How Modi’s win has changed Mohan Bhagwat’s tenor

Vijayadashami is the most important day in the calendar of the RSS, not only because it was founded on the festival in 1925, but also because the head of the organisation, the Sarsanghchalak, gives a speech on the occasion laying out the Sangh’s agenda for the year. A dense manifesto that is mined extensively for implicit meanings. This year, however, the traditional celebration of a mythological victory had more than a symbolic meaning for the RSS.

Last year on the same dais, as tacitly as he is wont to, the Sarsanghchalak, Mohan Bhagwat declared that the Sangh (that defines itself as a non-political organisation) was to get actively involved in the upcoming election “to encourage a large number of people to come out and vote”. No party or candidate was endorsed but the message was clear: The Sangh would put its weight behind Narendra Modi’s campaign.

This year’s speech, on that count, was a victory speech. An address, not as usual to the “Hindu samaj” or swayamsevaks alone, but to the country, that had elected a former pracharak as its prime minister. The consciousness of this mandate, “parivartan”, as he called it, pervaded the outwardly apolitical speech. And it is this consciousness that made the speech different from all other speeches Bhagwat has delivered on Dussehra since he became the head of the RSS in 2009.

There was no attempt to conceal the organisation’s affiliation with the government. Bhagwat unequivocally praised Modi for “good indications” and asked that he be given more time to turn India into the country of our dreams. By “our”, one assumes he meant the Sangh first, for the organisation and its leaders owe their loyalty primarily to their own ideology.

If the last years’ speeches were delivered as a combative opposition, criticising the government at the centre, here Bhagwat took a more philosophical tone. He asked his cadres and society at large to introspect and pointed out ways in which they can help to take the country ahead. The government alone cannot be held responsible for our fate, he warned.

The speech was, in keeping with Modi’s new stance, more inclusive than any other to date – by RSS standards. He held Western policies driven by greed responsible for fanatic forces like the ISIS, adding a critical nuance to the RSS’ discourse on Islamic fundamentalism. Ram Janmabhoomi temple, that has come up in nearly all his previous speeches did not even find a cursory mention. The emphasis was on inclusive growth, eradicating differences and defining Hinduism as a religion that “respects diversity within and outside itself and has no history of inflicting its ideas on people of other cultures and faiths”.

There were Muslims explicitly singled out for criticism though – illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Bihar, Assam and Bengal and those indulging in “Jihadi activities in southern states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu”. All states named are non-BJP ruled states. These are also the two regions in which the Sangh is actively working to increase its presence.

Congress (or the Gandhi dynasty as some might interpret it) was without being named, referred to as a defeated but not eradicated force that one must be wary of, for they are the ones that divide the country in order to rule it.

What was familiar from previous pronouncements is the peculiar vision of India as a nation that evokes the socialism of Jai Prakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and Vinoba Bhave, and the “Integral Humanism” of Deen Dayal Upadhyay. An India built around a big brotherhood of Hindus, with equality for Dalits in Hindu society. A country that applauds scientific achievements and frowns upon cow slaughter and “increase in non-vegetarianism.” Or, as the RSS would put it, an India that borrows from the world but fashions its own path in keeping with its traditions. Also familiar was the invocation of the “golden age” of a mythical “Akhand Bharat” to boost the morale of “nation-builders”- taken forward from Swami Vivekananda by the RSS and now Modi.

Bhagwat came across as suspicious of China, as always, but this time around instead of criticising the government for its soft stand, he sought to redefine the Swadeshi movement, asking Indians to boycott Chinese made goods that are crippling our economy.”Thousand years of foreign rule,” (a phrase used by the Sangh and Modi to create an undifferentiated period of foreign rule by Muslim invaders and British colonisers from medieval times), is what has left the society flawed, said Bhagwat. A large part of the speech was dedicated to motivating Indians to remove these character flaws and inculcate courage and compassion, as also dedicate time to family and the country – platitudinous and perfectly innocuous life lessons.

More telling were the things Bhagwat did not say. Where previously Kashmir would come up as a vital security and internal policy concern, this year it only found mention in the context of the recent floods and the Sangh and Modi government’s “excellent response” to the calamity.

For all his emphasis on the unity of all Indians, Bhagwat did not address the increase in communal riots across the country, not even as a law and order problem. He similarly did not criticise the government for its flawed environmental policy while stressing that the protection of environment should be a primary concern.

Despite this apparent lenience the underlying message was not one of unconditional allegiance. His hope that the new government will deliver was underpinned with his assertion that they must.

There is no mistaking that Modi and his team will have to work to keep the support of the Sangh. Work in the direction of its economic, social and ideological objectives. Bhagwat might have steered the RSS from being an outlier to the heart of the political discourse; from being a dissenter to a constructive collaborator, but by no means has he surrendered the organisation’s right to assert itself.

 

(First published on Daily O, October 4th, 2014)