Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) drill at Sangh headquarter Reshimbag Ground, Nagpur 
Photo : Wikimedia Commons / Ganesh Dhamodkar
Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) drill at Sangh headquarter Reshimbag Ground, Nagpur Photo : Wikimedia Commons / Ganesh Dhamodkar

Believers’ Dilemma – II

Never before has the RSS been more confident of its role in shaping India’s future. (This is part two of a two-part essay)
Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) drill at Sangh headquarter Reshimbag Ground, Nagpur<br />Photo : Wikimedia Commons / Ganesh Dhamodkar
Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) drill at Sangh headquarter Reshimbag Ground, Nagpur
Photo : Wikimedia Commons / Ganesh Dhamodkar

At the VHP office in Ayodhya I met a man who prided himself for being part of the mob which demolished the Babri mosque on the morning of 6 December 1992. Unfortunately, for the 58-year-old Hazari Lal, he fell down along with one of the tombs and was buried in the debris. After he was rescued and many surgeries and a few jail terms later, he seems to be doing okay – except for a limp, a weakened right hand, and a damaged left eye, which has turned gray and sightless. He has never hated Muslims, he clarifies; in fact, his Teli ancestors, who spent their lives crushing oil, were themselves at the oppressed end of the caste system. Lal became passionate about the idea of a Ram temple after he first heard about the issue in the early 1980s at the RSS shakha in his village in Shahjahanpur, 300 kilometres west of Ayodhya. "There'll be a temple here before I die," he said with a faint smile, as he guided me around a replica of the temple that the VHP wants to build.

On 9 January 2016, BJP leader Subramanian Swami organised a two-day seminar at Delhi University. The aim of the seminar was to canvass support for building the Ram temple at Ayodhya. However, the response was muted with most participants agreeing that nothing could happen till the Supreme Court gave its verdict on the disputed land. In 2010, the Allahabad High Court had ruled that the site should be split into three parts – one each for Hindus, Muslims and the Nirmohi Akhara, a sect that represented the god Ram himself in the court proceedings. But the Supreme Court, in 2011, suspended the High Court ruling after the Hindu and Muslim groups appealed against the verdict. My trip to Ayodhya almost coincided with Swami's seminar. Among the people I met there was Acharya Satyendra Das, the head priest at the makeshift Ram Janmabhoomi temple. Das declared: "Jab tak rajneeti nahi hategi, mandir nahi banega." (A temple can't be built until we remove politics from the equation.)

Even though Advani's Chevrolet-chariot was stopped in Bihar, the rath yatra made it clear that BJP wanted to desperately reconcile with its ideological mothership.

From Ayodhya, I took a train to Nagpur; and given the Ayodhya movement was RSS' brainchild, the journey felt like I was travelling back in time. In Nagpur, I met Dilip Deodhar, a businessman and a popular RSS analyst. Deodhar said, "It is Congress that is to be blamed for Ayodhya." Deodhar meant it was Rajiv Gandhi, as the prime minister in 1986, who ordered the locks to be removed on the disputed structure to allow Hindus to worship there. It had all begun in 1983, when Congress leaders Karan Singh and Dau Dayal Khanna first proposed to VHP the idea of making a Ram temple in Ayodhya. In the general elections following Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984, Congress received an unprecedented electoral success; BJP was on the other hand reduced to its lowest total ever: two. Not only had RSS not helped the BJP electorally, but had driven disenchanted RSS volunteers to vote for the Congress in large numbers.

In 1989, Banwarilal Purohit, then a Congress MP from Nagpur, had arranged for two secret meetings in Nagpur between one of Rajeev's ministers, Bhanu Prakash Singh, and the RSS. "Deoras had a shrewd political brain," Deodhar said. "He told Congress, 'give me Ayodhya without any conditions attached, and we will offer you full support in the election'." This obviously pained the BJP, especially Advani, who had replaced Vajpayee in 1986 as the party president. In September 1990, Advani commenced on a rath yatra, from Somnath, Gujarat. The intention was to reach Ayodhya, criss-crossing states and drawing followers, by 30 October. Even though Advani's Chevrolet-chariot was stopped in Bihar, the rath yatra made it clear that BJP wanted to desperately reconcile with its ideological mothership. Two years later, economist-turned-journalist Arun Shourie, who was a guest at the RSS Founders' Day in October 1992, advised the parent body to heavily exert its influence on the BJP: "Right now, it seems as if you have cut the umbilical cord."

