Opinion | RSS vs BJP: Under The Cover Of Friendly Fire

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It is easy to misread the Indian election result as enlightened voters slamming the brakes on the spread of Hindutva ideology and the Bharatiya Janata Party juggernaut. It was perhaps no more than a costly tactical mistake by the BJP, which fought the elections with typical cockiness but uncharacteristic complacency.

It overplayed its narrative hand and was aced by an opposition which capitalised on the unforced error. It helped that the BJP's hubris did not let the party correct the blunder. Instead, they kept betting on the same number for the jackpot. The party was lucky to escape with bruises from what many gleefully see as a train wreck, although a careful examination would reveal that it is barely scathed. 

A Larger Goal

The BJP is nothing but an instrument in a much larger mission that transcends five-year election cycles and mortal leaders, their occasional delusions notwithstanding. The ideological project completes a century in its organised form, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), next year. The Hindutva enterprise is unhindered and deep-set. 

There were stray comments from RSS leaders about the elections. Indresh Kumar, patron of the Muslim Rashtriya Manch, which is ideologically affiliated to the RSS, remarked caustically that “the party that worshipped Ram but gradually became arrogant was declared the largest party. However, due to their arrogance, the votes and power they should have received were withheld by God”. It may be seen as a rebuke to the BJP leadership but despite Kumar being a member of the RSS national executive, it does not mean much as he has no publicly known responsibility vis a vis the BJP. 

An analysis of the BJP's muted show by Ratan Sharda in the Sangh Parivar mouthpiece Organiser defended the RSS's election work and found unresponsive BJP leaders and flawed candidate selection as reasons for its losses. Sharda blamed the BJP for not espousing Hindu causes and defending Hindutva warriors enough. 

"Fast Fingers"

“Netas with fast fingers on Twitter and FB etc mostly kept quiet on murders of BJP-RSS workers. The impression that BJP leadership does not care for its workers has struck roots. Is it so difficult to show sensitivity and show public support for them? People insulting Ram and Hindu Dharma get a red carpet welcome but a young seasoned Nupur Sharma is scolded harshly, publicly. Though I have repeatedly said, she only quoted Hadis; even if she made a mistake, is this how you treat your frontliners? How does a worker feel secure in difficult battlefields like West Bengal, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu or Kerala?” This despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi's election campaign being armed with a sharp Hindutva edge. 

Despite Sharda being sworn to the RSS ideology, his comments are not owned by the organisation. In the past, much stronger criticism of Modi and the BJP from organisational stalwarts such as the late MG Vaidya, were dismissed by the RSS as independent opinion. That, however, is not the case with Sarsanghachalak Mohan Bhagwat. His words are as official as they get. 

Along with avuncular advice on decorum in politics, Bhagwat said that the opposition should not be seen as an adversary. Saying that the opposition views must also be acknowledged, Bhagwat said: “there are two sides; while one might call it the opposing side, I prefer to call it the counter view. They are not opponents and should not be regarded as such. They are highlighting one aspect of an issue.”

Discontent Within The Family

Indian politics has certainly plumbed the depths of malice and skullduggery, but is Bhagwat really hoping for the BJP to pay heed to the Congress Party or Rahul Gandhi's views? Or is it a signal to pay attention to the opposition within? 

For the past few years, Parivar affiliates such as the labour union, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), farmers' body, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) had been consigned to oblivion on policy-making and legislation. There was considerable disquiet within the family over the contempt shown by the Modi government for its affiliates' views on national policy.  

Allowing one's own on the debating table is not only courtesy but also an effective political strategy of defining the opposition. RSS affiliates have frequently occupied the opposition space in BJP regimes. The Atal Behari Vajpayee government's most acerbic adversary was not Sharad Pawar or Sonia Gandhi but Dattopant Thengadi, then the patron of BMS, BKS and SJM. Thengadi famously described Vajpayee as a “petty politician playing into the hands of his policy advisors with doubtful credentials”.  

In the early days of the Modi regime, industry was high on the government's agenda and business leaders received the red-carpet treatment in Delhi. Organisations such as the SJM, BMS, and BKS felt left out of policy debates and complained to the RSS top brass. In his annual speech on the 2014 Vijaya Dashami day—the RSS' founding day—Mohan Bhagwat interceded, obliquely. “Individuals and organisations who are engaged in giving direction to the society and solving its various problems must remain active and vigilant. In a democratic system, the governments gain tremendously from that activism, awareness and maturity in the interest of the nation and it also protects the nation from [the] possibility of detracting in the game of power politics.”  

The government did engage more deeply with Sangh organisations after that, involving, for instance, the BMS in the drafting of the labour codes and SJM on e-commerce policy. 

ABVP On Entrance Exams

Bhagwat's June 11 speech echoed the high democratic principles articulated in the 2014 lecture and may have had a similar result. For starters, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the RSS's student affiliate that predates the BJP by more than three decades but has been in thrall to the party, has criticised the government for messing up entrance examinations for professional courses. “When people ask questions, the government must answer,” ABVP national general secretary Yagywalkya Shukla said. He said there was a question mark on the National Testing Agency's (NTA) credibility.  

Such barbs were unthinkable before the elections. With BJP's brute majority in the Lok Sabha, it was also not needed. With the Congress Party and allies regaining numbers in Parliament, it is important to deny them as much space as possible in public discourse. It's like friendly fire providing cover from enemy guns. Meanwhile, the RSS is holding meetings countrywide, collecting feedback and grassroots-level analysis to be synthesised by the leadership over the next couple of months to prepare plans for the next year, including for crucial state elections.

(Dinesh Narayanan is a Delhi-based journalist and author of The RSS And The Making Of The Deep Nation.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author