A parivar no more
Once the driving force behind the BJP, the RSS is now plagued with insecurities and doublespeak on various issues, including Hindutva. Rana Ayyub reports on the changing role of the party behind the party.
FOR THE RSS and its political arm, the BJP, the summer of 2012 is turning out to be one lengthy and tempestuous trial. So what is new, it may be asked. Has it not been true of the RSS-BJP continuum for some time now? Yes and no. In many ways, the internal politics of the Sangh Parivar, as has been theatrically played out over the past few years, is coming to a head this defining summer. Decisions taken and equations formed in this period could define India’s leading organisation of the Hindu right as well the BJP for a long while to come, between now and the 2014 Lok Sabha election and possibly beyond.
Consider why this summer is so crucial for the saffron family. It is the final period of respite and preparation before a gruelling marathon season of elections. In November-December, the BJP defends its governments in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. In March-April 2013, it defends its beleaguered and factionalised government in Karnataka. In November-December 2013, it defends Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, and hopes to recapture Rajasthan and perhaps even Delhi. Finally, it needs a grand slam, a complete sweep in these states — which represent its core bastions — to ensure it emerges as the single largest party in the May 2014 parliamentary election. As such, one slip-up now, one false move and all those dreams of 2014 could come crashing down.
To add to these state elections is the jockeying at 11 Ashoka Road, the BJP’s headquarters in New Delhi, as well as in the nearby Prithviraj Road residence of patriarch LK Advani. If there is a common thread to all this, it is the faultlines between key leaders of the BJP — in the states and in New Delhi — and the RSS, and within the RSS too. The RSS is finding itself challenged and openly mocked as has seldom happened in the past.
What is this all about? Since 2004, when the BJP-led NDA government was voted out of office, and particularly since 2005, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee more or less retired from politics and Advani was weakened by the Jinnah episode, the RSS has gained control of the BJP organisation. It has played off one junior or second-generation leader against the other. It has appointed two successive presidents from outside the Delhi hierarchy. In sum, it has exploited the vacuum after the Vajpayee-Advani era and divested the BJP of whatever functional autonomy it had grabbed in the mid to late 1990s.
For years, BJP functionaries kept quiet and bore it, worried and overwhelmed by the supposed mystique of the BJP. Now they are hitting back — at least the more grounded leaders in the states are. Others are hitting back too. Advani is not going quietly into the sunset. Narendra Modi, whom large sections of the RSS see as the next leader of the BJP, continues his testy relationship with key functionaries in the Sangh. The junior wings of the Sangh Parivar and dissidents in states like Gujarat are also angry at the RSS’ apparent betrayal of them or of the larger idea of Hindutva. In short, all these groups and stakeholders are angry with the RSS’ “use and throw” approach. On its part, the RSS is trying to balance equations, mollify egos — and yet emerge the winner.
WHETHER IT wins or not, the fact is the RSS has lost face and credibility within the BJP. In private conversation, party functionaries poke fun at it, something they didn’t do earlier. For a supposedly cultural organisation that claims it is apolitical and beyond petty power, the RSS is now plainly unable to deny its political role and day-to-day interference in the BJP national office as well as in state governments. As a senior BJP leader jokes, “Our party president is imposed on us by them (the RSS), our prime ministerial aspirants are declared by them, our rebellions are handled by them. And they still claim to be apolitical.”
The months of May and June have been hard and nasty for the RSS. It has found itself bang in the middle of BJP factionalism in three states — Rajasthan, Gujarat and then Karnataka (see box). In the past 10 days, the double whammy in Gandhinagar and Bengaluru was the last thing the BJP wanted.
In Karnataka, nine ministers sent their resignations to Chief Minister Sadananda Gowda in an attempt to force him to resign, as Lingayat strongman BS Yeddyurappa sought to force the RSS and the party leadership to appoint his chosen man as chief minister. In Gujarat, former chief minister Keshubhai Patel, a Sangh veteran, announced he was not extending his BJP membership. Along with another dissident and former minister Gordhan Zadaphia, he is all set to form a third front in the state. Unlikely to win anything, it can still play spoiler in a bipolar contest. To make matters critical for Modi, a chunk of the Gujarat RSS has promised support to Keshubhai and Zadaphia.