The Babri demolition on 6 December 1992 by kar sevaks, which also included a bunch of RSS volunteers sent from Nagpur for the purpose, prompted nationwide rioting during which more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. The next day RSS and its affiliates got banned for the third time (the ban was lifted in June 1993). Most BJP politicians alternated between condemning and justifying the demolition; VHP emphatically called it Vijay Diwas – the day of victory.

The Ayodhya movement catapulted BJP into power four years later. It must be said here that BJP also gained popularity after 1980 because of the Congress' fallen credibility among middle-class Hindu voters as a result of Rajiv Gandhi's overtures to conservative Muslims and their representatives. The BJP made good use of the Shah Bano case of 1985 (in which Rajiv Gandhi, under pressure from Muslim conservative groups, had reversed the Supreme Court judgment, and denied alimony to a 62-year-old Muslim woman divorced by her husband). The case has since been used by the RSS and its affiliates as a prominent example of 'minority appeasement'. Deoras died in June 1996, not unhappy, a month after the first BJP government came to power at the centre, even though the government didn't last more than 13 days.

The BJP came to power again in March 1998. Two months later, Vajpayee carried out nuclear tests, fulfilling an old RSS demand. But once again his government fell down after 13 months. In the next general elections in 1999, the National Democratic Alliance coalition led by BJP, desperate by now, thought it wise to drop the pet agendas – the temple at Ayodhya, the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) and Article 370. This time the coalition got a comfortable majority to last a full term.

But while the BJP was in a buoyant mood, the VHP was "emotionally and psychologically too involved in the Ayodhya issue to come out," Deodhar said. The priest Satyendra Das said that Ashok Singhal once confessed to sadhus in Ayodhya that he "requested the Vajpayee-Advani duo to give the acquired land to VHP to build the temple, but they refused saying the government would fall the next day." Sanjeev Kelkar, who ran a VHP-supported hospital in rural Karnataka in the 1980s, knew Singhal well; Kelkar, who authored The Lost Years of RSS in 2011, blames Vajpayee for the BJP's U-turn on the temple issue, but believes that in the 1990s, the Sangh had become ideologically bankrupt, and was unable to make use of a favourable new, anti-communist world order: "They could have made use of the collapse of the leftist ideology in USSR and China, updated their politics and economics. But they didn't have any new ideas, so they remained stuck in Ayodhya."

Vajpayee's relationship with the Sangh worsened after KS Sudarshan was appointed the RSS chief in 2000. Vajpayee had surprised many by continuing the reforms initiated by the Congress in 1991. He began privatising under-performing government-owned business in communication and infrastructure. He also reversed India's long standing non-aligned foreign policy by bettering ties with the US. Sudarshan was both fiercely anti-America and an advocate of the swadeshi way of life (and also of Vedic sciences – he redesigned the RSS headquarter in Nagpur in 2006 to remove vaastu doshas –  (architectural defects, according to traditional Hindu beliefs.)

Sudarshan also had a habit of meddling with ministries, including in the appointment of ministers. Vajpayee and Advani were both elder to him, but Sudarshan believed that as the chief of the parent body, he had the moral authority to interfere. In his condemnation of Vajpayee's economics, Sudarshan had an ally in the BMS founder Dattopant Bapurao Thengadi, who in 1991 launched a new organisation called Swadeshi Jagran Manch. Thengadi frequently blamed Vajpayee for "mortgaging the country's economic security". Ironically, Vajpayee's disinvestment minister was Shourie, who had earlier advised the RSS to tighten its grip on BJP. Vajpayee mostly ignored the advice of Sudarshan and Thengadi.

