Vidya Subrahmaniam

In the space of three weeks, the RSS has journeyed from decrying shortsighted alliances through proposing precisely such an alliance between the BJP and the Congress to advocating a broad alliance of disparate elements, Mulayam Singh's party included.

THE RASHTRIYA Swayamsevak Sangh is credited with a razor-sharp mind; and with a talent for unlimited work behind the veil infiltrate enemy ranks, gather intelligence, capture institutions, indoctrinate the young, convert the vulnerable, polarise communities, create disaffection, and so forth. The picture it evokes is of an undercover sect, sharp, shadowy, and monomaniacal in the pursuit of its cause.

A lot of this is true. The RSS can be obsessive about getting its way, Lal Krishna Advani's forced exit being a case in point. Yet there might be less to RSS mythology than meets the eye. In the by-gone days when Sangh ideologue K.N. Govindacharya was the toast of beat correspondents, he would gamely tell them they attributed way too much intelligence to Sangh managers: "Not everything is diabolical plotting or by design." But there was no stopping the conspiracy theories and the strategy stories, and with them grew the reputation of the Sangh covert, menacing, scheming, and, at the same time, uncompromisingly ideological.

The Sangh's ideological rigidity was always more imagined than real; its invincibility more folklore than fact. But because Sangh bosses were reclusive, and access to their rarefied quarters was restricted to the faithful, the mystique continued, aided by some true, some exaggerated stories of Jhandewalan's superhuman powers. Today the Sangh is seemingly at its most potent, with the Bharatiya Janata Party preferring to be on the side of Sarsanghachalak K.S. Sudarshan against a party president of the stature of Mr. Advani. There is much talk of the BJP reverting to a Sangh-dictated hard line under the new helmsman, Rajnath Singh. And for his part, Mr. Singh has done the needful presented his credentials to Jhandewalan (the RSS headquarters in New Delhi), reconnected with the likes of Ashok Singhal and Vinay Katiyar, and said the expected on Hindutva, Ram Mandir, the indispensability and supremacy of the RSS, etc.

Yet the plot does not gel. The shriller the RSS' tone and the louder its call for undying loyalty, the more attention it draws to its own diminishing credibility. Under Mr. Sudarshan, the RSS has been reduced to public harangues and flexing of muscle, robbing it of the mystery essential to its omnipotent, omnipresent image. His war with Mr. Advani was posited in ideological terms: the Sangh doctrinaire and righteous, Mr. Advani revisionist and rebelling. Mr. Advani fought long and hard, gave Sudarshan & Co an earful even as he was leaving the party post, but left anyway. The mentor's ideology had vanquished the disciple's attempt at moderation. With Hindutva re-asserted, the BJP disciplined and the National Democratic Alliance told off, the RSS seemed to be humming the old song about ideology first and ideology last.

But just when it appeared that the ideology debate was closed, the RSS weekly, Organiser, revived the topic. An editorial dated January 29, 2006, invited public opinion on the "Role of ideology in polity." It called Atal Bihari Vajpayee "the most successful mastermind of coalition politics" but said such coalitions, based on the "economic promise of prosperity, as against political ideology ... cannot be a long-term strategy." The regional parties were "aberrations in [the] democratic polity" but they were also "a classic reality." The BJP's six years in power had diluted its "basic characteristics"; indeed the BJP was aware that the NDA had not met the Sangh's "core concerns." But the BJP had also widened its base and made "new allies ... on the strength of its ideology, nursing the core constituency and calibrating its work with the wider sangh family."

Whoever thought this was confusing did not know what was coming. The next issue of Organiser showered praise on the Congress and Sonia Gandhi, she of the reviled first family and of Italian ancestry. Under Ms. Gandhi, the Congress showed "remarkable confidence, direction and brazenness." The magazine applauded the Congress' aggression towards its allies in the United Progressive Alliance. More solidarity came from RSS insider and former spokesperson M.G. Vaidya, who, in an article in Tarun Bharat, advocated an alliance between the BJP and the Congress: "They [the Congress and the BJP] should seriously think whether to have a truck with divisive, narrow-minded, selfish parties or have common programmes on administrative grounds, in the larger interest of the country's unity. If both parties rule the country, this could well be in the interest of the nation."

