Revised Swayamsevak Sangh? Hindu consolidation and image makeover at the same time

Last week, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh sarsanghachalak Mohan Bhagwat said RSS and its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party, are committed to constructing a Ram temple in Ayodhya. He also said, “Every government has its limitations but a government doing a good job should remain in power. It is important who occupies the seat of power.”

Bhagwat couldn’t have made a more explicit pitch for the Narendra Modi government. It was one level up from a fortnight ago, when he said the current government may not be perfect but was headed in the right direction.

RSS believes it is at a tipping point and must seize the moment with a big expansionary push to fuse the organisation permanently into the nation’s body and mind. There are two necessary conditions to achieve that — a benign political environment and public support on a massive scale.

In mid-September, Bhagwat attempted to smooth the organisation’s spiky reputation in a three-day, globally broadcast lecture series in Delhi. At the end of it, he held out an open invitation to everyone to join or at least be friends with the organisation. A fortnight later, its affiliate Vishwa Hindu Parishad announced the “final battle” to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya.

Image makeover

The Hindu nationalist RSS is often seen as a majoritarian body that wants to rid the country of Muslims, Christians and Communists. It is also viewed as fundamentally opposed to the way Indian democracy was envisaged and structured in the Constitution.

The sharpest barb recently came from Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who compared it to the Muslim Brotherhood, the hardline Islamist group with Egyptian roots. Multiple sources in the RSS told ET that mounting criticism had prompted it to hold the Bhagwat lectures. “Mohan Bhagwat explained the classical RSS of Dr Hedgewar,” says Sanjeev Kelkar, author of Lost Years of the RSS, which, the book contends, were the 33 years when founder KB Hedgewar’s successor, MS Golwalkar, ran the Sangh. The sarsanghachalak presented the RSS as an inclusive body deeply devoted to democracy, wedded to the Constitution and one which bowed to the Tricolour. He underlined fraternity as enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution as the RSS’ core value too.

Temple of law

Yet, events since the September lectures have shown that Constitutional morality is malleable. On September 28, the Supreme Court ordered that the popular Sabarimala temple in Kerala allow entry to all women. Menstruating women were until now barred from entering the shrine to the celibate God Ayyappa.

Hundreds of faithful protested. RSS, sensing public mood, played to the gallery. “While we all respect varied temple traditions followed by devotees in Bharat, we have to also honour the Supreme Court,” said Suresh Joshi, RSS general secretary, in a statement. “Devotees’ sentiments cannot be ignored while considering the judgement. Unfortunately, the Kerala government has taken steps to implement the judgement with immediate effect without taking the sentiments of the devotees into consideration.’’ RSS’ Malayalam mouthpiece, Janmabhoomi, meanwhile, published an article welcoming the court order. The writer, R Sanjayan, deputy director of the Sanghinspired Bharatiya Vichara Kendram, said some people were trying to confuse Hindus on the basis of the court order and it should not be allowed. Urging the state government to make arrangements for the likely increase in women devotees to the hilltop temple, Sanjayan wrote that the discrimination had no scriptural support and more women devotees at the temple would increase its prestige, not diminish its purity. An identical argument was made by ideologue R Hari earlier.

While it was public sentiment in Kerala that RSS leaned on to shift position, it has decided on mass mobilisation on the Ayodhya issue despite the case pending in Supreme Court, which is expected to start hearing it later this year. The VHP announced on October 5 that it was beginning a campaign to pressure the government to enact a law to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya. “It was decided in the Udupi Dharma Sansad (in November 2017) to give time to the Supreme Court.

The court has shied away from its duty by letting the case drag for a long time.

Now we are demanding a law,” says Alok Kumar, working president, VHP. “This is the final battle.”

The Ram temple movement and demolition of Babri Masjid had papered over caste identity politics of the early 1990s and consolidated Hindus behind the BJP. Caste politics has revived with gusto and is a potent threat to BJP’s prospects in 2019. A BJP defeat could be brakes on the Sangh Parivar’s forward march.


Acceptance and consolidation

A few weeks ago, at an internal regional meeting, a top RSS official said the Sangh had wide acceptance in society after long. The time was ripe to expand its ideological membership and organisational reach. A favourable political environment is critical for RSS’ growth.

Historically, BJP’s electoral fortunes have also affected the Sangh. It had about 44,000 shakha at more than 30,000 locations in early 2009. After BJP lost the election in May that year, RSS shrunk by 4,000 shakha and was present only in 27,000 locations by January 2010.

In 2013, it had about 43,000 shakha in nearly 28,000 places. By January 2015, the number had shot up to 51,330 at 33,222 locations. As of March 2018, the number stands close to 60,000 shakha at about 37,200 places. The general pattern seems to be that the organisation gradually grows as elections near, but shrinks abruptly when BJP loses. The trend could snap if the party were to return to power.

“We would want BJP to win all state elections because only then can significant social, political and cultural changes take place,” RSS joint general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale had said in 2015. “The 2014 election victory should be seen as the starting point of a long-term mission,” he had stated.

An RSS national executive member told ET the RSS wants to reach every corner of the country by 2025, its centenary year. It is working in a focused way to set up presence in villages along all major highways. Similarly, it is setting up shakha in housing societies in cities.

A former pracharak and ideologue termed Bhagwat’s lectures a re-positioning of the Sangh from a socio-political organisation to a politico-social one. “The unnecessary tangential comment on NOTA (none-ofthe-above option for voters) indicates he was very much conscious of the brewing discontent among savarnas (upper castes) with BJP.’’ In a democracy, even if they can’t find an ideal choice, voters should choose the available best candidate, Bhagwat had said.

Balancing act

While the Ayodhya campaign is aimed at consolidating Hindu support, it hopes to attract new members by distancing itself from past radical positions and presenting an inclusive outlook. That means ideological purity may have to be diluted a bit and past sages may have to fade. Bhagwat has said some statements of former sarsanghachalak MS Golwalkar on Muslims and Christians were outdated and future RSS literature would be sanitised.

R Hari, one of the editors of Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts, told authors of The RSS: A view to the inside, that new editions of the book would change reference to Muslims and Christians as ‘internal threats’ to ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and ‘missionary evangelism’. Hari explained the change was necessary as critics dub RSS anti-Muslim and anti-Christian.

In a recent profile of Mark Zuckerberg, the New Yorker quoted the Facebook founder as saying: The survival of any social-media business rests on “network effects,” in which the value of the network grows only by finding new users. As a result, he said, “there’s a natural zerosumness.

If we’re going to achieve what we want to, it’s not just about building the best features. It’s about building the best community.” Zuckerberg added, “I care about succeeding. And, yes, sometimes you have to beat someone to something, in order to get to the next thing. But that’s not primarily the way that I think I roll.” Substitute social-media with Hindu Rashtra and the statement could work for the RSS. Bhagwat might very well say: This is the way the RSS rolls.

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