A new cosy arrangement

The rise in comfort levels in the relations between the RSS and the Modi government at the Centre is an important change from the previous, slightly fraught relationship between the Sangh and the Vajpayee government.

September 13, 2015 01:14 am | Updated November 26, 2021 10:26 pm IST

Vrindavan: (L-R) RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, BJP President Nitin Gadkari and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi during the 'Heerak Jayanti' celebration at Vatsalya Gram in Vrindavan on Friday. PTI Photo (PTI10_22_2010_000161B)

Vrindavan: (L-R) RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, BJP President Nitin Gadkari and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi during the 'Heerak Jayanti' celebration at Vatsalya Gram in Vrindavan on Friday. PTI Photo (PTI10_22_2010_000161B)

The three day Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Samanvay Baithak or co-ordination meeting held in Delhi between September 3 and 5 was important in both form and content in informing the country of the structure of organisations which now greatly influence its government. The RSS ended the meet with a ringing endorsement of the government, and government ministers were volubly unapologetic at having presented themselves at the meet for a seeming “performance appraisal.”

It was a performance that, in the words of professor Walter Anderson, co-author of the seminal work on the RSS, The Brotherhood in Saffron, sought to establish not just the commonality of policy goals, but “signalling that the RSS aims to speak out more openly on policy issues of importance, rather than just being a mediator of differences and a supplier of workers, and that the Modi government is comfortable with it doing so.”

This comfort between the RSS and the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre is an important change from the previous, slightly fraught relationship between the Sangh (RSS) and the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. It is a sign of increasing confidence in the RSS, with growing numbers of enrolment and mainstream support but also owes a lot to a conscious effort by the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to learn from the lessons of the past.

This is NDA 2.0

What are the contours of this new relationship? The first clue that most people got about this new communicative exchange was in September 2014, when Prime Minister Modi was informed, during a meeting at his residence 7 Race Course Road, that the RSS would be replacing Suresh Soni with RSS joint general secretary Krishna Gopal as the office bearer responsible for co-ordinating affairs between the RSS and the BJP. Mr. Gopal, from Mathura, is of a cohort group closer to the age of the current leadership in the party and shares Mr. Bhagwat’s rather pragmatic approach to things. The official announcement of this change was made in October that year, a full month’s grace period given to the party to adjust to it.

Indeed, the machinery of the relationship in its rivets has taken into account the likes and preferences of Prime Minister Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. “As soon as the elections were over, people more in tune with the new dispensation, both in age and inclination, like Ram Madhav, Shiv Prakash and Sunil Bansal (in the Uttar Pradesh unit) were seconded to the party,” said a senior BJP office bearer. When the ‘Ghar Wapsi’ agitation derailed an entire Parliament session, a key RSS office bearer heading the programme was asked to stand down, after Prime Minister Modi and Mr. Bhagwat got talking.

"For the government, it has been 15 months of filial endorsement by the RSS." Photo: AP

In 2008, the RSS had decided to crystallise some of its ideological preoccupations into viable policy documents and work, and had set up a string of think tanks such as the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) and the India Foundation. In 2014, the two think tanks provided a rich hunting ground for appointment of ministers (Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu, and Minister of State for Finance Jayant Sinha are from the India Foundation) and also important officials (National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister Nripendra Misra were associated with the VIF). This created seamlessness in policy thinking, which was lacking earlier.

According to professor Pralay Kanungo, author of the well-regarded book, RSS’ Tryst with Politics: From Hedgewar to Sudarshan, the generational change in the BJP and the RSS cannot be over emphasised in explaining the new cosy arrangement. “During the Vajpayee premiership, he and L. K. Advani were like colossus on the Sangh stage, outflanking the sarsanghchalak K. S. Sudarshan. There was, in my opinion, a confidence deficit in the Sangh due to this, which manifested itself in a sharper tussle for control and dominance,” he said. “The new lot who are involved in mediating affairs — Krishna Gopal, Ram Madhav and Union Minister for Roads and Highways Nitin Gadkari are of a different ilk. Mostly there is a realisation that the mandate of 282 seats cannot be frittered away,” he adds.