BJP went to the 2004 general elections with a promotional blitzkrieg around the 'India Shining' slogan. Unfortunately, the services-led growth had not trickled down to most of rural India, where Congress easily outperformed the BJP. Vajpayee convinced himself that the loss was caused by the 2002 Gujarat riots in which Narendra Modi, the then BJP chief minister of the western state, was implicated. RSS on its part declared that BJP lost the election because it gave up, as before, on the Hindutva ideology.

Sudarshan approached journalist Shekhar Gupta for a TV interview in early 2005, much against the wishes of other members in RSS. In this April 2005 interview, Sudarshan took on Vajpayee, who "didn't do anything great" as a prime minister. He claimed that Vajpayee "didn't communicate well with other affiliates of Sangh", and that he relied too much on his dubious, non-RSS coterie, which included Brajesh Mishra, his principal secretary and the national security advisor, and his son-in-law, Ranjan Bhattacharya. Sudarshan said younger leaders should replace Vajpayee and Advani. [This was hypocritical considering that, at the time, Sudarshan was 74 years old.] RSS at this time even contemplated breaking away from the BJP to float a new party, journalist Dinesh Narayanan reported in May 2014 for The Caravan, but the idea was finally discarded as unrealistic. In December 2005, an ailing Vajpayee declared he wouldn't contest another election.

The relationship between BJP and RSS began to improve in 2006 when Rajnath Singh took over as the party president from Advani. RSS had wanted to sack Advani after June 2005 when Advani, on a trip to Karachi, his hometown in Pakistan, had deemed Mohammad Ali Jinnah as a "secular" figure and an "ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity". Soon after, Singh, who didn't mind deferring to RSS, took over, the BJP amended its constitution to allow key positions to be retained by RSS pracharaks till the district level – in effect reinstating the organising secretary model of the Deendayal Upadhyaya years. Mohan Bhagwat, who succeeded Sudarshan before the 2009 general elections, was a generation younger to Advani, and consciously tried not to repeat Sudarshan's mistakes. Bhagwat, 59, whose thick moustache resembles Hedgewar's, shared Deoras' pragmatism about politics and economics. He already had in mind a name for BJP's future leadership – Narendra Modi. Modi had, by then, successfully refashioned himself by espousing economic development and attracting business houses by giving them tax concessions in Gujarat. By early 2009, most corporate houses had already declared Modi as their preferred choice for the general election to be held that year.

After BJP lost the 2009 general elections under Advani, Bhagwat started telling media that for better coordination among the RSS and its affiliates, the average age of the leadership across the Sangh Parivar should be no more than 60-65 years. The RSS approached the news channel Times Now to emphasise this necessary agenda to change the old guard within BJP’s echelon of leaders. Bhagwat told anchor Arnab Goswami: “When, where and how is their decision.” Bhagwat sought a similar generational shift in VHP. When Singhal stepped down as the president in 2011, Bhagwat chose a lesser known 50-year-old Raghava Reddy, over the controversial general secretary, Pravin Togadia, who was expected to succeed Singhal.

Bhagwat’s father had been a mentor to Modi in his formative years in RSS in Gujarat (both Modi and Bhagwat were born in September 1950), which contributed to a sound personal relationship between them. RSS became more confident about Modi’s candidature in 2012 after he won his fourth state assembly election by a huge margin. But the succession turmoil continued till June 2013, when president Rajnath Singh – after months of back-room meetings with Bhagwat and the RSS joint general secretary, Suresh Soni, the then Sangh’s liaison to the BJP – finally elevated Modi to chair the BJP’s campaign committee, even as Advani sulked. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, whose party Janata Dal (United) was an old ally of the BJP, immediately broke his party’s coalition with the BJP. That didn’t stop BJP from officially declaring Modi as their prime ministerial candidate in September 2014.

