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Monday, March 30, 2009

Challenges before Mohan Bhagwat

I wrote this contribution in The Pioneer on the changes in the RSS. It is a personal view of the challenges that the new sarsanghachalak needs to address:

There is often a striking mismatch between how the media paints an event and how the actors in the drama perceive it. The appointment of Mohan Bhagwat as the new sarsanghachalak of the RSS was viewed by many through the prism of factional alignments in the BJP. In view of the ongoing general election campaign and the political importance of the BJP this was, perhaps, predictable. Viewed from the perspective of the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, however, electoral politics didn’t enter the calculations.

The RSS has traditionally viewed politics as a necessary but disagreeable facet of national life—one purist equated politics to the toilet in the home. From its perspective, the regeneration of India cannot be brought about by politics but only through the spread of worthwhile values in civil society. As an institution, the RSS has invariably chosen to sidestep the murky world of politics—though it has not always succeeded. Bhagwat’s elevation to the top position may have incidental political fallout, but it was not premised on politics. It centred on the creation of an ethical, nationalist leadership with tentacles in all walks of life.

The issue that is foremost in the mind of the RSS—which Bhagwat alluded to in his first public address after assuming charge—is the challenge of “modernity.” To a very large extent, the organisational and ideological priorities of the RSS were determined and moulded by an India that existed prior to the post-1991 economic transformation. The daily shakhas, with its blend of physical fitness, fun and some food for thought, held a great attraction in an unhurried world. In small towns and closely-knit mohallas, parents were happy to send their sons to the shakhas because the atmosphere was wholesome. In the absence of too many distractions and other leisure opportunities, the shakhas became a centre of community bonding.

The emergence of a fiercely competitive world and the mushrooming of leisure opportunities have dented some of the austere assumptions that defined the RSS till the 1990s. The RSS is still perceived as one of the most important load-bearing pillars of what can loosely be called the Hindutva movement. However, this has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the importance of the shakhas. The difficulties faced by the RSS are also a consequence of a fierce political-media onslaught that has painted the entire brotherhood as a secretive, backward-looking bunch of monsters committed to harassing non-Hindus.

There is an additional paradox. The Hindutva movement touched a political nerve of Middle India during the Ayodhya movement. Since the mid-1990s, however, the importance of Hindutva as a political rallying point has steadily declined. Yet, ironically, the importance of Hindutva as a social and even religious phenomenon has increased quite dramatically. The spread of “evangelical Hindutva” centred on modern gurus, yoga and TV discourses has kept pace with the modernisation of India. There is a new symbolism and even a modern iconography of the new Hindutva which is sharply removed from the symbols of the RSS.

Additionally, there is a new, assertive patriotism in the country. The public discourse, particularly the English media discourse, may be overwhelmed by secularist cosmopolitanism but Indians have simultaneously become more aware of their Indian and Hindu identities. The Indian flag is far more visible today than was the case two decades or so ago. Indians today feel a greater pride in being Indian than during the shortage economy era. In the diaspora, this has translated into Hindu pride and even Hindu activism.

Yet, and this is another paradox, the rise of a fiercely patriotic Indian hasn’t necessarily seen a corresponding strengthening of Indian nationalism—at least not politically. Narendra Modi may be the exception. The Gujarat Chief Minister has grafted the energies of a modern society on a Sangh tradition. This is an experience waiting to be more widely emulated.

As the head of India’s foremost Hindu movement, these are some of the challenges before Bhagwat. How can the RSS connect more effectively with the new India? How can the movement incorporate change without losing sight of its core values?

In many ways, Bhagwat is ideally placed to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. As general secretary of the organisation during the tenure of K.S. Sudarshan, he has formidable organisational experience and familiarity with the entire country. This is coupled by ideological rigour.

Having interacted with Bhagwat on at least six different occasions, I have been struck by the fact that his firm commitment to the RSS ideology is not coupled with dogmatism. Unlike some RSS functionaries who are trapped in an insular mutt culture—the Sangh is their entire world—Bhagwat seems acutely aware that the Hindu movement runs on many parallel tracks and, sometimes, on different assumptions. It is this recognition of plurality—an essential facet of the Hindu inheritance—that sets him apart from those who want the Hindu movement to be modelled along Leninist lines—the hegemonic role of the Sangh. In the coming days, I see the RSS under Bhagwat retreating from micro-management of its fraternal organisations and according great space for a varied articulation of Hindutva. Naturally, this will have a bearing on the future orientation of the BJP. As the head of the parivar, Bhagwat’s responsibility is to both guide and ensure that the different streams are in broad harmony.

The challenges before Bhagwat are daunting. This is not because either the Sangh or the Hindutva movement is in crisis but because the opportunities presented by the new, assertive India haven’t been fully realised. How the Sangh chief negotiates his way through these multiple openings and reaches out to the whole of India will be keenly scrutinised in the coming years.


doubtinggaurav said...

