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Monday, November 23, 2009

A shift in position (November 13, 2009)

The RSS needs to rediscover the India of the 21st century

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, eyebrows were raised over yet another media appearance by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, Mohan Rao Bhagwat. This time, the fuss centred on his categorical public announcement that the next national president of the Bharatiya Janata Party would not be a Delhi-based leader, and that L.K. Advani would soon relinquish his post as leader of the Opposition. Fortuitously for the Indian foreign policy establishment, his prognosis that Pakistan and Afghanistan “are a part of us and will return one day” did not arouse corresponding attention.

That a person who is not a primary member of the BJP could presume to lay down the line and blackball the party’s four prominent second-rung faces has profound ramifications. It suggests that the RSS has not merely acquired control over the decision-making of the BJP but is no longer squeamish about saying so openly. The niceties and the elaborate protocol that earlier marked the RSS’s expression of interest in specific decisions of the BJP have been replaced by an in-your-face flaunting of the political role of a so-called “socio-cultural organization”. The whispered “request from the Sangh” that earlier influenced the odd selection of candidates and office-bearers has been replaced by a command-and-control regime.

Nor does the exercise of control depend on a three-line whip to professional politicians. Since the advent of Rajnath Singh in 2005, the RSS has strategically placed its full-timers in crucial organizational posts in the belief that politicians with an eye on electoral politics are incapable of institution-building. Whereas in the 1990s the RSS despatched only a dozen or so full-timers on deputation to the BJP, their numbers are in the region of 350 today. Apart from the state organizing secretaries whose identities are prominently displayed on the BJP website, these include large numbers of district sangathan mantri who form the nucleus of a parallel party organization in the localities. In the words of a BJP leader, many of those entrusted with organizational responsibilities are “unfit to be employed as primary school teachers.”

In the past, the RSS was very wary of involvement in the political arena, seeing it as a corrupting influence and a diversion from the organization’s priority of injecting nationalism into civil society. RSS old-timers were fond of comparing the role of politics in society to the toilet in a household: a necessity but hardly something to be showcased. Today, these inhibitions have been set aside and there now appears to be a marked enthusiasm among full-timers to be deputed to the BJP. Compared to the other ‘fraternal’ organizations of the RSS, such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Kendra, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, there is glamour and self-importance attached to rubbing shoulders with the political class. Predictably, some of the lifestyle distortions that come with exercising authority and hobnobbing with political power are evident among the full-timers. The joke in political circles is that the RSS full-timer is extremely malleable and is easily won over by modest ‘gifts’ that range from mobile phones, stitched kurta-pyjamas, air conditioners and a good, home cooked, vegetarian meal — a case, as one ‘fixer’ called it, of “low investments and high returns”.

What has compounded the problem is the RSS’s brazen non-accountability to the party. It is remarkable that despite holding positions of authority in the BJP, the pracharaks on deputation are neither appointed nor can they be removed by the BJP state and national presidents. A few months ago, the president of the West Bengal BJP did something inconceivable: he issued a show-cause to the local RSS-appointed sangathan mantri. The outcome was predictable: the state president was peremptorily sacked by the national president for his audacity. Likewise in Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje successfully secured the removal of a disruptive organizing secretary. But, as a quid pro quo, the RSS demanded Raje’s removal as leader of the Opposition, despite the fact that a majority of the members of the legislative assembly was backing her. She resisted her removal for nearly three months, but ultimately had to succumb. Once again, Rajnath Singh played the part of an obliging executioner.

RSS full-timers in the BJP are spared the obligations of ordinary members. A 2005 amendment to the BJP constitution stipulated that a sangathan mantri was ineligible to contest elections. Since endorsement by the electorate is the basis of politics, the RSS appears to have insulated itself from the principle of popular endorsement. It is this detachment from the numbers game, without which democracy is meaningless, that explains the RSS’s obsession with ‘ideology’, the shorthand for the pursuit of abstruse and cranky themes. It may also explain why mass leaders such as Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti, Narendra Modi, Vasundhara Raje and B.C. Khanduri have been at loggerheads with the RSS.