Though the Sangh parivar has shown extraordinarily resilience over the last few decades, for now, it seems that there are serious limits to how much the Indian state and nation can be made part of the Hindutva project

In the run-up to the 2014 general elections, Bhagwat feigned stoicism, saying RSS’s agenda was simply “to bring issues in front of the people.” In actual fact, RSS volunteers were deeply involved in the campaign – from collecting feedback on the impact of Modi’s speeches to updating the voters’ list everywhere. In this, they were helped by other Sangh affiliates, who worked tirelessly along with the BJP cadre in a three-fold campaign, which also included a hired team of social media experts. Eventually, BJP won the election and, for the first time, achieved a full majority of its own. Two months later, Modi’s lieutenant and chief strategist, Amit Shah, was made the party president. Under Shah, BJP continued to run a highly centralised campaign in the state assembly elections in 2014, and did exceptionally well. For the first time, it became a senior coalition partner in Maharashtra and a junior partner in Jammu & Kashmir and formed a clear majority government in Jharkhand and Haryana; in the latter, a pracharak was made the chief minister.

But by 2015, Modi’s popularity was on a wane. In February, BJP lost the Delhi assembly elections and badly. It seemed like a one-time aberration, but in November the party was trounced again in Bihar. The blame game started soon after the Bihar results were announced. Most of the criticism was leveled at Shah, whose strategic mistakes and authoritarian handling of a regional election were bitterly criticised in a letter written by the Vajpayee-era heavyweights Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Yashwant Sinha. Also condemned in meeker terms within BJP-RSS was Bhagwat’s interview, two weeks before the election, in which he sought a review of caste-based reservations. “Advani and Joshi couldn’t have written a letter without talking to someone in the RSS,” said journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, an expert on right-wing politics in India.

There were rumours after the election that Shah might be sacked. But RSS remained quiet; a compromise solution was worked out, with Shah being given a fresh term in January 2016. This compromise, some believe, is a symptom of RSS’s weakened position vis-à-vis the ruling BJP. The balance of power had moved in favour of the BJP because between 2006 and 2008, there had been a series of bomb attacks carried out by Hindu extremist organisations and individuals with alleged ties to the RSS. On trial in four such cases is Swami Aseemanand, who was earlier a pracharak with the RSS’s tribal affiliate, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram. In a profile published in February 2014 in the Caravan, Aseemanand claimed that the attacks had been tacitly sanctioned by Bhagwat himself. In his confession earlier, Aseemanand had named many RSS pracharaks, including Indresh Kumar, a Karyakarini Sadasya (member of RSS’ national executive).

After the BJP came to power, former special prosecutor Rohini Salian told the Indian Express in June 2015 that she had “been told to go soft on accused”. According to senior journalist Dhirendra K Jha, “the sharp edges in these cases have been blunted so that the RSS doesn’t get implicated”. But while Modi has taken care of these potential problems, the RSS has got itself more enmeshed in the political process, like never before.  This was further proved by the recent government crackdown on students at the Hyderabad Central University and the Jawaharlal Nehru University. At the former, a 26-year-old Dalit PhD student affiliated to the Ambedkar Students’ Association, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide on 21 January, following a confrontation with the ABVP activists at the university. This was two weeks after Vemula and four other researchers were expelled from their hostels by the university administration. The problem dated back to August 2015, when Vemula and other activists from the ASA at HCU protested against the hanging of the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts-accused Yakub Memon as well as condemned the ABVP attack on the screening of a documentary film, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, at Delhi University.

The ABVP activists at the campus complained about Vemula and co-agitators to Bandaru Dattatreya – a former RSS pracharak, who won the 2014 general elections from Secunderabad – and currently, the labour minister. Dattatreya in turn approached the HRD ministry, which sent five letters to the university administration in a quick succession, resulting in Vemula’s suspension from the hostel. Soon after, Vemula hanged himself from a ceiling fan in a friend’s hostel room. The BJP alternated between sympathising with Vemula’s family and labeling protesting students in the University of Hyderabad campus as “anti-nationals”. But the issue reinforced BJP’s anti-Dalit image. Two weeks later, on 9 February, it was once again the ABVP that got the government involved in yet another controversy. This time the issue raked up was about a bunch of students in the JNU campus shouting anti-India slogans on the death anniversary of the 2003 Parliament attack convict, Afzal Guru. The Delhi Police arrested Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the JNU student union, who is from the All India Student Federation of CPI, and three others on charges of sedition. The police had no documentary evidence against Kumar, except a video clip that turned out to be fabricated. When Kumar was granted an interim bail, he came out and made a wry, vitriolic speech rebuking RSS and BJP that went viral on internet.