The new rivets

BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, who handles many sensitive assignments for the party, pooh poohs suggestions that things were really bad between the RSS and the BJP in the Vajpayee era, but concedes that communication is better now.

“It’s not as if there was no ideological proximity then. There were many members of the NDA government then who were very close to the organisation. In 2002, in fact, we had a similar exercise between the RSS and the NDA government and then Prime Minister Vajpayeeji had also attended, albeit not with such a brouhaha being made about it,” he said. He added, however, that “mechanisms for co-ordination are better now, both formally and informally.”

An example of the formal mechanism is the recently held meet between education and culture ministers of BJP-ruled States, where the party’s office bearers and Union Ministers of those departments were present. “We prepared a lot for the meeting and we intend to meet at least twice a year,” said Union Minister for Culture Mahesh Sharma. The informal mechanism was at work on the issue of One Rank One Pension (OROP) where a gentle nudge from RSS second in command Suresh “Bhaiyyaji” Joshi sealed matters and within 48 hours an acceptable draft of the OROP settlement was announced to the country.

A senior BJP member who was part of the Vajpayee government and the current one says that the change is visible. “If you look at what RSS joint general secretary Dattatreya Hosabele said after the baithak on the Ram Temple issue—that they would not hand over a time table to the government on this, despite efforts by VHP leader Praveen Togadia—and contrast it with Dattopant Thengdi of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM) offering dharna against the Vajpayee government on economic reforms, the picture will be clear.”

Individual ministers, he says, are encouraged to meet with Sangh affiliate organisations, on their issues. For example, the SJM met with environment minister Prakash Javadekar on field trials for Genetically Modified (GM) crops. The SJM was successful in getting the trials stopped despite recommendations to the contrary by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), advising the ministry. On issues relating to the economy and agriculture, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari frequently mediates between the Sangh affiliates and the government.

The GM crops victory, in fact, was balanced by the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) pulling out of the nationwide trade unions strike on September 2. “Therefore there is give and take, and the Sangh retains its role as the final arbitrator in any given dispute,” he adds.

Fraying accord

When the government was first sworn in, there was widespread talk of how the RSS has given it a free pass for at least a year to get things into shape. It has been 15 months of filial endorsement by the RSS. And yet, there are issues, analysts feel, the resolution of which will test the mettle of the new Pax Bhagwat.

Many say that clashes within the Parivar could emerge on three issues. The first is on the question of Indianisation of science and research. The RSS is promoting it but the government may be eager to retain the credibility of India abroad. The second is the economy, where the Swadeshi agenda may contradict ‘Make in India’, the Modi government’s manufacturing outreach, and finally, the question of appointments to institutions.

The government will have to assess how far it can go in getting appointments done without affecting institutions. Prof. Kanungo, in fact, says that the question of appointments has the most potential in creating rifts between various wings of the Sangh and the government. The fire over the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the head of the Film and Television Institute of India hasn’t been doused yet.

Heads of various educational institutions including Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University are yet to be appointed.

A senior BJP leader from Gujarat, who has observed Prime Minister Modi since his days as Chief Minister, says that more than anything, the sidelining of people like Mr. Togadia from the mainstream of Sangh affairs to fringe will be a hidden danger. “On the question of the Ram Temple and even on the religious census data, Togadia was asked to pipe down and a more middle path was to be taken. After being reduced to the fringe in Modi’s Gujarat, he is risking that in Modi’s India. The phenomenon of Hardik Patel is a sign of this restlessness of those marginalised to the fringes of the discourse,” he said.

“No government is in a position to tolerate political violence. Sangh affiliates who may have to accommodate government concerns on key issues may revolt. Ultimately that will be the true test of this new found arrangement,” he said.

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