The rise of the Saffron brigade

Though the Sangh’s thrust on Swadeshi and frugal ways of living are in sharp contrast with Narendra Modi’s economic policies, it needs the BJP to achieve the bigger goal of expanding its sphere of influence across the country

November 30, 2014 12:27 am | Updated November 16, 2021 04:43 pm IST

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat

Meet Rajiv Tuli, 45, helming the expansion plans of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Delhi. His phone rings often in his office with callers asking him how to join the organisation. An IT engineer calls to know the status of his online application. Mr. Tuli asks a few questions to check his background and resolve to work for the Sangh. He goes on to warn him that RSS volunteers will come knocking at his door early every morning to join the Shakha, the daily morning meeting comprising the Sangh rituals of a physical training regimen, prayer and propagation of the ideas of its founder, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, and his successor, M.S. Golwalkar.

Mr. Tuli then guides the caller to the Shakha in the Malviya Nagar area of South Delhi.

Prant Prachar Pramukh of the RSS in Delhi, Mr. Tuli says, “We receive nearly 5,000 applications every month.”

In July 2012, when the Bharatiya Janata Party, the RSS’s political offshoot, was out of power at the Centre, fewer than 200 people applied every month. The RSS does not maintain a membership roster, so the number of Shakhas across the country is the measure of its spread. Since July 2014, the number of Shakhas has gone up from nearly 39,000 to beyond 42,000 — a nearly 10 per cent jump.

Enrolment drive “Within the next five years, irrespective of which party is in power, our challenge is to double our membership,” Mr. Tuli said.

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat set the target of one crore volunteers and one lakh Shakhas in five years’ time at a three-day youth camp in early November in Agra. The Sangh has been working hard on getting these numbers. The rigorous daily Shakha has a weekly avatar — the IT Milan for IT, management and other professionals in metros. Delhi has 36 IT Milans, Bangalore more than 100. The Sangh and its affiliates have significant online presence and even a mobile app for information on Shakhas and allied activities.

“The ultimate aim is Hindu Rashtra. We are working on the ways to achieve this goal and to stop appeasement of a select few communities,” said Virag Pachpore, in charge of the RSS’s minority wing, Muslim Rastriya Manch (MRM).

RSS in government Since the Narendra Modi government came to power, the Sangh has launched a multi-pronged approach to propagating its ideas, often with the help of the government. The national broadcaster, Doordarshan, airing the RSS chief’s Vijayadashami speech on October 4 live was one such instance. The Sarsanghchalak’s address is the biggest annual affair in the RSS meant to show the path ahead to swayamsevaks, but this time, with the Doordarshan platform available, Mr. Bhagwat chose to address society at large.

Since July 2014, the number of RSS Shakhas across the country has gone up from 39,000 to beyond 42,000, a nearly 10 per cent jump in four months

Weeks later, the government appointed A. Surya Prakash, considered close to the RSS, as Prasar Bharati Chairman. Earlier, the government had appointed Y.S. Rao as chief of the Indian Council of Historical Research, reigniting the debate on the BJP’s attempts to “saffronise” history.

“Appointments [in the government] are key to increasing the Sangh’s influence,” said Pradip K. Datta, Head, Political Science Department, Delhi University. “Placing people who will survive changes of government and push governance towards the Hindu right is central to the plan.” The RSS, he said, wants to influence the country’s policies in defence and education.

Sources in the Vishwa Samvad Kendra said the RSS through the Saraswati Shishu Mandir proposed changes to the education system handed down by the British. Batting for the promotion of Sanskrit language teaching in schools, a former RSS pracharak said, “Sanskrit can connect the whole of India, so we need to stress on its spread. And the RSS is working with the government to bring about a change in people’s mindset.”

Saffron roots The new Defence Minister, Manohar Parikkar, was a sanghchalak in his younger days. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a pracharak deputed to work in the BJP decades ago. Sangh leaders have had several rounds of meetings with Ministers in the Modi government, though BJP leaders have claimed these meetings are an attempt to simply avoid the Sangh and the government speaking in different voices as it happened during the previous NDA regime.

For its long term goal, the Sangh is even willing to compromise and overlook the Modi government’s thrust on hardnosed liberalisation. The Sangh’s thrust on Swadeshi and the frugal ways of living are in sharp contrast with Mr. Modi’s economic policies. But it has its eyes set on achieving the bigger goal — a much larger area of influence by 2025 — when the RSS will complete a century of existence. “The RSS doesn’t need a government. The ideology [of the RSS] is very important and its reach, influence and ability to shape the destiny of the country will be proved adequately [by 2025],” said P. Murlidhar Rao, BJP general secretary who was sent from the RSS into the party. Recently, a senior RSS leader confessed privately that the BJP must be allowed [by the RSS] to do whatever it takes to win elections and form the government in more States. The Sangh’s list of what it desires is long and deeply controversial. Legislative tasks such as abrogation of Article 370, introducing a Uniform Civil Code and repeal of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution that grants special privileges and greater autonomy to tribal areas in the Northeast can only be done on the basis of a brute majority not just in the Lok Sabha but also the Rajya Sabha and the State legislatures.

Under Mr. Bhagwat, the RSS lent the might of its cadres to Mr. Modi’s bid for power at Delhi. Now with the BJP in power at the Centre, visits from top Sangh leaders to Delhi have increased. The RSS plans to tear down the old low-rise buildings and construct a 10-storey plush office at the location. The RSS is adapting to the future, rooted in a 90-year-old foundation.

(With additional reporting by Pavan Dahat)

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