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Mid-Air Turbulence in the RSS-BJP’s Hub-and-Spoke Arrangement, Or?

What could be the political consequences of the RSS weighing the unprecedented benefits of the space Modi – the most popular Sangh leader in modern Indian history – has given them and their ideology, versus the costs of the domination of the 99-year old parent wing by one pracharak?
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty.

New Delhi/Agra/Shimla: In September 2017, the RSS held its samanvay baithak (coordination meet) with around 40 of its affiliated organisations in the temple town of Vrindavan. Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat and then-sarkaryavah Bhaiyyaji Joshi were on the stage, with veteran pracharaks including Manmohan Vaidya, Dattatreya Hosabale, Narendra Kumar and Krishna Gopal in the first row.

These organisations gave presentations on different issues during the meet. Kerala-based senior pracharak J. Nandakumar, for instance, gave a presentation on ‘Kerala violence’; senior leader Arun Kumar, associated with a think tank on J&K, offered an ‘analysis’ of the situation in Kashmir.

What caught the most attention was a person sitting in the eighth or ninth row, among the last ones in the hall – the then-BJP president Amit Shah – considered the second-most influential and powerful person in the party. (Shah, it transpired, presented the Modi government’s perspective on the ongoing economic condition before the Sangh leaders.)

Contrast this with 2024. BJP president J.P. Nadda, a day before the fifth phase of voting, said this about the RSS in an interview:

“You see, we have also grown. Everyone has got their own work. [The] RSS is a cultural organisation and we are a political organisation. Shuru mein hum aksham honge, thora kum honge, RSS ki zaroorat padti thi Aaj hum badh gaye hain, saksham hai toh BJP apne aap ko chalati hai. (In the beginning we would have been less capable, smaller and needed the RSS).”

He added: “Today, we have grown and we are capable. The BJP runs itself. That’s the difference.”

The difference between the two instances illustrates the huge change in the BJP-RSS relationship over the last few years.

In an earlier report last week, I listed severe disenchantment of swayamsevaks as being one among the many factors that make the ongoing elections different from those of 2014 and 2019 in western Uttar Pradesh and that threaten to dent the BJP’s prospects.

Given that swayamsevaks and their shakhas have been the ideological and also the structural and organisational foundation of the BJP, the impact of this assertion on the polls is yet to be fully understood or seen.

But what’s certain is a fundamental reboot in the BJP-RSS relationship during the Narendra Modi era. In The Caravan, Dhirendra K. Jha wrote in November, 2022 on the “eclipsing” of Mohan Bhagwat, the Sangh sarsanghchalak. He concluded that “in Modi’s shadow, the Sangh leader is no longer supreme.”

Also read | Narendra Modi: A Pracharak Morphed into a Politician?

Does an angry RSS hurt the BJP?

The RSS’s annoyance or complaints with its political wing, the BJP (that’s how Panchjanya once described the BJP) is perennial. It’s not the first occasion when its swayamsevaks spoke against a BJP government. Several of their affiliates have publicly taken a different stand on issues like agriculture and economy.

The relations between the two organisations were particularly strained when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the PM. Opposing the NDA government’s policies, veteran pracharak Dattopant Thengadi even organised a massive protest in Delhi.

However, there’s an essential difference between the Vajpayee and the Modi eras, aptly explained by an anecdote a senior swayamsevak, who now ranks among the top few leaders in the Sangh’s echelon, shared with me an over a delicious breakfast of mangoes and parathas at his home. (I once wrote about it in an essay on the RSS, but it bears another mention.)

During those stormy days when the RSS was angry with the NDA government, an insider told Vajpayee that the RSS had begun deliberations about floating a new party parallel to the BJP. It was perhaps a blatant lie; the person perhaps invented it merely to annoy the PM or seek his reaction.

But Vajpayee’s smiling reply, as the swayamsevak told me, was instructive: “Thik hai. Hum us party men chale jayenge. (Okay. I will shift to the new party then.)”

Even a naive student of Indian politics could guess PM Modi’s reaction upon learning of the disapproval of his party within the Sangh parivar.

So what makes Modi different from other top BJP leaders the Sangh has dealt with?

Victory margin and charisma

The first is the BJP’s massive victory margin, which allows it to fancy its chances amid several constraints. The party won as many as 105 seats by a margin of over three lakh votes in 2019 – 63 more than it had in 2014.

As reported here, swayamsevaks and even some BJP members are quite vocal against the party’s candidates in seats like Fatehpur Sikri and Ghaziabad. While in the former they opposed the candidature of Rajkumar Chahar, in the latter they were disgruntled after the sitting MP General V.K. Singh was replaced by Atul Garg.

Now note that the BJP won Fatehpur Sikri by a margin of 4.9 lakh votes and Ghaziabad by over five lakh votes in 2019. Can such huge margins be wiped out and Modi’s image be dented by the dissenters?

There are now multiple reports from the Hindi heartland that while some of his voters are discouraged and might not have voted with their feet – resulting in a lower turnout than in 2019 – they still don’t want him defeated.

Here’s an instance from a relatively distant land: a queue of patients at the Government Dental College in Shimla on Monday noon. As the queue moved a little slowly, a middle-aged Lahauli woman screamed at the counter clerk.

Inka photo khincho. Modiji ko bhejo. Modiji ko pata chale yahan kya ho raha. (Take a picture of this slow queue. Send it to Modiji. Modiji should know what’s happening here).”

Another woman patient in the queue concurred. “Turant lo. Bhejna chahiye. (Click immediately, should send to him.)”

Situated far away in the Himalayas, the sporadically populated Lahaul is inhabited by fairly prosperous people, mostly followers of Buddhism.

Her local MP is from the Congress, so is the state’s chief minister. And yet, she lives with a faith of holding a direct connection with her prime minister. A faith that a simple text message to him will make things right.

The sentiment is built by lavish propaganda enabled by the pliant media, but it nevertheless exists with numerous citizens.

The deeply felt bond between the man and his voters has eclipsed barriers and incumbencies and has pushed the Sangh to the last rows.

Can the current resentment, though authentic, make them ignore the acceptance and legitimacy that has come to them because of a favourable government at the Centre? File photo of Mohan Bhagwat. Credit: X/@RSSOrg.

Space for the Sangh to grow

The space his regime gives to the RSS to expand and ride piggy on is too big a fortune to turn away. The RSS has never had it so good. The BJP often talks about its expansion in the last ten years.

Here are some numbers from the RSS’s internal records. The Sangh received a modest 28,424 online applications for its membership in 2013. Soon after Modi’s victory in 2014, the Sangh saw a sudden surge in applications as it saw a manifold jump in its ranks, receiving as many as 97,047 applications that year, followed by 81,620 in 2015 and 84,941 in 2016.

As the number of swayamsevaks grew, so did the shakhas. In 2015-16, the Sangh recorded its highest growth ever since it was formed in 1925. The year saw 5,527 new shakhas at 3,644 new places across the country.

The expansion is not merely limited to its ranks and shakhas, as numerous of its swayamsevaks and pracharaks have received plum posts at various levels of governance, ranging from university vice chancellors to state governors.

Besides, they also got to influence educational curricula and define the country’s approach towards minorities.

Earlier this year, a minister in the UP government told this reporter that even attendants in his office are often sent by the Sangh parivar.

Can the current resentment, though authentic, make them ignore the acceptance and legitimacy that has come to them because of a favourable government at the Centre?

Would the sulking swayamsevaks break away from their pracharak pradhan mantri? Or will they eventually fall in line, unable to afford to remain out of power in their centenary year in 2025? The answer is just a fortnight away.

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