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The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) remains the source, supplement, and shadow — contributing to the BJP’s phenomenal electoral success, shaping it, but also getting shaped in the process, writes PRASHANT JHA in his book

Today, the BJP is on its way to becoming a pan-Indian outfit, outstripping the Sangh’s reach and spread. This has meant that the Sangh plays the role of a supplement in electoral battles. These contradictions on leadership, issues and election management have persisted between the RSS and the BJP. They have not got out of hand for three broad reasons — Narendra Modi’s personal dynamic with Mohan Bhagwat, ideological convergence and regular coordination.

Narendra Modi is the Sangh. He is, as the commentator Ashok Malik once put it, its most distinguished alumnus. It was the Sangh that deployed him to the BJP, as the organisation secretary of Gujarat in the late 1980s. Modi owes his worldview, his networks, his political life and his ethos to the Sangh. Anyone who treats Modi as completely distinct from the Sangh does justice neither to Modi nor to the Sangh.

Yet Modi is not just the Sangh. He has gone much beyond the Sangh and, at key moments, he has confronted, challenged and pushed the parent organisation. As Modi grew in popularity and stature, media speculation hovered around whether the Sangh would accept him as the face of the BJP for the 2014 elections. There were voices of dissent, but his enormous appeal among the cadre — the pracharaks as well as swayamsevaks, the full-time cadre and the sympathisers, and the wider Sangh ecosystem — meant that Nagpur had to take into account voices from below. Mohan Bhagwat, and his number 2, Bhaiyaji Joshi, supported Modi, and even persuaded the reluctant LK Advani to fall in line.

But speculation persisted on how the Sangh-Modi relationship would work out once Modi won with a resounding majority. The RSS is uncomfortable with what it refers to as “vyakti puja”. And while it allows its mass organisations operational autonomy, it is uncomfortable with loosening its control entirely. This is what had led to a tense dynamic between the Sangh leadership and the Vajpayee Government on a range of issues.

But Modi, as Prime Minister, has developed a remarkably smooth working relationship with the Sangh. And this owes, first, to his personal equation with Mohan Bhagwat.

An RSS functionary explained, “Atalji’s contemporary was Rajju Bhaiya (Rajendra Singh, a former sarsanghchalak). But when he became Prime Minister, the sarsanghchalak was Sudarshanji, who was junior to him. This created problems, because the PM was uncomfortable taking directions from him. Thesarsanghchalak was also a little too aggressive on issues where he should have given the PM space.”

It is different now. Modi and Mohan Bhagwat are contemporaries, and their lives have progressed almost in parallel, witnessing similar highs at similar stages. Both were born in 1950; they became purnakaliks, or full-time pracharaks, in the 1970s; Bhagwat became the general secretary of the Sangh in 1999, and Modi became Gujarat Chief Minister at the end of 2001; Bhagwat took over as the sarsanghchalak in 2009, and Modi’s rise at the national level too happened soon after that, leading to the 2014 win. To top it all, Modi’s mentor in the Sangh happened to be Bhagwat’s father. All this had helped in winning the Sangh’s support for his candidature back in 2013.

“They are friends. Thesarsanghchalak is also very pragmatic and open-minded. You see his focus on social reform and one temple, one crematorium, one waterbody campaign.” This is an RSS campaign to end caste-based discrimination and create commons which everyone, including Dalits, can access. “And see Modi’s focus on expanding the base of the party. There is coordination. It does not mean the Government listens to everything the Sangh says, and it does not mean the Sangh intervenes in every sphere. But the relationship is very different from Atalji’s times,” said the functionary.

There is another layer here, of deeper ideological convergence. Ashok Singhal, the VHP supremo and Sangh veteran, was a fierce critic of the NDA regime during Vajpayee’s time. In June 2013, some time before Modi was to formally become the BJP face, Singhal was ecstatic about the Gujarat Chief Minister as a future national leader. 