Swapan Da,

You assume, almost contrary to recent evidence, that RSS is interested in being the flag bearer of serious cultural nationalism.
Unfortunately RSS resembles more a cub scout with the organization moving in intellectual lockstep to God knows where. In my opinion RSS is an idea whose time has passed.

ayush said...

Your post brings nostalgic memries of those RSS shakhas that i as a kid used to go to in the neighbourhood, I beiliev it has just been a couple of years of association with the RSS I have had, but i dont remember anything other than nationalism that was preached there , I am talking about the early 90s when the ayodhya movement was at its peak even then i didnt ever hear anything against any other religion or community , It was only about nationalism , swabhiman and swadeshi from the RSS.

I am pained by the media reports about the so called hatred spread by the RSS, i am sure none of those people have ever even seen an RSS shakha from anywhere close.

I do agree with you that with changing times RSS needs to evolve to connect with the urban youth, but principles of Nationalism and pride in your culture need not be diluted as they are relevant today more than ever before.

Prasanna said...

Dear Swapanda

As my blogger friend Gaurav has pointed out very correctly,i think RSS and "Hindu" Right appears to have intellectually stagnated and heading nowhere.They have completely failed to exploit the groundswell of support that existed for reurgence of cultural nationalism in this country

As Elst pointed out in his scholarly exposition,RSS's disdain for intellectual tradition and scholarship is deeply worrying .
The lack of intellectual vigor and wherewithal has resulted in RSS completely failing to counter the well-orchesrated campaign of calumny unleashed by the insidious Nehruvian intelligenstia

Nehruvian establishment with the stealth backing of the Marxist historians and Abrahamic Fundamentalist have successfully managed to create a perception that RSS is some kind of secretive Brahminical supremacist organisation .RSS has hardly done anything to negate this perception
and some of its actions that only reinforced this perception.

Unless more native nationalist like Modi emerge on the scene,we might soon see the demise of Hindu right movement.It will be such a tragedy if that could happen

As you had written in one of your seminal pieces,NDA'S downfall was partially due to the "panditji" culture that permeated it.The panditji culture is a really dangerous-it represents haughtiness that emanates from their spurious ‘moral' superiority and superciliousness that camouflages shallow pseudo-intellectualism.

I think way forward for Hindu right and BJP in particular is

1.Emulate Modi model of governance
backed up by brilliant social engineering strategy -by forging a powerful coalition of social and economic right and formulating a new agenda of governance devoid of potentially divisive issues

2.Include in their power structure social groups that have been taditionally left out of power equation and empower them

3.Learn a thing or two from Mayawti and ignore the despicble English Media.Rather treat them with contempt .There are several alternate and exiciting means nad possibilities of reaching out to the masses without needing the help of the MSM who seem to be revelling in their own sense of self-delusion and grandeur

Prasanna said...

Hi Swapand

BTW its wonderful to know that you have started your own blog.I have a been great fan of yours (member of Orkut fan club dedicated to you-incase you didnt know one exists(:

iamfordemocracy said...

RSS must keep tactical considerations in focus. In the modern world, being good or positive is just not enough for survival. It is important to appreciate that aggresive religions are against civil society and they will pull no punches while trying to expand their ambit. They must be defeated with good strategy and tactics.

It is also important to recognise that the interests of common people all over the world are the same, and are alligned with RSS interests. I believe that at the top level, RSS is aware of this, but the grassroot workers often get swayed by wrong words and ideas. Religious individuals and families (whatever religion they may follow) do not like aggressive conversions do not endorse mindless Jihad and do not look at people of other religion as enemies.

RSS must work towards developing a new language to describe nationalism and to counter pseudo-secularism. RSS cadres also need to expand their horizon and understand liberalism. Most RSS people know that Ravana was an admirer of Rama but did whatever he did because it was his 'karma'. Similarly, RSS cadre must understand that the mediamen, the jihadist, the evangelicals, and the various political leaders are doing what they are doing because it is their karma. They cannot be wished away. Evil will continue to exist with the good. To fight the evil in the most effective manner is the duty of every good citizen. Further, the fight can be through many different routes. To insist that my way is the only way or the best way is not a good thing. RSS must find a way to be more inclusive without insisting that everybody must be a part of RSS.

Let us wish the new leader all the best.

Anonymous said...

RS writes:
You alluded to patriotism, and that it did not necessarily correlate with nationalism .I imagine you meant patriotism did to correspond to increased votes for nationalist parties like the BJP. I can proffer few reasons for that. You, I, and few like us understand the enormous lost opportunities and harm the Congress party has done. Be it the emergency, or Indira Gandhi stubbornly sticking to socialism and the license raj, (when she was advised to abandon it in favour of a more centre-right economy), the appeasement of minorities and its cascading effect in terms of deteriorating national security, etc. These facets are understood by few (such as big business as they bore the brunt of license raj, or people with special interest in the economy or the country’s affairs ) in the educated classes. For many from this class, Nehru, Indira and Rajiv represented a fairly wholesome govts, and also the Congress has a nationalist halo because of its involvement in the freedom struggle .The fact that Rajiv, Indira are held in high esteem is confirmed consistently in best leader opinion polls.

