Devendra Fadnavis is a rising star in the Bharatiya Janata Party. At 21, he was the youngest corporator in Nagpur. At 26, he was the youngest Mayor. He has been a member of the Maharashtra Assembly for 13 years. Earlier this year, at 43, he was appointed head of the BJP’s State unit.
Add to this another important qualification: Mr. Fadnavis is a swayamsevak, committed to the worldview of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Nagpur’s political grapevine has it that like the Sangh “advised” the BJP to promote Nitin Gadkari, it has now put its bet on another Nagpur Brahmin politician, Mr. Fadnavis, as someone who will go a long way.
At his residence late on Monday, when The Hindu asked him about the party’s relationship with the Sangh, Mr. Fadnavis replied: “The Sangh intervenes in the BJP only when the BJP calls for it, asks for help. My experience is that the RSS has never said, make someone the president, or give someone the ticket. But if and when asked, the Sangh gives its opinion.”
If that is the case, has the BJP’s dependence on the RSS grown? “Dependence has always been there. Sixty per cent of the BJP’s people have a Sangh background, are connected to it. In States like Maharashtra, this ratio is even higher. It is a mentor, a fatherly figure. Ultimately, we listen to what the Sangh says.” But, the BJP State chief clarifies, this opinion is not binding on either side. “When we seek their views, we know we have to accept it. When they give it, they know we will accept it. But this is only because of a moral bond.”
Questioned about its involvement in BJP affairs, the Sangh does not deny its role. But its reactions appear to fall under two categories: those who project the role as merely one of an adviser; and others who admit to more active participation.
The Vaidya family is committed to the RSS. The 90-year-old patriarch M.G. Vaidya is a former spokesperson, and a senior ideologue. His son, Manmohan, is the current media relations-in-charge, and a second son looks after the Sangh’s affairs in Europe.
Tracing the RSS history, the older Vaidya, told The Hindu : “Our pracharaks are in the party. If the Sangh was not there, do you think Deen Dayal Upadhyay, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and others would have gone to the Jan Sangh? This is the mother organisation.” But he insists that there is no imposition. “I am originally from Wardha. Some people had come to lobby with me for the BJP ticket. I am not going to tell Gadkari or anyone else who to give ticket. But if they ask, I will mention it to the party.” The RSS’ role is to ‘explain, counsel, console, and make the party understand.’
But other senior leaders admit, on condition of anonymity, that there have been moments when the RSS took a “more pro-active role in politics.”
One senior office-bearer narrated the history of the organisation’s involvement. “In the late 1940s, after the ban on the Sangh, it was felt that some political activity was necessary in case such situations arose again.” This prompted the RSS to lend leaders to Shyama Prasad Mukherjee.
During the Emergency, the then Sarsanghchalak, Balasaheb Deoras, gave a clear directive to fight the regime. Over 1,00,000 Sangh members went to prison. “In 1977, the RSS allowed the merger of the Jan Sangh. But in 1980, it was on the issue of association with the Sangh that the BJP was formed.” But the party declared its goal to be ‘Gandhian socialism,’ and the RSS felt that there was ideological deviation. “In 1983-84, Deoras said we are not wedded to the BJP.” RSS supporters are understood to have voted for the Congress in the wake of the Indira Gandhi assassination.
In the 1990s, the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation was the most visible manifestation of the Sangh-party convergence.
The office-bearer said that like in 1949, 1977, 1990s, the Sangh felt this moment required an active role. “There is a serious situation from the national security and internal cohesion view point. Border issues and Kashmir are flaring. And radical elements in Islam are getting an upper hand.” The RSS, he admitted, would devote organisational resources to the BJP and Narendra Modi in 2014. Others, however, believe that the Sangh is investing its capital, for the BJP’s return to power would facilitate its expansion.
Sudhir Pathak, a former editor with Tarun Bharat , a publication sympathetic to the Sangh, offers a candid take on the Sangh’s perception of Mr. Modi, and involvement in the BJP.
“If Mr. Modi wins, the Sangh will benefit a bit. But if he loses, it is his failure. For Mr. Modi, elections are everything, but for the RSS, it is one of the instruments to spread its message in its larger goal of organisation of Hindu society.” In his view, access to state power ensures that there is no hurdle and opposition to the Sangh on the ground, but it does not necessarily translate into active support.
It is crucial to remember that the BJP’s very existence is because of the “dual membership issue,” says Mr. Pathak. “Earlier, the party listened to the RSS. Then, with Atalji and Advaniji prevailing in seniority to the Sangh leadership, the party had an upper hand. But now, BJP leaders and RSS leaders are from the same generation; they went to the same shakhas.” This, he said, gave the relationship an “equal footing,” with the RSS enjoying an “upper hand.”
Mr. Fadnavis, however, does not buy the theory that power equations have shifted, and accepts the BJP’s ideological subservience. “Even for Atalji and Advaniji, the last word was that of the RSS. They knew what the Sangh ideology expected and bent to it. There was no instance wherein the top RSS leadership was defied.”
As a debate runs on the Sangh’s political role, it is this striking faith that BJP leaders have in the Sangh, the RSS’ admission of its role as a mentor and occasional participant, and the ease with which the organisational networks of the two are inter-twined that define their relationship. The recent RSS role in Mr. Modi’s appointment, and in convincing Mr. Advani to tone down his opposition fits into this larger history.