Rahul Gandhi has pulled no punches while attacking the RSS, the mothership of the Sangh Parivar but has also repeatedly said that his Congress party and he hold no personal animosity against any one - to prove this, Gandhi dramatically hugged Narendra Modi in parliament in July. The hug outwitted Modi, a known master of the photo-op. Now, Gandhi's Love Guru avatar has been brilliantly challenged by the RSS which has indicated it will invite him and other prominent opposition leaders to a talk by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat in Delhi next month.
The lecture on "The Future of Bharat: an RSS perspective" will be delivered by Bhagwat in the stately Vigyan Bhavan in the heart of Lutyens Delhi. Bhagwat will interact with a "select audience comprising prominent citizens" says Arun Kumar, the national spokesperson of the RSS.
So will Gandhi go? And will he hug Bhagwat? No official response yet, but senior Congress leaders who are still reeling from their party veteran and former President Pranab Mukherjee visiting the RSS headquarters in Nagpur in July say Gandhi must offer "regrets only" for the invite, when and if it appears.
I spoke to several congress and BJP leaders for this piece and only Kamal Nath, chief of the Madhya Pradesh Congress, was willing to go on record saying categorically that "Gandhi should not go. Hugging the PM in a spirit of saying that he has no personal anger is one thing, but why should we go and listen to the ideology of those we have always opposed?"
Both Congress and BJP leaders appeared rather shell-shocked by the clever play of the Sangh which dares Gandhi to walk the talk - right over to their event. The earlier invite and its acceptance by Mukherjee had hugely upset the Congress with his daughter, Sharmistha Mukherjee, being fielded to publicly oppose it. With the likely new offer to Gandhi, though, even the BJP appears a little taken aback.
The RSS, say top Sangh sources, is using the Bhagwat lecture to send multiple messages, the most notable of which may be it wants to claim the centrestage of ideology and shed its traditional reticence about clearly conveying the extent of its hold over the BJP's politics and policies. Says a senior Sangh functionary, "You call us exclusivist. Well, now we are going at the highest level, from city to city, explaining our ideology. Bhagwat-ji held a similar lecture in Mumbai recently. The RSS has had a personality evolution. We have changed our dress and said that those who accept India as their motherland are all our people. We are categorically against violence. People must be made aware of this which is why the outreach at the level of the Sarsanghchalak (RSS chief)."
The other significant message is reportedly for the BJP. Earlier, Bhagwat had publicly contradicted BJP President Amit Shah by saying the Sangh does not endorse his war cry of a "Congress-mukt Bharat". Coming as this does in election season, the BJP is not happy about the meet, greet and chat with the Sangh. BJP leaders are hoping Gandhi and other opposition leaders like the Left's Sitaram Yechury refuse the invite. This will ensure that they can call out the hypocrisy of the Congress's proclaimed "inclusive" politics. The BJP in this reaction is fretting like an only child faced with a rival, says an amused senior Sangh functionary. "The BJP wants to ensure that we keeping providing the lubricant that ensures that they continue in power," he says. Top functionaries of the Sangh say that it had always had warm relations with Indira and Rajiv Gandhi and that the frost set in with Sonia Gandhi and now Rahul, who attacks them and conflates them with the BJP.
Interestingly, at Atal Bihari Vajpayee's funeral, Rahul Gandhi had come face-to-face with Bhagwat but no words or greetings were exchanged. Former PM Manmohan Singh who was also present interacted with the RSS leader.
Senior Congress leaders believe that the RSS is ramping up its efforts to occupy the space ceded by the Congress in the ideological sphere while propelling itself into wider acceptability. "We have been in government twice, but even while being in power, we do not control the real establishment of the Nehruvian consensus which still guides the country. The time has come to change that and make India in to our ideological image," says a RSS leader who asked not to be named.
There's also the theory, if not entirely believable, that the invitation to Gandhi is intended to show Modi-Shah that the RSS remains in charge and that the pair, no matter how powerful, will have to contend with RSS out-of-the-box plays -and run with them.
It's now for Rahul Gandhi to determine if the invite is really just too hot to handle.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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