSS stood four square behind the present dispensation. But the Covid disaster, leading to corpses being floated down the holiest river for Hindus, is a different matter- indeed a different kind of matter.
In a recent newspaper article, a senior RSS figure, Ram Madhav, who until not long ago was a BJP general secretary, asked the “political leadership” -- which now means the top government leadership-- to show “a little more transparency, a little more engagement with the public, and a little more openness to constructive criticism and enlightened expert opinion from outside the government… After all, the lives of millions of people are at stake.” It does seem that the RSS is signalling that all is not well.
Wearing BJP colours, two RSS “pracharaks” or full-time volunteers dedicated to the spread of Hindu nationalism in a country of many religions and spiritual mores, have made it to the top. But Atal Behari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, had framed a very different relationship with the mother organization- the RSS- upon becoming Prime Minister.
PM Modi has been on the whole solicitous, his BJP predecessor in office was more correct, rather than deferential. A part of the reason may have been that his government had to depend on a host of secular coalition partners for survival. Speculation still abounds on this issue, but it’s evident that the relationship between the BJP and the RSS is not a carefully studied subject.
While well-known research studies exist on the RSS itself, the sociology of the organization, its inner workings, and the way it seeks to articulate power in relation to the BJP (earlier the Bhartiya Jan Sangh) and influence in Hindu society more generally, has not been adequately studied. The extant literature is mostly in the nature of self-serving propaganda, hagiography, or trenchant criticism from critics.
The Jana Sangh was created under RSS aegis in 951, and the BJP in 1980. Both were the same thing in spirit. However, at no point did the Jana Sangh wield national power or become a mass party. The RSS, its creator, was the shadow that loomed over it. The spirit of the RSS is the fountainhead of the culture and organisation of the BJP too.
But the BJP has become something of a mass party. It has acquired power at the Centre for which it does not depend on allies. Therefore, its government and leadership may not be a pushover if the RSS showed displeasure.
On the other hand, BJP cannot fail to notice that it is the spread of the RSS itself in a communalized polity that has ineluctably promoted BJP’s rise as a mass party. At every level of the party and government, the levers are in the hands of RSS personnel.
It is evident that the RSS-BJP leadership is shot through with contradictions. What factors give one the upper hand and not the other, at a time when the BJP holds national power, is a complex subject and needs attention. Which entity will prevail is a matter of great interest to the country.
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*Senior journalist based in Delhi. A version of this article first appeared in Asian Age

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