The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s constitution explicitly states that it will stay clear of politics. The constitution itself was written, in 1949, because Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel would have it no other way.
The events of 2013 have comprehensively erased that part of India’s history. The RSS has taken full control of the Bharatiya Janata Party. It has overridden internal opposition to name the party’s prime ministerial candidate. No act can be politically more overt than this.
The RSS has always been to the BJP, earlier the Jan Sangh, a mentor the latter could not disobey — because the Jan Sangh was seeded by the RSS whose top pracharaks (propagandists) formed the new party’s intellectual and political capital. In its constitution, the RSS abjures a political role for itself but permits individual swayamsevaks to join any political party.
The RSS has used this caveat to place its representatives in the JS/BJP. From Lal Krishna Advani to Narendra Modi, every BJP leader of consequence has been from the Sangh’s deep bosom and each has had to mandatorily follow a curriculum involving pilgrimages to the Sangh offices in Delhi and Nagpur and deferring to the patriarch’s wisdom.
The unstated part of the BJP-RSS relationship was that the Sangh chief, Sarsanghchalak in RSS parlance, himself would not show his hand. The behind-the-scenes role for the minder was necessitated both by the 1949 undertaking to Patel and to overcome the strong political opposition to Hindutva. The governments of 1977-1979 and 1998-2004 became possible only because the RSS agreed to keep out of sight.
The events of 2013 are remarkable for the reason that the BJP’s need for allies has not translated into the Sangh taking a backseat. Instead, today more than ever before, the mentor is in a frontal, commanding role.
A look at recent history will show that the Sangh’s takeover bid started in real earnest in 2005, following Mr. Advani’s visit to Pakistan and his apocalyptical praise of Mohammad Ali Jinnah delivered straight from the latter’s mausoleum in Karachi. So livid was the Sangh at the transgression that it ordered Mr. Advani removed from the presidentship of the BJP. And though Mr. Advani did become the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2009, his unique place in the Sangh was lost forever. The marginalisation of the ideologue started at that point and has ended today in his complete isolation.
The epic clash of 2005, and Mr. Advani’s barely controlled anger at his public sacking by the minder, are best captured in Mr. Advani’s own words. Addressing the concluding session of the party’s September 2005 Chennai national executive, Mr. Advani said an “impression had gained ground” that his party could take “no decision” without the consent of the RSS : “This perception, we hold, will do no good either to the Party or to the RSS. The RSS must be concerned that such a perception will dwarf its greater mission of man making and nation-building. Both the RSS and the BJP must consciously exert to dispel this impression.”
Lesser players had clashed with the Sangh earlier, and paid the price too, but Mr. Advani was beloved of the Sangh, and among the early pracharaks sent to the Jan Sangh. The BJP veteran was blunt when he called the RSS a busybody; in truth, it had always been so. What was unprecedented was the Sangh divesting a leader of Mr. Advani’s stature and vintage of his presidency.
Seven years on, the Sangh has issued another decree — this time to give a leader a double promotion executed in two stages. Narendra Modi’s June 2013 elevation to the BJP’s campaign committee chief, since relinquished by him, was followed in September 2013 by his appointment as the party’s prime ministerial candidate. In 2005, the RSS’s role was inferred, with the evidence coming from Mr. Advani. In 2013, the fig leaf has been cast away.
Mr. Advani, who had resigned from key party posts protesting Mr. Modi’s June 2013 elevation to campaign panel chief, climbed down on the Sangh’s orders — a fact acknowledged in writing by BJP chief Rajnath Singh. This was a first in RSS-BJP history. Mr. Singh’s June 11, 2013 statement to the media said, “Shri Mohan Bhagwat (current Sarsanghchalak) spoke to Shri Advani and asked him to respect the BJP Parliamentary Board (PB) decision and continue to guide the party in national interest.” The BJP’s PB did indeed make a request to Mr. Advani but from Mr. Bhagwat it was a command. The words were gentle but the message was not.
Thus, the takeover bid which started in 2005 was full and final with Mr. Modi’s projection as Prime Minister in September 2013. In June 2013, Mr. Advani wanted that Mr. Modi should not head the campaign panel. That has happened today, proving that the first-stage elevation was a ploy aimed at wearing down internal opposition to Mr. Modi.
Cut to 1949 and the RSS’s undertaking to Patel to write a constitution, which, among other things, would specify that the Sangh had “no politics” and would remain “devoted purely to cultural work” (Article 4(b) of the RSS constitution; D.R. Goyal, 1979). The written constitution was Patel’s pre-condition for lifting the ban imposed on the RSS in the wake of Mahatma Gandhi’s January 30, 1948 assassination.
Then Sarsanghchalak Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar pleaded not guilty and Patel himself was clear that the RSS was not involved in the assassination. He said this in his February 27, 1948 letter to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and reiterated it later too. However, Patel was strong in the belief that the Sangh’s “violent” ways contributed to the climate in which Gandhiji was killed. Golwalkar’s telegrams to Nehru and Patel expressing shock at the murder did not mitigate the situation.
The government’s ban notification, dated February 4, 1948, did not implicate the RSS in Gandhiji’s murder; it in fact made no mention of the murder. The charge in the text was of violent subversion: “... in practice members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have not adhered to their professed ideals (fostering feelings of brotherhood, love and service among Hindus). Undesirable and even dangerous activities have been carried on by members of the Sangh … individual members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have indulged in acts of violence involving arson, robbery, dacoity and murder and have collected illicit arms and ammunition. They have been found circulating leaflets exhorting people to resort to terrorist methods, to collect firearms, to create disaffection against the government and suborn the police and the military. These activities have been carried on under a cloak of secrecy …”
On November 14, 1948, the Home Ministry held by Patel issued a press note which said Golwalkar wanted the ban lifted without agreeing to the government’s demand that the RSS reform itself. Further, the note quoted information received from the provincial governments, which showed “that the activities carried on in various forms and ways by the people associated with the RSS tend to be anti-national and often subversive and violent and that persistent attempts are being made by the RSS to revive an atmosphere in the country which was productive of such disastrous consequences in the past…”
Prior to this, Patel wrote two significant letters. On July 18, 1948, he wrote to Shyama Prasad Mookherjee, rejecting his defence of the RSS: “The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of the Government and State … as time has marched on, the RSS circles are becoming more defiant and are indulging in their subversive activities … in an increasing measure…”
The letter of September 11, 1948, was to Golwalkar himself. In this Patel lauded the RSS for its service to Hindu society even as he outlined the “objectionable part” which “arose when they, burning with revenge, began attacking Mussalmaans …” Further, “As a final result of the (communal) poison, the country had to suffer the sacrifice of the invaluable life of Gandhiji …” Patel said people’s opposition to the RSS grew when “the RSS men expressed joy and distributed sweets after Gandhiji’s death.”
So, the charge that led to the ban was not that the RSS was involved in Gandhiji’s murder. The charge was of violence and subversion. (The Sangh was later formally cleared of any connection in the murder). This is what led to Patel’s pre-condition that the RSS write a constitution specifying, among other things, its respect for the Indian flag (the Sangh swears by the Bhagwa flag), its commitment both to function as an open and peaceful organisation and to stay clear of politics. It was a prolonged battle. Golwalkar resisted writing the constitution but Patel won out and the ban was lifted on July 11, 1949.
The RSS has gone back on the promise to keep off politics.