In the clearest indication of the Sangh’s expectations and agenda, Singhal said that they wanted Modi to stop the “process of de-Hinduisation” taking place. He wanted Parliament to pass a resolution on the Ayodhya issue, paving the way for a temple. The Sangh Parivar wanted the Government to focus on “cleaning up the Ganga”. “Like Ram, Ganga unites us. And there is a systematic conspiracy to destroy the river.” Banning cow slaughter was next on his agenda. “This is not just for religious but also developmental and nutritional purposes.”

Take stock in 2017, and compare it to the expectations. Except Ayodhya, where the scope for unilateral executive action is limited, the Government has pushed hard on the other two issues. The Ganga may not have got cleaned, but no Government has accorded it the priority and resources as Modi sarkar. Nor has national discourse ever revolved so much around cow protection. The political signalling is clear. A new notification on cattle slaughter has been brought in; there has been a crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses in UP.

The ideological convergence is also reflected in Modi’s open assertion of his religious identity. A top BJP leader, who comes from the Sangh, pointed to the pride the Sangh feels at key moments. “When Modi goes and prays at the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, or Kedarnath, or Banaras, and comes out with tika, he is saying he is a Hindu and he is proud of being one. The last PM to visit temples so publicly was Indira Gandhi in her final term. Modi wears his religion on his sleeve; he is unapologetic about display of culture. The Sangh is very happy with this. Their agenda is precisely this. What else is the slogan we used in so many campaigns — Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain, say with pride we are Hindus.” All this appeals to the Sangh worker on the ground, and keeps his faith in Modi intact.

And finally, there is regular, mostly private but sometimes public, exchange of views between the Sangh and BJP leadership. A BJP leader with roots in the Sangh says, “The PM is always very keen to know details of what the Sangh feels. He takes reports from us about meetings we may have had with Sangh functionaries. He encourages the Sangh to support his campaigns; he takes into account their concerns.”

There is institutionalised coordination at the party level with RSS joint general secretary Krishna Gopal working closely with both Amit Shah and organisation pointsperson Ram Lal. The doors of each Minister are open to Sangh affiliates working in that domain, and their views are heard — even if they are not always acted on. And in 2015, Modi — as well as key Cabinet Ministers — went to a meeting of the RSS in Delhi, where they discussed governance priorities and took feedback. This was the most explicit and public recognition of the party’s debt to the Sangh as well as a nod to the Sangh’s role in statecraft.

Good personal relations at the top, broad convergence on the ideological agenda, smoother coordination mechanisms and a degree of mutual accommodation — with the BJP giving space to people with a Sangh background in key institutions and pushing pet issues and the Sangh giving the BJP leeway on other issues of governance — have helped them work well together. This has created the room for the Sangh to reconcile itself, and even embrace, the subalternisation of the BJP.

In September 2015, Prafulla Ketkar was in Chennai when he got a call. “The BJP is doing a press conference on your interview. Have a look,” he was told. Ketkar, the editor of Organizer, the English-language magazine of the RSS, had interviewed Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat. In the interview, Bhagwat had suggested reviewing the system of reservations. The Bihar elections were due. And Lalu Prasad, the astute politician, smelled an opportunity to convert the election into a forward-backward contest, the battle which had propelled him to power in 1990.

The BJP, which needed votes of backward communities to win, was on the defensive. At first it distanced itself from the sarsanghchalak’s statement — a futile enterprise since no one would believe that the RSS supremo spoke only for himself and not the broaderparivar. PM Modi himself categorically committed to continuing reservations, but the doubts refused to die down. The statement was used to establish that the Sangh remained a Brahmanical outfit — uncomfortable with the rise of backward castes, unwilling to give them space.

Almost a year and a half later, in the middle of 2017, Ketkar, sitting in the Organizer office in Delhi’s Paharganj, was still struck by what he sees as a misinterpretation of the interview. “Go back to the interview. We were discussing Deen Dayal Upadhyayji, and we had asked what policy today is in tune with integral humanism. And in that context, he mentioned reservations. It was not an anti-reservation, but a pro-reservation statement,” he told me.