WHILE KESHUBHAI’S rebellion is a concern for the RSS, the fact is the Sangh is in two minds over how much and how strongly to back Keshubhai’s arch-rival Modi. When Modi undertook the Sadbhavana fast in Ahmedabad in 2011, he put off a lot of people in the RSS. There were some who criticised the fact that a show was made of religious inclusiveness and would dilute Modi’s Hindutva brand. The example of the azaan that was heard at the fast venue was reported to the RSS brass in Nagpur.
There were also personality issues. The two Sangh men despatched to the Sadbhavana event were Ram Lal, who has been seconded to the BJP, and Suresh Soni, the RSS No. 3, also Modi’s chief tormentor in the Sangh. Soni and Modi were once colleagues and fellow pracharaks and their mutual hostility goes back to those times. The reports Soni carried back made it clear he felt Modi was carving out an image for himself that was much larger than that of the party or the Sangh. For a political culture that is uncomfortable with individualism, this was hard to swallow.
The Sangh clearly prefers Modi to Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, and while it wants Advani to retire into a mentor role and stop sulking, it is also issuing a subtle warning to the Gujarat CM: ‘Do not assume yourself to be greater than the party.’
The problem is the RSS itself has been anything but consistent. It has scarcely been rigorous in its call for Hindutva, development and a corruption-free polity, as it periodically claims. Its opposition to Modi, Yeddyurappa or Vasundhara Raje is not due to some principled objection to personality cults but born of a fear of being eased out of the power game.
THE RSS is still miffed at how the Vajpayee-Advani combination outmanoeuvred it in the NDA years, exiled KS Sudarshan, the then Sangh chief, from Delhi and fought off interference in the government. The RSS would be happy to promote the sort of dualism that Vajpayee and Advani represented — the liberal, soft face and the radical man of ideology — but wants to retain control even if such a leadership comes to power. It is not willing to let go.
It is worth looking at the Vajpayee prime ministry and the RSS behaviour then. Far from backing its first prime minister, the Sangh went out of its way to needle him. It consistently attacked Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the prime minister and one of the most trusted men in the Vajpayee camp. It wanted Mishra removed not because it thought he was a bad influence — though that may have been the stated reason — but because his departure would weaken Vajpayee, never mind what it did to the stability of the government in the Centre.
In fact, the RSS had no qualms in using the opportunity provided by Operation Westend — the TEHELKA sting operation that saw Bangaru Laxman, then BJP president, accepting a bribe — to slyly attack two top officials in the Vajpayee PMO: Mishra and NK Singh. The Sangh gave a free hand to the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) and its promoter, Chennai-based chartered accountant S Gurumurthy, to launch a full-scale attack on the Vajpayee PMO. Only when it realised that Gurumurthy had reduced the SJM to a proxy for fighting corporate battles did the Sangh distance itself from the Manch.
IT IS often asked by political observers: “Will the RSS stop interfering in the BJP and let it grow into a mass-based political party?” This question presumes there is a genuine debate within the RSS on this score and that the Sangh is interested in the growth and sustainability of its political arm as an independent entity. In reality, the Sangh doesn’t want to let go. It wants to decide which leaders will emerge and which will be pensioned off. Murli Manohar Joshi, long an RSS favourite, has apparently been told to take a backseat. Asked about this, he laughed it off, but also implicated the Sangh: “They call me a leftist in the Sangh… Why pose this question to me? This question should be posed of the party president brought in by them.” The sarcasm is apparent.
There are other instances of the RSS jumping into a purely political sea. Recently, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said the NDA needed to be mindful that the country could only have a prime minister with secular credentials. It was a dig at Modi. Instead of letting the party spokespersons battle it out, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat waded in and asked, “What’s wrong with having a leader with Hindu credentials as prime minister?”
