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RSS faces a different Modi wave

February 25, 2014 11:29 IST

The Sangh's leadership has boxed itself into a tight situation. It now needs to wait and see if Modi can deliver in the Lok Sabha polls, says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is among various organisations whose futures will be decided in the looming parliamentary elections despite it never contesting elections. In October this year, the RSS will enter the ninetieth year of its existence and this watershed year in its existence comes when the RSS has to take vital decisions regarding reorienting strategy to retain influence in Indian politics.

Though never a direct participant in electoral politics, the RSS influenced political discourse through affiliated organisations in the Sangh Parivar. Immediately after independence, however, the RSS played little role when recovering from charges levelled in the aftermath of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination.

From the mid-1960s its influence increased and its leaders played crucial roles in the anti-Emergency movement and subsequently in the Janata Party years. The Janata government fell and the party split over the issue of "dual membership". When the Bharatiya Janata Party was built from its debris, the RSS was back to its pariah status.

The RSS wormed its way back through the movement for the Ram Janmabhoomi temple and began controlling internal matters of the BJP from late-1980s. The organisation, however, remained a political untouchable forcing moderation of the BJP and the return of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, back as its electoral mascot in place of Lal Krishna Advani.

The glorious moment of the RSS's hegemony over the BJP was in March 1998 when general secretary K S Sudarshan made a midnight visit to Vajpayee and conveyed the Big Brother's desire that Jaswant Singh and Pramod Mahajan be excluded from the Union cabinet. The diktat specified that Yashwant Sinha be made finance minister and Vajpayee complied.

The RSS soon lost its rigid control on the Vajpayee regime, especially after October 1999 when he secured a second term. By the time the National Democratic Alliance regime was voted out, the RSS had been reduced to a mere appendage of the BJP. It is true that this period witnessed riots in Gujarat, and Vajpayee unsuccessfully attempted to remove Narendra Modi.

The Gujarat chief minister remained in office due to support from several sections including the RSS. Later, the cosy relationship between Modi and the RSS also deteriorated when after securing a massive mandate in December 2002 he opted to be his own master. In ways more than one, the defeat of the BJP-led alliance in 2004 was an opportunity for the RSS to regain control of the BJP.

In the past decade, the tussle continued and Advani resisted nudges from the RSS to retire from active politics. Nitin Gadkari was appointed BJP president at the behest of the RSS leadership but he had to step aside and was not given another term in March 2013 because of power struggle by proxy between various factions within the Sangh Parivar.

Currently, the most intriguing relationship within the fraternity involves Modi and the RSS top brass. This association is completely based on mutual dependence. Despite differences with Modi's style of working and his disdain for hierarchy within the RSS, its leaders made temporary peace because he provides the best opportunity for the RSS's political agenda to stage a comeback.

For his part, Modi continues working within the mainframe of the RSS fraternity because he requires the RSS cadre, since the parallel set-up he developed has the capacity to only manage a campaign. The foot soldiers are missing and that is why he accepts the RSS, though its leaders at times breathe down his neck overpoweringly.

The RSS finally gave the go-ahead to the BJP in the summer of last year to anoint Modi as chief of campaign committee and later as official prime ministerial candidate. But the decision was carefully considered and the announcement made only after the assessment that Modi not only had a huge support within the organisation, but his winnability was also the highest among all rivals within the party.

The RSS would not mind if Modi falls short or does not become prime minister yet the final numbers are such that another BJP leader assumes the leadership position in the new coalition. But the RSS does not have a Plan B if the BJP falls short of even that number, in which case it will have to return to the drawing board.

The RSS will also be severely challenged if Modi delivers handsomely and returns with a big mandate. Modi's dependence on the RSS will be factored in by his mandate. If he has sufficient numbers, he would not be hedged by allies and the RSS. A weak mandate will force him to be more accommodative to both the RSS and allies.

The basic crisis for the RSS stems from its inability to update ideology with changing times and evolve organisationally. It is no coincidence that when it battles political marginalisation, it is faced with allegations of promoting the euphemistic Hindu terror.

Like in the Gandhi assassination case, the RSS repeatedly failed to control fringe elements. This gives rise to accusations that the leadership has always been in the know -- be it the 1948 assassination, the demolition of the Babri Masjid or the Samjhauta Express blasts.

The RSS leadership has boxed itself into a situation where there are few exits. It does not have time on its side to extricate itself in the short run. The Lok Sabha verdict could determine the direction its leaders wish to take to retain political relevance.

The writer is author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (Tranquebar, 2013)

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay
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