An Expected Change In Key RSS Post Could Help Modi Soon

A huge organisational shake-up which will be critical to the general election could happen in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) around the end of March, when the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha (ABPS), which is the organization's top decision-making body, meets in Nagpur.

On the agenda is a younger fresh team to lead the Sangh; its Number Two Suresh "Bhaiyyaji" Joshi, whose term comes to an end in March, is likely to offer to quit. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat's term does not have an expiry date. The buzz in the larger Sangh Parivar is that his likely replacement and the biggest claimant for the powerful job is Dattatreya Hosabale, in his early 60s, who enjoys a particularly close relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
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RSS leader Dattatreya Hosabale and Prime Minister Narendra Modi (File photo)

If Hosabale replaces 70-year-old Joshi, the implications are huge for the larger Sangh and BJP. Joshi has recently had a knee replacement surgery and finds it difficult to tour the country, considered one of the top priorities for the executive head of the RSS. Joshi is particularly close to Nitin Gadkari, and if he defies expectations to remain No 2 in the RSS, then Pravin Togadia, the chief of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, who has had a very public falling out with Modi will also not be removed. Togadia has been close to Joshi who sympathises with him and feels he was badly done by when Modi was Gujarat Chief Minister.

Despite Togadia's public drama before he was arrested in Gujarat last month - he went missing for 12 hours, seen as a tactic to dodge being arrested - Joshi objected to the "plants" that reported Togadia would be replaced.
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VHP leader Pravin Togadia, who went "missing" last month, was found 12 hours later at a hospital in Ahmedabad (File photo)

Joshi was also upset that the Sangh's choice for President, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, was brushed aside by Modi who picked Ram Nath Kovind who does not have a background as RSS Swayamsevak (volunteer).

Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, also shares Joshi's views that the RSS cannot play second fiddle to the BJP in key decisions. Hosabale has a post-graduate degree in English literature and before he became a Pracharak (RSS worker), he was active in its student body, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). One of the things that has caused reservations on his candidature is the fact that he has not directly risen from an RSS Shakha or branch. He currently is one of the joint General Secretaries assisting Joshi, having risen quietly but spectacularly after Modi's ascent to PM.

The delicate balance of power between the RSS and the BJP stands to skew towards Modi if Hosabale gets the all-important No 2 post on account of his equation with Modi. With crucial elections looming in Karnataka, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, a powerful lobby in the BJP is pushing to ensure that a generational change happens not just in the party but in the RSS, with Hosabale getting a promotion to ensure smooth coordination between the party and its ideological mentor.
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File photo of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat (centre) 

A top RSS functionary told me on the condition of anonymity, "If Hosabale becomes the executive head of the Sangh, then Modi will become the most powerful functionary of the Sangh Parivar. The two talk every week and work in perfect unison. Hosabale can walk in to the PM's office anytime".

This special relationship reportedly causes some disquiet for other Sangh favourites like union ministers Nitin Gadkari and Rajnath Singh. Gadkari, who had a bit of an uneasy patch with Modi over micromanagement, has reportedly made peace, but despite being announced as one of the government's representatives to Davos, he did not accompany Modi to the World Economic Forum. Sources close to him say that he has a record of visiting Davos every alternate year and not much should be read into his absence this year.
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PM Narendra Modi delivering a keynote address at the World Economic Forum in Davos

The Sangh's crucial Nagpur meet will also factor in the results of the Rajasthan by-elections that saw the BJP losing colossally all three seats that were being decided. Sources say that the Sangh has been repeatedly warning the government of the seething distress among farmers. The upcoming Phulpur and Gorakhpur Lok Sabha by-elections in Uttar Pradesh, for which dates have yet to be announced, are also being viewed as bell-weather by the RSS. The parliamentary seats were vacated by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya. Both the seats are a battle of prestige, especially Gorakhpur, which was represented for five terms by the Yogi. 

The RSS feels that despite the tall claims made by the BJP, public support for the Modi government has been sliding. The RSS internal assessment is that if elections were held today, the BJP, which won 282 seats in 2014, would round up 200-220 seats. Sources say that the RSS has told BJP president Amit Shah that the upcoming Karnataka election is crucial because if the southern state goes saffron, the momentum will charge in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and the general elections. Shah is learnt to have asked for full RSS support and smooth coordination.
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BJP chief Amit Shah celebrating the party's victory in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh

The RSS has three scenarios. If the BJP actually slips to 225 in the general election, other Sangh favourites have a shot of becoming PM because landing allies to cross the 272 mark will be crucial, and as evidenced by the complaints of the Sena and TDP and Akalis, Shah-Modi are not doing a great job at managing partnerships. But if the BJP goes above 225, Modi is a natural choice for PM. Third scenario: the RSS feels that if the BJP gets under 200 seats, a third front government supported by the Congress will become a reality.

So the March gathering will address these potential outcomes. Sources say that once the decision is taken on whether Hosabale should replace Joshi, the focus will move quickly to an aggressive strategy for the general election, which the PM wants advanced. It's going to be a hectic March.

(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.