A small example may illustrate the distance that separates the RSS from the mass politician. In its manifesto for the Haryana assembly election held last month, the BJP included an assurance to ban “Western music and vulgarity” in the unlikely event it was voted to power. The manifesto, which had apparently been drafted by a local RSS ‘intellectual’, took the BJP completely by surprise. Confronted by the ridiculous imagery of motorists switching off alien sounds the moment their cars crossed the Gurgaon toll bridge from Delhi, a red-faced BJP had to issue clarifications and denials. Later, when some national leaders enquired from the state unit why the absurd promise had been inserted in the first place, they were given an ingenuous explanation. The production of milk in Haryana, it was claimed, had suffered because cows were disturbed by loud disco music in villages!

There is a huge gulf that separates the RSS’s priorities and the BJP’s perception of politics — though there are moments of convergence. The world view of the RSS leadership is shaped primarily by interactions with its own full-timers and lay swayamsevaks. It’s a relationship shaped by two factors: unflinching faith in the sangh’s role as the vanguard of Hindu resurgence and timeless certitudes. A remarkable degree of group solidarity— including a very distinctive use of language — has contributed to a ‘groupthink’ and discouraged scepticism and inquiry in the sangh. The RSS has nurtured an enviable degree of loyalty and dedication among its followers but its efficacy has been tempered by an inability to engage with ‘non-believers’. From being an instrument of Hindu re-awakening, it has become a variant of the Freemasons, a self-aggrandizing brotherhood.

This distortion is at the heart of the RSS’s desperation to control the BJP. In the past 15 years, the BJP has outgrown the RSS. It is the country’s premier Opposition party with a stake in at least eight state governments and umpteen district bodies and municipalities. Its social reach far exceeds that of the RSS’s. More important, the BJP has acquired relevance at a time the RSS is declining in its traditional catchment areas. Lifestyle shifts fuelled by prosperity, cosmopolitanism and leisure have made the daily bout of callisthenics less appealing to pre-pubescent Hindu boys. And yet, there is no direct correlation between the RSS’s diminishing appeal and the fortunes of the BJP. It’s only after the RSS decided the BJP was its exclusive charge that both graphs showed a southward incline.

It takes decades of good politics and sensible leadership to build a national party; it takes a few well-publicized acts of misguided zeal to demolish it. Bhagwat has got his diagnosis wrong. It’s not the BJP that needs either chemotherapy or surgery; plain detoxification will be sufficient. It’s the RSS that needs to discover the India of the 21st century.

The Telegraph, November 13, 2009


Anonymous said...

The RSS brand is toxic. Out with it asap and the VHP and BD. And the joke SJM while we are at it. All these idiots have outlived their usefulness.

Anonymous said...

What you have written is correct. When Congress is being run by high profile supreme court lawyers and foreign educated MBA graduates, BJP is in hands of RSS folks who are even unfit for school teacher jobs and emit emotional trash most of the time.

Leaving Hindutva and other controversial issues apart, I do not seem to be convinced by the capabilities of BJP to govern and successfully run a diverse country like India. Lets talk from a pure technical perspective.

Additonally, they still do not have presence in many states from North to South and West to East and with no signs of next generation leadership.

Even in BJP rule, there were too many allies. Unless it projects itself a competitor capable enough to win at least half of its seats on its own, it is hard for them to get a respectable electoral result.

Kenny Chauhan said...

Dear Swapan,

Bull's eye! Bull's eye!! Bull's eye!!!

This is what present day India is all about. I wonder why 'the powers that be' in the BJP leadership cannot see this. They are myopic. Perhaps they need a doctor right away. And the 'time' and the 'people of India' are going to be their doctors. They will learn their lesson the hard way.

Why cannot the myopic leadership learn from the State leaders, who are mass leaders and lead their party to power, time and again! There is a lesson here, what does the country demand from a political party.

Perhaps some day the RSS and the myopic leadership of the BJP will get 'enlightenment'.

Anonymous said...

Swapanda, you write with feelings. This is a great article. We cannot know inner functioning of BJP/RSS as well as you do but one thing stands out. RSS and its leaders must bring in more democracy, more interaction, more brainstorming. Hats off to you. I only hope you are not writing this article to distance yourself from BJP/RSS.

Kumar said...

Mr Dasgupta, the BJP is the political wing of the RSS. The BJP exists to server the interests of the RSS. Do you expect the BJP to chart an independent course apart from the RSS? The NDA experiment may have given a temporary illusion of separateness. I would rather prefer the straight forward approch of Mr Bhagawat. Why pretend non-interference etc and decieve people? Let it be clear and out in the open.