Bhagwat’s exact answer to Ketkar called reservations for socially backward classes as the “right example” of such a policy initiative. But he had then gone on to suggest, “If we would have implemented this policy as envisaged by the Constitution makers instead of doing politics over it, then the present situation would not have arrived. Since inception it has been politicised. We believe, form a committee of people genuinely concerned for the interest of the whole nation and committed for social equality, including some representatives from society, they should decide which categories require reservation and for how long. The non-political committees like autonomous commissions should be the implementation authority; political authorities should supervise them for honesty and integrity.”

The reactions came fast and furious. Indeed, Bhagwat had left room open for interpretation here. When he said the policy as envisaged by the Constitution should have been implemented, people recalled that the original provisions were only for Dalits and tribals — was he then suggesting that extending reservations to OBCs was wrong? Would his call for a committee to review the system lead to the dilution of the entire affirmative action architecture, and end up targeting certain castes?

The doubts were rooted in the suspicion that the RSS spoke for Hindu upper castes, and its quest for Hindu unity was a code for upper-caste domination. If this perception is true, then the BJP’s efforts at social expansion will hit a wall, for the marginalised will not accept second-class status. If it is not, is there a fundamental departure in the Sangh’s orientation?

RSS texts offer a clue.

In 1974, the then chief, Balasaheb Deoras, gave a lecture in Pune. This has become the organisation’s definitive position on caste. He spoke of the need for “Hindu consolidation”, and admitted that “social inequality” had been an obstruction to this unity. He declared, “If untouchability is not wrong, then nothing in the world is wrong.” He acknowledged that “backward and untouchable brethren” have “borne quite an amount of misery, insults and injustices all these centuries”. But then he warned them too, not to bring in quarrels of the past to the present, and stop bitter language and tirades.

On reservations, Deoras said the desire of backwards for opportunities is legitimate, but in the long run they will have to “compete with others and earn an equal status on the basis of merit”. This speech reveals the Sangh’s attitude to caste. It is conscious of inequality. It acknowledges discrimination. But it is cautious about what to do. It wants gradual social change, it places emphasis on personal conduct and it is not comfortable with radical politics of backwards and Dalits.

Mohan Bhagwat, in March 2017, gave another interview to Ketkar. Bhagwat acknowledged the 1974 speech as the ideological edifice forswayamsevaks, and argued that the Sangh had made an effort to reach out to groups which had been subjects of discrimination. He focused on improving personal, family, professional and social conduct and supported intercaste marriages. He called for an understanding of the anger. But like Deoras, he appealed to the victims to tone down their language.  

India’s marginalised, however, do not seek symbolism, they want real power. They want representation and dignity. As an old RSSpracharak told me, “You will see tension in the Sangh because it wants social unity and social justice. It wants dignity, but also harmony in an unequal society. It is not as conservative as people think, but it is not disruptive.”

Ketkar claims that the current Sangh approach combines the Gandhian approach — changing the mindset of upper castes — and Ambedkarite approach — of focusing on representation. “This is sustainable because it is backed by organisational strength.” But this claim is questionable; that the Sangh has never had a non-upper-caste chief is probably the most obvious example of its character. Indeed, except Rajju Bhaiya, all others have been Brahmans. Ketkar, however, sees a churning: “You see the organisation from below. There is a change. Among pracharaks, state office-bearers, and even in the 250-member executive committee, there are others. You will see a change.”

This detour into the Sangh is important to understand its evolving approach to the BJP’s subalternisation. When it articulates a position incompatible with the BJP’s efforts to woo backwards, elections are lost, as in Bihar. When it is supportive, elections are won, as in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Excerpted from the chapter ‘Sangh: Source, Supplement, Shadow’ of Prashant Jha’s book How the BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine; Juggernaut; Rs 399




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