RSS at the crossroads

Can Mr Bhagwat, like his role model Deoras, lead another round of reforms in the RSS before he retires?
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sevak (RSS) faces a predicament. It is seemingly omnipotent as never before in its history. Ironically, its voice has never been as feeble with its ideological progeny, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as it is today.

As journalist Dinesh Narayanan writes in his book, which is surprisingly dispassionate given the access the publicity-shy organisation gave him, the RSS leaders’ influence on the BJP government’s decision-making has diminished.

It is true that the RSS has accomplished much of its core agenda – Article 370 is scrapped, construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya has started and the criminalisation of Triple Talaq is a step towards a uniform civil code. So where does it go from here? Are the National Register of Citizens, the Citizenship Amendment Act and economic boycotts of Muslims or ghar wapasi, (the “reconversion” of Muslims) all paths to achieving its Hindutva project?  Can the RSS resolve its ideological incoherence over issues such as caste, gender equality and the status of Muslims in a Hindu Rashtra?

From Mr Narayanan’s book, RSS appears to be searching for answers, and is keen to change.

However, with the RSS all actions are always strategic, including giving access to a journalist who may not share their worldview, if only to make the message seem more credible.

On September 28, 2018, the Supreme Court allowed entry of women of all ages into Kerala’s Sabarimala temple. The RSS, writes Narayanan, embarrassingly compromised its own stated position on the issue of gender equality when it opposed entry of women for strategic reasons – to defeat its ideological opponents, the communists in Kerala.

In August 2018, at a three-day lecture at New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said the Sangh has removed offensive references to Muslims and Christians as internal threats in MS Golwalkar’s book, We or Our Nationhood Defined. Those have been rephrased as “Islamic fundamentalism” and “evangelism”. The outreach was to tell any who would care to listen that the RSS was a moderate, flexible organisation, willing to review some of its positions in a changing world.

The RSS and the Making of the Deep Nation 

Author: Dinesh Narayanan

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 383

Price: Rs 699


On November 7, 1966, the police fired on an RSS-supported protest in Parliament Street demanding a ban on cow slaughter, killing seven, including some sadhus. The government constituted a committee comprising Golwalkar, Verghese Kurien, architect of Operation Flood, and others.

Kurien writes in his biography that he was intrigued that a man as intelligent as Golwalkar was against cow slaughter knowing its economic fallout. “I am not a fool, I’m not a fanatic. I’m just cold blooded about this. I want to use the cow to bring out our Indianness…,” Golwalkar told Kurien.

The committee sat for 12 years, never submitted its report, and RSS mostly forgot about it. But the issue returned in the run up to 2014 Lok Sabha polls in Narendra Modi’s speeches. Two years later, as cases of cow vigilantism increased, Mr Modi publicly disapproved of it.

Sangh affiliates were upset, but the political objective had been achieved. The RSS intervened to stop Govindacharya and others from launching a renewed campaign on cow slaughter in 2016, writes Narayanan (Incidentally, there is no cow slaughter ban in BJP-ruled Manipur).

“The RSS,” Mr Narayanan says, “has perfected this unerring strategy – identify an issue that connects with people, meticulously plan an agitational campaign and implement it methodically.”

Increasingly, it mobilises affiliates on the periphery of its influence, such as the campaign by the Confederation of All India Traders against Chinese goods in the aftermath of clashes in Ladakh this year.

According to Sangh insiders, Mr Bhagwat admires Madhukar Dattatreya “Balasaheb” Deoras, the third chief. For Deoras, “there was nothing sacrosanct that it could not be broken”, and the only guiding principle was that “Hindustan is a Hindu Rashtra”, everything else could change.

The credit for much of what RSS is today goes to Deoras. He saw the potential of the Ram temple movement, reinvented RSS from quasi-militaristic organisation to involving itself in social service projects, and strategically using its numerical strength to support political movements, particularly the anti-Emergency movement.

Two projects started during his time, the Surya Foundation, by the Rs 5,000 crore Surya Group, to train RSS workers who now assist ministers and handle elections for party candidates, and Samkalp, by Santosh Taneja, to train future civil servants, have increased the Sangh’s ideological footprint in the bureaucracy.

According to Mr Taneja, in 2016, 60 per cent of 646 civil servants were trained by Samkalp. Mr Taneja told the author that there are 4,000 serving officials in various services who believe in Sangh ideology.

Can Mr Bhagwat, like his role model Deoras, lead another round of reforms in the RSS before he retires?

When he took over as sarsanghchalak in March 2009, the RSS was recovering from the whimsical leadership of his predecessor, KS Sudarshan, the loss of the BJP in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls and facing saffron terror charges.

Mr Bhagwat ensured a thaw between Narendra Modi and RSS, made the Sangh support the India Against Corruption movement in 2011 and smoothened Mr Modi’s path within the BJP. The next existential crisis for the Sangh Parivar, to which the author hints at, is some years away.

On October 2, 2025, the Vijayadashami day that year, the RSS will mark a centenary of its birth. Weeks before that, Messrs Bhagwat and Modi would have marked their 75th birthdays. They were born six days apart in 1950.

Power struggles are not unknown in the BJP. The RSS had a key role in resolving these, whether it backed Atal Bihari Vajpayee against Balraj Madhok in 1973, or persuaded L K Advani to make way for Mr Modi the race in 2013.

For the Sangh Parivar, caste divisions are its Achilles’ heel. It fears a Dalit, backward classes and Muslim alliance the most. Mr Modi’s OBC status helped neutralise this notion. But Mr Adityanath, a champion of upper caste Thakurs known to oppress Dalits, is preparing to lead the BJP to a win in UP Assembly polls in 2022.

This is an engrossing book. Sections on the Sangh’s economic vision, or the lack of it, the RSS-CPI(M) conflict in Kerala and how it manipulates journalists are particularly readable.

As Mr Narayanan observes, Mr Modi’s success was also his alliance of Hindutva and corporate capitalism. The big boost to the Modi brand came when he got Ratan Tata to shift Nano car plant from Singur in West Bengal to Sanand in Gujarat. But the BJP’s handling of the economy has left many of its core supporters upset.

Mr Narayanan ends with what may or may not turn out to be prophetic, quoting from Mr Bhagwat’s 2018 speech: “They [the BJP] are responsible for the consequences of their actions. We can’t save them. Their blessings and sins are their own.”

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