Gentleman, scholar, pracharak and neta

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Gentleman, scholar, pracharak and neta

With Anil Dave you could spend hours discussing a variety of issues, not mentioning politics at all, and come away the wiser. He was both erudite and polite to a fault

In the summer of 2009, a journalist friend phoned and asked for recommendations. His newspaper had told him to profile a “new-age Swayamsevak”. “Could you introduce me to an RSS whole-timer who is also a modern person, preferably from outside Delhi?” I smiled because the juxtaposition of ‘modern’ and ‘RSS’ (or ‘BJP’ for that matter) was and remains a mystery for significant sections of the English-speaking media.

Nevertheless it was not the time to have that debate. My friend’s editors had given him a task and he had a feature article to write. I knew exactly what he wanted and whom he needed to meet. “Are you okay with travelling to Bhopal?” I asked, thinking immediately of the person I had in mind. That person was Anil Madhav Dave, then an emerging BJP politician in Madhya Pradesh, having moved to the party a few years earlier from a full-time role in the RSS.

A few days later, on his return from Bhopal, I met my friend. He had been impressed by Anil Dave. I wasn’t surprised. Very few people who met Anil Dave, who so unfortunately passed away on May 18, two months short of his 61st birthday, were left unimpressed or untouched. He was a remarkable man. Polite to a fault, genial and smiling, but with strong views — on river conservation, on politics, on history and culture — expressed with utmost civility.

There are some politicians who can offer you an engaging conversation on politics and elections, but no topic beyond that. With Anil Dave you could spend hours discussing a variety of issues, not mentioning politics at all, and come away the wiser. It is a rare gift in today’s politics, across parties, where politicians find themselves so engrossed in day-to-day ‘breaking news’ that they forget to pursue other interests or just satisfy the hunger for ideas and sense of curiosity that is so natural for any thinking person.

When telling my journalist friend about Anil Dave, I called him “perhaps the only RSS pracharak with a pilot’s licence”. It had begun as a fascination while watching fighter aircraft in the sky in Junagadh, where he spent some of his early years. The child of a Gujarati-origin family settled in Madhya Pradesh, he was at home in the sky and on the ground — but most so while exploring the river. The Narmada was his passion and river conservation his mission. He once flew a small plane across the length of the Narmada.

More than that, he worked hard for reviving and cleaning the river, which he described as a living being and not just a resource to be exploited. It is not often realised that the issue of the Narmada Dam was not just a debate between the so-called ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ but saw a fervent argument within the Sangh parivar itself, and was a testimony to the diversity of opinion and under-recognised plurality of thought within the RSS family. Yet, that is another story for another day.

In the case of people like Anil Dave, it would suffice to say that river-system conservation and restoration efforts of grassroots activists often get crowded out by the noise generated by better-resourced and media-savvy NGOs in the big cities. Even so, in terms of efforts and outcomes, it is quite obvious who achieves more. One hopes the River Festivals that Anil Dave organised and the civil society institutions he incubated and ran with such loving care to commemorate the Narmada continue. That would be his biggest monument.

Environmental activist, history buff, amateur pilot, writer — he had written books on the Narmada river, of course, as well as an assessment of Shivaji’s administration — there was enough Anil Dave did to fill a full day. From the early 2000s at least, he was also an active and busy politician.

In Madhya Pradesh, he was the one-man electoral think-tank of the party. He didn’t need to refer to his laptop to rattle off facts and figures and give you clinical analyses of electoral prospects in far-flung constituencies. He had a built a network of associates and workers who gave him honest feedback.

This writer was privileged to see him at work during elections in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. He could put together a team of intelligent and committed volunteers and guide them into the various regions of the State to get qualitative and sometimes even quantitative feedback. It was astonishing to experience this, because it wasn’t a formal market research agency in the corporate sense of the term — but it was very effective.

This combination of sensitivity to river systems and their broader ecology, and experience of managing teams and projects made him a natural choice for ministerial office. Some of his friends were disappointed that he didn’t make it to Narendra Modi’s team in May 2014, but Anil Dave himself never complained. Eventually justice was done and Anil Dave was the very appropriate choice as Environment Minister in July 2016. Alas, he was to have too short a tenure.

Anil Dave has been called many things: A hard-working and non-controversial Minister, a dedicated MP, a friendly colleague, an agile political mind, a devotee of the Narmada in more ways than one, a proud son of India. Like many of us, he wore several identities. Nevertheless, to him his primary label was that of an RSS pracharak. As he often said, he had developed his ideas not in spite of the RSS but because of the fostering by the Sangh, which he considered a much misunderstood organisation and certainly not one with a unifocal obsession.

What does a pracharak do? At the simplest, he builds institutions. He travels to a new location — geographical generally, but sometimes a notional location that actually means a hitherto untapped segment of society — and builds a local unit or a local shakha. Have instilled enough institutional strength and vitality and having ensured members he has introduced will take the mission forward, the pracharakmoves to a new challenge, a new geography and new frontier.

When a talented and politically interested and knowledgeable pracharak takes these skills and these learnings into formal politics, into the BJP for instance — though there have been pracharaks in other parties — the results can be astounding. The BJP is much more than a party of RSS people, and has a strong quotient from outside the formal Sangh parivar. Yet, a diligent, meticulous and politically alive pracharak can provide the party a backbone that it cannot do without, especially in individual constituencies and states. In that sense, Anil Dave was a role model. We are all poorer without him.

(The writer is distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at malikashok@gmail.com)

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