Modi’s efficient public-relations machinery used the remark immediately and said it was declaration of support by the Sangh. RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav dismissed the suggestion: “What Bhagwatji said was in retaliation to Nitishji’s statement on Hindutva. All he said was there was nothing wrong with a person who followed Hindutva becoming prime minister. The remark was not person-specific.” When asked if the stigma of the 2002 Gujarat riots would still allow Modi to be in the reckoning for the top position, Madhav quipped, “If it’s an ideological question, then LK Advani too became the deputy prime minister after the Babri demolition.” “But not the PM!” this reporter retorts. To which Madhav laughs — a telling laugh.
Sources in the RSS insist the Sangh has its own agenda when it comes to fanning whispers that Modi will be projected as prime ministerial candidate. “From its assessments,” says a Sangh functionary, “the RSS knows the seats of the Gujarat BJP will come down and it does not want to dent the party’s prospects. If at this time, it goes against Modi’s ambitions, it will fuel dissent in the Gujarat BJP further… something that can cost the BJP.”
Kamal Sandesh, Panchjanya and Organiser are all newspapers run by RSS ideologues. Tellingly, all three carried anti- Modi pieces recently. Kamal Sandesh had Prabhat Jha, president of the Madhya Pradesh unit of the BJP, write a piece calling Modi a man in a hurry. Jha is a protégé of Soni, and squarely in the camp hostile to Modi. The Panchjanya article cautioned Modi that he was coming across as an intolerant leader, unable to take everyone along. It was written right after Modi pressured the Sangh to get Sanjay Joshi to cancel a train yatra across Gujarat and instead fly out of the state following his removal from the party. The piece was written by Devendra Swarup, a former professor of history, respected in Sangh circles.
“How can these views, espoused in publications of the Sangh, be divergent of what the Sangh thinks?” asks a senior RSS leader.
THE QUESTIONS sound even more complicated when one considers Gujarat, where individuals in the RSS and the BJP are upset with the support the Sangh as an organisation is giving Modi. Indeed, they are feeling betrayed. Zadaphia believes whatever the Sangh’s intentions, it is only helping build Modi’s dictatorial brand of politics. “Just how many of us will be used as scapegoats by the Sangh?” he asks. “Haren Pandya, I, Sanjay Joshi, Keshubhai Patel. Why should everybody be sacrificed to protect one man?” As he prepares to take on Modi with the help of Kesubhai and another dissident minister Purshottam Solanki, Zadaphia can only shake his head in despair: “Instead of playing ideological mentor, the RSS is creating demons.”
Jagruti Pandya, wife of veteran leader Haren Pandya, one of the first victims of the RSS’ non-presence, says: “The RSS bowed to the diktats of Modi when he faked illness and got himself admitted in a hospital. Did the Sangh not know how committed my husband was to the RSS ideology?”
A senior BJP leader, who agonises at the state of the party, offers a broader perspective. “This is what happens,” he says, “when the ideology preached by an organisation manifests itself to help an individual rather than a cause. The RSS today is looking for easy options. Not facing the crisis but finding an easy way out, where it is bowing to the diktats of individuals… Modi, Yeddyurappa, Vasundhara are all faces of the RSS’ inability to handle situations and give unnecessary power to the young lot.”
Yet, once again it is the RSS’ own contradictions that come to the fore. It wants to project itself as the flag-bearer of Hindu consciousness and chides the BJP and the political class for falling prey to caste mobilisation. In the Karnataka case, it has projected its dislike for Yeddyurappa in terms of his role in the mining and land cases as well as for his promotion of a Lingayat identity for the local BJP. However, when it comes to choosing a party president — and even giving him a second term — Bhagwat selected Nitin Gadkari, a fellow Nagpur Brahmin.
“Nitish Kumar must have reason to be upset,” laughs a BJP leader. “Modi takes a dig at him, accusing him of caste-based politics, but conveniently forgets the politics being played by his parent body.”
As for Yeddyurappa, he feels cheated by the RSS because he went out of his way to court it when he was chief minister, including giving front organisations access to land and funding. Even so, the RSS has dumped him for the current chief minister, Sadananda Gowda, because the latter seems more convenient for the moment. Such instances have led to a rising distrust between many BJP leaders and the RSS.