The RSS, which once appeared to be “an old men’s organisation,” decided to go for a makeover in 2009 after the BJP’s defeat in the 2004 elections followed by controversies surrounding L.K.Advani, the death of Pramod Mahajan, withdrawal of A.B. Vajpayee from active politics and health issues of the then RSS chief K.C.Sudarshan and VHP chief Ashok Singhal.
But the person tasked with this makeover, Mohan Bhagwat, was relatively low-profile and “junior” to all these luminaries.
Today, Mr. Bhagwat has a firm hand on the tiller, ensuring that the Sangh Parivar, a ‘family’ of 36 organisations that spans almost every aspect of national life, are all rowing in the same direction.
What shaped him?
Mohan Bhagwat was born in 1950, in Sangli district, Maharashtra, into a staunchly RSS family. Grandfather Nanasaheb was an associate of founder K.B. Hedgewar, father Madhukarrao was a pracharak in Gujarat, and mother Malati was a member of the RSS’s women’s wing. A relative recalls that though the Bhagwats were practically of the RSS aristocracy, “their door would be open for everyone.”
The Bhagwats were known for winning people over rather than being confrontational. “Mohan has inherited the same quality.”
Young Mohan, the oldest of four siblings, decided early to dedicate his life to the RSS. After six months as a veterinarian in rural Chandrapur, he quit the job and moved to Akola, to be the district RSS pracharak. He later served in Vidarbha, and then in Bihar, rising swiftly, building a strong network and a reputation for accessibility, to become Sarkarawah (general secretary) in 2000.
How did the ‘shift’ occur?
The BJP’s reign (1999-2004) saw squabbles within the Parivar. “The BJP’s defeat in 2004 was due to internal confrontations between the Sudarshan-Thengdi group and the Vajpayee group,” claims former RSS member Dilip Deodhar. The Sangh Parivar was in disarray when RSS office-bearers met in Nagpur in March 2009 to select a Sarkaryawah as Mr. Bhagwat had completed his third term. RSS ideologue M.G. Vaidya, who was the election manager, recalls: “I was about to initiate the process of the election of Sarkaryawah when Sudarshanji stopped me. He took the microphone, said that he was not keeping well, and proposed Mohan Bhagwat’s name for the post of sarsanghchalak.”
Mr. Bhagwat was 59, young for the top post by RSS standards. The outside world may have been surprised, but insiders say the ‘generational shift’ had been carefully planned.
What did he change?
He set 75 years as the age limit for offices across the Parivar. Mr. Advani was told that the 2009 general election would be his last chance for power; after the defeat, the gerontocracy was politely but firmly sidelined.
He began to shape the Parivar into his own flexible and accommodative nature.
Nitin Gadkari, 52, and a novice at national politics, was made party president; relatively young BJP leaders took on the mantle in Parliament and Pravin Togadia became VHP chief.
He attracted the masses towards a cadre-based Sangh Parivar and opened its doors to grassroots leaders, including those from the opposition.
The RSS’s khaki shorts were replaced with trousers. Shakha timings became flexible, making it easier for office-goers and students to enrol. The Parivar learned how to use the Internet and social media.
Did he succeed?
In 2014, the Sangh Parivar, not the BJP alone, fought the elections and won. “Many think Mr. Bhagwat is Modi’s man but it’s the other way around,” said an insider. He successfully brought the transformation in the Sangh Parivar and made it look very easy.
Several RSS goals — the Ram temple in Ayodhya, the abrogation of Article 370 and a Uniform Civil Code — remain unmet. Mr. Bhagwat would want those boxes ticked soon. If he is to bring in Dalits, Backward Classes and consolidate the Hindu vote, he must also temper the perception of the Parivar as communal.
Only then will the RSS — and Bhagwat’s — big goal be in sight: Bharat, a Prakhar Hindu Rashtra. He has eight years left before he turns 75.