Between The Lines

It is the 2nd of October and every corner of the country is paying token obeisance to Mahatma Gandhi on the one hand and Narendra Modi’s Clean India Campaign on the other. Every corner, except the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) office in Reshmi Bagh, Nagpur. An organisation, one imagines would be eager to dissociate from its alleged member Nathuram Godse. An organisation that one expects will appropriate their former Pracharak Modi’s key campaigns. But the RSS does not believe in tokenism. It is a world unto its own and in here, October 2 is merely the day before Vijay Dashmi – when their chief, Mohan Bhagwat will deliver the founder’s day speech – a manifesto of implicit and explicit messages that will set the annual agenda for the Sangh.

It was in this speech last year that Bhagwat had tacitly declared that the organisation will work to bring Modi to power. All Bhagwat needed to say was, “100 per cent polling will make democracy healthier”. No party or candidate was named but the mission was understood and accomplished. That is how the RSS works. In here, it is always smoke and mirrors.

Without a formal rulebook and no clear guidelines on the nature of its relationship with the affiliate bodies that make up the Sangh Parivar, it is hard to tell the difference between the official and unofficial mandate of the RSS. And yet for an organisation so shrouded in secrecy, it is remarkably welcoming; its leaders and spokespeople more than willing to engage in informal debate. It is these contradictions, some real and some perceived, that make the RSS one of India’s most talked about but least understood organisations.

The morning after, hundreds of swayamsevaks have gathered in their oft-ridiculed uniforms. The official band is playing tunes picked up from the British Army band and original compositions inspired by Indian ragas. Members of the organisation are required to practise yoga, martial arts and armed combat in shakhas – skills they will be demonstrating later in the day in a series of choreographed exercises. But one look at the congregation and it is apparent these aren’t the fittest men around. The ageing leader conducting the show has difficulty getting on and off the podium.

The Sangh’s real strength comes from its founder Dr Hedgewar’s diktat of Swayameva Mrugendrata – find within yourself the strength of the lion. Determination and focus alone have kept this organisation going for most of its checkered history. It is this determination that has yielded the closest form of its own government at the centre that there can be.

Modi’s electoral victory is what sets this year’s speech apart. Bhagwat’s address that day is not an expression of dissent, but an acknowledgement of the country’s mandate for its political affiliate, the BJP. He praises Modi and asks that he be given more time to deliver the “country of our dreams.” So far, Modi as PM has attempted to boost the morale of the country in the way a Vivekananda-inspired RSS would approve of. His overtures towards countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Japan would meet the approval of Bhagwat who is for stronger cultural and economic ties with these countries.

On pet concerns Modi has not tackled well, such as Chinese aggression and environmental policy, Bhagwat is willing to look the other way. In matters he is yet to deliver on, he is willing to wait. But only if the government understands that “it has to deliver”.

A lot of unease around the RSS’s influence on the government comes from the ambiguity around the full extent of what the parent organisation expects it to deliver. The Sangh’s ambition to be “an organisation of the entire society” is underpinned by the ostensible aim of nation building. But too many problematic, radical and contradictory ideas are attributed to its former leaders and the RSS does not clarify which ones still continue to guide it. Its vision for India is a hazy construct reminiscent of the socialism of the likes of Vinoda Bhave, Jai Shankar Prasad and Ram Manohar Lohia and the ideals of Integral Humanism propounded by Deen Dayal Upadhyay. It advocates equality for Dalits within Hindu society unequivocally but issues important caveats when speaking of minorities – as long as they are nationalistic, as long as they recognise Hindus as “elder brothers”, as long as they do not make impositions on other ways of life. These caveats are subject to very broad interpretations.

A lot turns on the means taken to its ends; on how the core socio-political and cultural ideas of the RSS are understood by affiliates like the VHP, ABVP, BMS, ABISY, VKA and most importantly, the BJP. Some of these ideas may threaten the very fabric of the society the RSS claims it wants to bring together across divides, depending on how they are implemented.

For years, these misgivings have led to a summary debunking of all of RSS’s thoughts. A fact the organisation rues. In this context the telecast of Bhagwat’s speech on Doordarshan marks the official entry of the Sangh into mainstream political discourse. Ironically, the debate over the telecast overshadowed the debate on the content of Bhagwat’s speech. Like he had said earlier in the day, “The more the things change, the more they remain the same.”

As festivities wind down, however, there are no signs of discontent within the premises. It remains a world unto its own – self-assured and patient. Shadows lurk where this world intersects with the outside world – where elected politicians like Nitin Gadkari and Devendra Fadnavis were seen taking notes, where a lone Christian priest was sitting awkwardly, where recruits too young to decide for themselves were listening rapturously, where countless unnamed ‘supporters’ were abusing opinion makers on social media, as Bhagwat spoke.

If these shadows are to be dispelled, those suspicious of the RSS need to do more than dismiss it or express outrage against it. They have no choice but to engage with it and demand answers. Answers that the Sangh owes to the country at large – not just to its support base, because it is now in a position to hold the government accountable.

(First published in the Mumbai Mirror, October 5th, 2014)