Maybe there was a point being made here: The BJP was best on its own without the disagreeable business of alliance making. But if that was unavoidable, why not get into an alliance with the Congress rather than with a rag-tag bunch of regional parties? After all, the Sangh's admiration for the Congress goes back quite a long way, and, as Mr. Vaidya argued, "Both [the Congress and the BJP] have identical policies in the areas of economics and external affairs."

Organiser struck again. This time it prodded the BJP to add to the NDA, even suggesting an alliance with, horror of horrors, the Samajwadi Party. "For the BJP the Karnataka development is a grand new opening ... It will not be a bad idea for the party to scout around for the disenchanted in the UPA and expand the NDA as a larger formation of national will. The AGP in Assam and the Lok Dal in Haryana are its natural allies. The Samajwadi Party in UP is in a frantic search for new alliances. A certain degree of unconventional adventurism is often considered good politics in times of national calamity. And the UPA is nothing less than a national disaster."

Those who thought Mr. Sudarshan's fight with Mr. Advani was all about ideology should work this out. In the space of three weeks, the RSS journeyed from decrying short-sighted, economic interest based alliances through proposing precisely such an alliance between the BJP and the Congress to advocating a broad alliance of disparate elements, Mulayam Singh's party included. During this period, the Congress transited from being a potential partner in the fight against regional parties to an enemy that must be dislodged with the help of regional parties. The UPA was a "national disaster" but sections of it were welcome to join the NDA "in times of national calamity."

The Advani line

If this is ideology, Sudarshan style, Mr. Advani ought to be rejoicing. Mr. Advani's praise of the August 1947 vision of Mohammad Ali Jinnah was an attempt to reinvent himself. There was no chance that the charioteer of the Ram rath would head a coalition government; but there was every chance that a reformed version of the charioteer would. The RSS showed the door to Mr. Advani for his alleged disrespect of ideology. Yet today it is virtually parroting the Advani line with its advocacy of "good politics" and "unconventional adventurism." It can hardly be to Mr. Rajnath Singh's liking that his exertions to re-saffronise the BJP have come to nothing, that he must now explore adventurist alliances with the Congress, with Mr. Mulayam Singh, with many others.

Is this the fearsome RSS about which tomes have been written, whose sharpness of mind and infiltrative thinking are spoken of in hushed tones? The RSS raked up such a fuss over Mr. Advani's Jinnah remarks that it painted itself into a corner. So heady was its success that it insisted on casting the new BJP in its own image only to realise that in isolating and disempowering the BJP, it had disempowered itself.

Ideally, the RSS would like a strong, muscular BJP running a government on its own. But unlike the Congress, which ran a single party government for 30 years, the Jana Sangh and the BJP could capture power only as part of a coalition. This coupled with the fact the Sangh saw the Congress as tough and nationalist explains its fascination with the Grand Old Party and its periodic praise of one or another Congress leader. In the first year after Independence, the Sangh tried its utmost to merge with the Congress a move repeatedly resisted and eventually foiled by Nehru.

For the RSS, Indira Gandhi was the ultimate leader, strong, authoritarian, and in her later years perceived to be flirting with soft Hindutva. RSS ideologue Nanaji Deshmukh saluted her courage in an obituary that the George Fernandes-edited Hindi weekly, Pratipaksh, reproduced in its November 25, 1984 edition. The Milli Gazette issue of November 16-30, 2004, was to translate it thus: "Indira Gandhi ultimately did secure a permanent place at the doorstep of history as a great martyr. With her dynamism borne out of her fearlessness and dexterity, she was able to take the country forward like a colossus for over a decade, and was able to build an opinion that she alone understood the realities of the country, that she alone had the ability to run the decadent political system of our corrupt and divided society, and probably that she alone could keep the country united. She was a great lady and her death as a brave leader has added to her greatness..."

Two decades later, at a June 2005 RSS function, Mr. Sudarshan called Indira the greatest Indian leader ever. Since then Organiser has praised Sonia Gandhi and called for Mr. Mulayam Singh's inclusion in the NDA. Mr. Sudarshan's predecessors were lucky in that they said and did the unthinkable away from the television cameras. The current Sarsanghachalak loves the limelight and does the flip-flop in public. Never mind the consequences.