Manoj Agarwal said...

Anonymous no 1: "Congress is being run by high profile supreme court lawyers and foreign educated MBA graduates."

You made my day dude. I haven’t had such heartily laugh in a long time….

And at the same time, you find “from technical perspective” Congress capable of governing?? We are talking about governing here, not ruling. OK.

More seriously, I think, what Swapan da has written is an absolute gem. This can be treated as the final judgment on this whole battle of BJP, RSS, young, old, backward agenda, forward agenda or any such debate. Once we open up our mind, all questions would settle down. The breeze of fresh thoughts would infuse a new life in those organs of BJP/RSS (be it heart or mind) which are dying a slow death due to continuous feeding on a rancid (excuse me for using this word) diet.

Anyone, in any sphere of life be it religious, philosophical or ideological, is destined to doom if one takes a dogmatic view. Our basic ability to adapt, to assimilate change is one virtue of ours that we should never abandon. If RSS espouse Hindu philosophy as its guiding principal, it should desist from jettisoning the same.

sanjay said...

Socrates said - "By all means marry, you will either become happy, or you will become a philosopher"

Though RSS was generally known to be a back seat driver at BJP, little was known of their responsibilities and accountabilities. The performance of BJP in 04 and 09 gen elections came as a surprise for a lot of supporters despite their performance and better record at governance at center and states, now, a lot of fog is clearing which can only be a good thing. Ironically a lot of supporters including "Arun Shourie" feel that complete control of BJP by RSS is the need of the hour.

IMO, front seat driving is any day preferable to back seat one and a couple of election results under their direct control will show them their rightful place in the political landscape, the sooner they find out thir place the better it is for the party and it's supporters. RSS guys will either become better politicians or better swayamsevaks ;)

Anonymous said...

If BJP has outgrown the RSS, as Swapan mentioned, then BJP does not need RSS anymore. And if Swapan dislikes RSS muddling in BJP affairs, why he is not suggesting BJP to break all ties with RSS? What stopping him from doing so?

Anonymous said...

"The production of milk in Haryana, it was claimed, had suffered because cows were disturbed by loud disco music in villages!"

Swapan Da, does the cosmopolitan know anything about cows? If you had heard it from an ICAR official, would you have nodded respectfully? Loud disco music disturbs the cows' bio-rhythms. It is well-known that soft sitar-like music helps cows' milk yield, growth of flowers in trees and so on. Loud and frenetic music harms not only the cows' bio-rhythm and make them insomniac, it also does the same to cosmopolitans! But the cosmopolitan chooses to listen to it, the cows do not. Neither do the cow-herds want it. Its like passive smoking. And we do not milk cosmopolitans, even when they visit villages! So what is wrong in a proposal to ban this noise pollution where it is not welcome? To stop laughing, consider the cow-herds as knowledgeable like scientists, it may help.

senthil said...


While i agree with your views of RSS's inability to lead a political party, i dont know why you had suddenly turned against the RSS and now writing to separate BJP and RSS.

BJP is a party, that was created by RSS, and lakhs of RSS workers formed the initial base of BJP. BJP might have grown out now, but they cannot bite the hand that fed them. Whey cannot whitewash the contribution of lakhs of RSS persons in the past. It is because of RSS's Ram Janma Bhoomi movement, BJP ascended to prominence, otherwise it would have been a marginal party with dozens of MP seats.

Yet now, you are showing utter distaste for the RSS. I would say, its a backstabbing of the son against the father, just because father could not transform to modern times.

I have moved with many RSS swayamsevaks, and you may be true that they may be pacified by a nice home made meals. But its not like what you have projected, as they are cheap fellows. They are innocent, and unexposed persons, who respect fellow humans, that they dont know how to play politics or how to understand conspiracies of the persons they are dealing with.
Its unkind of you to portray them in a wrong way..

I wish, they involve in politics to understand the society more, and to understand some hard realities.

As some one said, either they become good politicians, or a good swayamsevak

Arjun said...

Sounds eeirly like the Coomi Kapoor article in the Indian express. Interesting days ahead in this tussle within the BJP that we are getting a convoluted insight into through such posts.

senthil said...

Also, swapan.. you are concerned with BJP being controlled by RSS.. But you are not concerned with Congress being controlled by a single family, headed by an italian sonia maino..

How far do you feel, is Sonia Gandhi qualified to control the congress?