BJP's asset, foot-soldiers and liability: Why the RSS is a limiting factor

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is at once the greatest asset of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its biggest limiting factor. Why it is an asset is not difficult to imagine but let us look at it in any case. The RSS is the largest non-government organisation (NGO) on the planet. This may appear to be a little strange to those who imagine an NGO to be a particular sort of thing (do-gooder, clueless, anti-national etc.), but an NGO is exactly what the RSS is.

It is in fact a well-funded NGO and has a large number of members — its website says 530,000 — many of whom are active, both through the payment of their fees and through their participation, and many of whom are motivated. The RSS has organised itself over the decades, spreading slowly out of Nagpur, and it has a unified national network second only to the Government of India. That gives it the confidence to assert, as its chief Mohan Bhagwat did a few weeks ago, that in the event of war, the RSS could mobilise itself like the Indian army, and possibly sooner than the Indian army.

For reasons that we need not go into today, on the subcontinent it has been the religious groups that have been the most successful at organising such movements. Pakistan and Bangladesh have seen the Jamaat-e-Islami, the group of Abul A’la Maududi’s radical, modernist Islamism and more recently the conservative Jamaat-ud-Dawa, both of which have large volunteer bodies and highly developed networks. A sort of aggressive militarism, often against fellow citizens, is also noticeable in all three groups across the subcontinent, as is their idea that the past was better than the present and must be recreated. Other mass movements in our parts, like the rural Narmada Bachao Andolan or the urban India Against Corruption, have not had the impact that the religion-oriented ones have had.

About a decade or so ago, when he was still chief minister of Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote biographical sketches of the men who initiated him into the rituals of the RSS in Ahmedabad. Most of these men were Brahmins from Maharashtra who moved to Gujarat in the 1950s and 1960s to set up the RSS there. The portraits are touching stories of men who have chosen to live modestly and often in what approaches poverty for many years to serve the RSS by activities such as teaching and organising “neighbourhood defence”. Across India, the RSS operates out of fixed spaces — shakhas, which means “branch” — and meets at fixed timings with fixed activities under a permanent and identifiable leadership. This gives it a ground presence that is absolutely unmatched anywhere in the world.

It is this infrastructure that the BJP has access to and an aggressive campaigning spirit like Amit Shah, who chooses to tap into it, will find a deep and rich vein of resource. When we hear these days of “booth level management”, it is the RSS karyakarta who is the BJP worker in the neighbourhood.
Illustration by Binay Sinha
It was available in the past as well, of course, but earlier there was a certain hesitation from both sides. The BJP under Atal Bihari Vajpayee was wary of the RSS because closeness came at the cost of alliances. And the RSS was not enamoured of Mr Vajpayee, because he was seen (wrongly) as being more inclusive. This hesitation on both sides has been eliminated, and in the person of Mr Modi, the Hindutva spirit of the RSS and the political ambitions of the BJP are united.

Now let us have a look at why the RSS is also a limiting factor. We can understand the problem if we see the names of the sarsanghchalak: Hedgewar, Paranjpe, Golwalkar, Deoras, Singh, Sudarshan and Bhagwat. All but one of them are Brahmins. The RSS does out of Nagpur what the Brahmin Peshwas did for the Maratha empire out of Pune. The RSS is not inclusive, and the kindest phrasing that can be used is that it is inclusive on its own terms. It will accept as a leader someone from the Other Backward Classes (Mr Modi’s Ghanchi community was designated OBC in 1999 under Mr Vajpayee), but that individual must be a Brahminical and vegetarian and teetotalling yoga practitioner. Hindutva’s dislike of Muslims is not an act of political populism; it is an article of faith. This is why the Vishwa Hindu Parishad will celebrate in its Ram Navami procession a murderer as some sort of protector of Hindus.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi said some time ago something that was memorable. He said if India was a computer, Congress would be its default software. What he meant was, inclusion and secularism of the Congress sort (assuming of course that this is what the party actually represented) was what Indians were most comfortable with. It could be argued that the evidence shows him to be wrong. The subcontinent, like all the primitive parts of the world, actually leans towards majoritarianism. This is easier to do in a place like Pakistan — which is 97 per cent Muslim and which is less fragmented by caste, geography and language — than in India. It is still possible to do in India but there is a limit to which it can be done. The internal contradictions are too many. 

Events in Uttar Pradesh are leading some to predict that the 2019 elections will not be as easy for the BJP as had been thought till the end of last year. Perhaps that will be so and perhaps it is true that the ground has eroded under the BJP since the heady days of 2014. However, there is still a critical gap between the two fronts and it is the ground presence of the RSS.

The Congress party had its 84th plenary a few days ago, where it announced the issues which would form the core of its 2019 manifesto. Much of the content — poverty alleviation, more jobs, secularism — came from the past, though reporters observed that the white mattresses permanently at centre-stage in previous plenaries were missing. The old men and women always on view were thus missing for the most part in Rahul Gandhi’s plenary.

But also missing so far has been the “Congress worker” a mythical species which nobody has seen or heard. Till the party organises at the ground level, with neighbourhood activity and meaningful interaction, as the RSS does across India every morning, it will never be easy for it to convert even a national tailwind into victory.

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