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'BJP should long have outgrown RSS, but it hasn't done so'

February 08, 2014 16:08 IST

If this election is about Narendra Modi, then it is also about the RSS, notes Mihir S Sharma.

The problem with separating the Bharatiya Janata Party from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is that it just doesn’t want that to happen. More than 30 years ago, a government fell over the ‘dual membership’ of people in a political party and the RSS. But, in the decades since, the RSS seems to have become something less worth fearing.

It isn’t fair to judge people by the family they’re from. But, perhaps, political parties are different. Before every election, the BJP makes a renewed effort to distinguish itself from its parent organisation in the Sangh Parivar or family, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. After all, by most standards the BJP should long have outgrown the Sangh, on whom it is dependent for neither funding nor votes. But, somehow, it never quite manages to cut those pesky apron-strings.

This year, it might be doubly important for it to try. The cover issue of the latest issue of the monthly magazine The Caravan is about a man who calls himself Aseemanand, who is in jail in Ambala while being tried for several acts of terror over the past decade. This gentleman -- actually named Neb Sarkar -- may not be the most reliable of interlocutors, having withdrawn at least one controversial confession in the past.

But his latest claims merit investigation. He says that his campaign of three to five bomb blasts, in which about 100 people died, met with the explicit approval of the RSS’ current head, Mohan Bhagwat. Bhagwat apparently told him: “This is very important for Hindus. Please do it. You have our blessings... It’s very important that it be done, but you should not link it to the Sangh.”

Bhagwat has not previously been part of the investigation into any of these acts of terror, which were carried out in places where many Muslims would be targets, such as the dargah at Ajmer and the Samjhauta Express to Pakistan.

In the reaction of investigating agencies to Sarkar’s latest statements, one can sense an unwillingness to move against the RSS, even in the normal course of investigation. The Sangh’s ability to create mayhem is, after all, considerable.

The Caravan’s offices found themselves besieged on Friday. Earlier, a journalist at The Hindu who wrote an op-ed correctly arguing that the RSS had gone back on its promise to Sardar Patel to avoid engaging in politics received hundreds of threatening phone calls.

Sarkar revealed a great deal about the RSS in the course of his four interviews with The Caravan. It wasn’t just that he claimed its highest leadership was aware of his bombing campaign, while maintaining plausible deniability -- something reminiscent of accusations of the RSS’ attitude to the men who killed Mohandas Gandhi in 1948.

Much else was also worth noting. For example, he nicely exploded the RSS’ claims to be a social-service organisation: talking about his post-tsunami relief work, he proudly said that he refused milk to the dying child of a Christian mother. In tribal areas, he added, “we are not interested in poverty alleviation”. So much for that. In fact, in the tribal areas of Gujarat, where Sarkar was particularly active, he claims that he “demolished 30 churches and built temples” in 10 days of violence 14 years ago.

Pretty effective, but it called down the disapproval of the then BJP chief minister, Keshubhai Patel, and the home minister at the Centre, Lal Krishna Advani. Not to worry, a saviour was ready to swoop in. Sarkar says that, at an RSS meeting in Ahmedabad shortly thereafter, a man approached him saying: “You are doing the real work. Now it has been decided that I will be the CM. Let me come and then I will do your work. Rest easy.” That man, of course, was prime minister-presumptive Narendra Modi.

The problem with separating the BJP from the RSS is that it just doesn’t want that to happen. More than 30 years ago, a government fell over the “dual membership” of people in a political party and the RSS. But, in the decades since, the RSS seems to have become something less worth fearing; its various misbegotten children, who attack artists and beat up professors and explode bombs are instead the focus of attention, not the mother ship itself.

The tenure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a man at once part of the RSS and very distant from its socially puritanical ways, had something to do with that. But Vajpayee’s BJP is a distant dream. Today’s BJP, hungry after 10 years in the wilderness, is a very different proposition.

I was at a Delhi wedding recently when a familiar frisson went through the gathering. A man had entered, with dozens of sombre, suited hangers-on. At first I thought it was the prime minister or the president. But it wasn’t. It was Narendra Modi, and as word spread that Modi had arrived, people flocked to have photographs taken with him, to shake his hand, to show him to their small children.

One famous observer of Delhi’s enthusiasms standing on the sidelines told me wryly that not since Indira Gandhi had anyone managed to warp a self-important Delhi gathering around them like that.

But part of Mr Modi’s allure to that crowd, unquestionably, was the sense that he had worked himself to this position of power, of challenge, without any help from his family. The legend of Modi as a self-made man is often repeated. But it’s not quite true -- one has to write the RSS out of history to make it so.

The truth is that, of course, Modi was groomed by another powerful family for power -- the RSS. He lived his 20th year with a senior functionary of the RSS: a man who’s son, Mohan Bhagwat, is now the head of the RSS.

Modi was para-dropped in as chief minister of Gujarat by the RSS; he has never had another job in his life. If this election is about Narendra Modi, then it is also about the RSS. Once in the RSS, always in the RSS, as Vajpayee liked to say.

Image: BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi

Mihir S Sharma