The BJP may do a touch better in terms of nationalism as compared to the Congress. But in my view, that lead of BJP is not that huge, for it to be overwhelmingly perceived as a nationalist party. This perception (of the congress being almost equal to the BJP in nationalism) is of course far from the truth.

Similarly the evangelical Hindu movement as witnessed on TV, or outside and the larger inheritance of Hinduism in terms of yoga, ayurved etc, has wide appeal amongst Hindus. And yoga etc has a following amongst other religious denominations as well. But a substantial part of the Hindu population, do not think that they need a political arm (like the BJP) to safeguard, their way of life or the Hindu inheritance of ideas. They falsely assume they are protected against any onslaught, because

Ø Of the modern Indian state, with its defences. It’s a different matter that these defences are not robust

Ø they have forgotten Indian history (where India suffered many invasions and humiliation, lost some of its architecture, people, and some Vedic inheritance , such as some knowledge about Ayurveda) and

Ø Because of the inability, to correctly factor in contemporary south-Asian geo-politics, be it Bangladeshi migration or the Taliban.

To partly remedy this, one of the points the BJP could stress on is that why do they want to defend Hindutva or Indian culture. They must spell out the benefits of our civilization (which I had alluded to in prior mails). This will give a robust reason to all the fanatical secularists, that there is something intrinsically good about Hinduism, that it needs defending and asserting against all these Semitic religions. My point is that, as Samuel Huntingdon said, America is what it is because of its Protestant faith, similarly we must enumerate the benefits of our civilization and inheritance, thus emphasizing its importance to the nation.

Also I believe, it is erroneous to assume that, people automatically understand the consequences of events such as terror, or say Bangladeshi immigrants (and how that changes religious demographics) etc . This may be so in part because :

1. Hindus to some extent have muddled thinking

2. are extremely tolerant.

3. have a relatively poor sense of history

The result of these 3 mental traits is that, many will take a liberal or charitable view of events, such as those mentioned above. This is in contrast to the Semitic worlds, where they believe as Bill Clinton said, “when our vital interests are threatened we will act, with diplomacy where possible and force where necessary “. Israel is a perfect example of this thinking.

Venkatesh said...

It is surprising that some of the bloggers think the RSS is an idea whose time has passed.

The RSS is one of the largest social service organisation. Its service qualities and character can hardly be questioned.

The one area that it drastically needs to improve is intellectually break apart the commies and pseudo seculars.

One area of clearer thinking that is required is to separate Islam from its adherents. Islam is something that needs to be intellectually attacked as it is a political ideology stuck in the 7th century that cannot be reformed as against attacking muslims, who may or not be adherents of Islam. I think this issue needs to be significantly thought through.


I guess it will be important to tell my story here. I wanted to join RSS - but found its fuddy duddy short and lathi exercises shoddy and unreal. In today's world the exercises should be beyond the lathi - it should be mixing best of east and west.

RSS must take the physical exercise to the next level - it has to incorporate karate / judo and better the Israeli - KRAV MAGA. Personally I think, RSS should give an advert in newspapers across cities / towns to join in their shakhas - employed people can join over the weekend and the more serious can meet three - four times in the morning (early morning).

While passing Victoria Memorial I saw one day RSS shakha - mostly old men and that too not numbering more than 30. It was a sad scene. There should be a call to women to join in these techniques.

Membership will be vetted after a thorough search and home visit, passport verification, police verification. If women are called in for Krav Maga exercises taught by experts - I can guarantee that the youth will jump in. Think about it.

Tathagata Roy, the head of BJP unit in W Bengal, came to my house - he is a good friend of my dad. He was surprised to see the books I read - but he does not know I write this blog. And I have never let him know of my plans to join RSS one day.

I still think about it, but find it old and of little help. Lathis to counter terrorists - will not work. But if I know unarmed urban combat, my chances of survival will be that much higher.

Anonymous said...


With Chota Shakeel sending his ace shooter to kill Varun Gandhi, does this not give BJP some fodder?

Question they can ask and let the voters know:

DAWOOD is India's enemy No.1
And Dawood is targeting BJP politicians - not Congress, certainly not BSP and SP. Why do you think this is so. It is because we are for securing India and taking it to the next level.


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doubtinggaurav said...

Dear Venkatesh,

I do not deny immense contribution of RSS as far as social service is concerned. It is for failure in intellectual leadership that I blame RSS for.