Sandwiched between these two controversies in February 2016, was the less talked-about agitation for reservation by the Jat community in Haryana. Jats, who comprise of a quarter of Haryana’s population, had contributed to the assembly election victory of the BJP in the northern state in October 2014. Manohar Lal Khattar is a first-term, non-Jat MLA who was foisted to the office by the Modi-Shah duo for no greater credibility than being a popular pracharak from the state. The Jat community’s demand for reservation – given their representation in government jobs and politics in Haryana – is less than justified. But Khattar was found napping through the agitation, calling it “leaderless” and a handiwork of the ‘opposition’, even as the ensuing violence claimed 30 lives and the destruction of public and private property amounted to a total of INR 20,000 crores (USD 2.99 billion). Khattar’s inexperience in handling the situation has brought into question the credibility of RSS’ pracharak model to produce efficient administrators.

RSS doesn’t seem to mind criticism for now. A majority government at the centre, headed by a pracharak, gives it the best chance to propagate its Hindu rashtra ideal, though Bhagwat has not articulated what exactly a 21 century Hindu nation should look like. But the Sangh is on a massive expansion drive. “The first phase of expansion was through shakhas, the second through launching the affiliates,” said Deodhar. The aim now is to expand into rural India by merging the two strategies. RSS turns 100 in 2025. Before that, Deodhar said, “it has set the task of making its presence felt in every block in the country – either through a shakha, or, through one of its affiliates.” Both Deodhar and Kelkar believe that Sangh will sooner or later drop the word “Hindutva” as its motto and replace it with “Bharatiyata” – it is all about symbolism really, but it might help RSS expand the clout of the Parivar among the minorities. In the summer of 2014, the BJP declared its dream of a “Congress-mukt Bharat” – an India which has rid itself of the Congress. That’s unlikely in foreseeable future, despite the present-day Congress’ self-destructive obsession with dynastic politics. While Modi was quick to erase some of the Congress era economic bodies – as shown by his dismantling of the Planning Commission – the so-called ‘pro-poor’ tilt of the 2016 budget has disappointed the market liberals, who rallied behind him in 2014, expecting path-breaking economic reforms. Clearly, the electoral losses have made the Modi-Shah duo a lot more circumspect.

After the win in Assam, the real test of BJP’s popularity will be the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in early 2017, where the party has got on board popular young faces from the state unit of RSS and VHP in crucial positions. For now the Uttar Pradesh 2017 elections seem to be shaping into a three-way playoff between the BJP, the incumbent Samajwadi Party, and the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samajwadi Party, which is on a rise after the humiliating drub it received in 2014. A poor show in Uttar Pradesh would reflect badly for the BJP’s electoral prospects in the 2019 Lok Sabha. In any case, it seems increasingly unlikely that the BJP in 2019 would be anywhere close to the majority it received in 2014. India might then be headed for another era of BJP-led coalition, where Modi would be forced to balance between demands of Sangh on one hand and that of unwieldy coalition partners on the other – an eerie reminder of the Vajpayee years. Except that Modi has neither Vajpayee’s conviction nor the charisma to deal tactfully with the opposition in the parliament. Not only has he backtracked from unpopular legislations, he also seems innately incapable of parliamentary management, repeatedly refusing to cultivate even a semblance of a working relationship with opposition parties. Though the Sangh parivar has shown extraordinarily resilience over the last few decades, for now, it seems that there are serious limits to how much the Indian state and nation can be made part of the Hindutva project. Unless, of course, there is another unforeseen communal shock that awaits us – the kind that the RSS has become rather adept at manufacturing.

The first part of this essay was published on 1 June 2016

~ Abhishek Choudhary is a researcher and journalist based in Delhi, and a contributor to Himal Southasian

If you liked reading this article, you may be interested in:

Anand Teltumbde’s review of Godse’s Children: Hindutva Terror in India and the correlations between resurgent Hindutva and the ascendance of neoliberalism

Atreyee Sen’s review of Everyday Nationalism: Women of the Hindu Right in India

and more…

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