Rethinking the BJP, RSS and the ‘Parivar’
-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao
As Vajpayee, Advani and other leaders of the BJP emerge out of shell-shock and begin their analyses of why the NDA lost when all polls, pundits and most astrologers predicted a win, it will be tempting for these leaders to reject calls for major changes within the party. Change is difficult for it is hard to recast oneself and because it is easy to return to one’s old comfort zones. In fact, the argument that the BJP failed because it tried to recast itself as a Centrist party whereas it should have remained true to its Hindutva roots is doing the rounds in Delhi and is a very seductive argument. Praveen Togadia is the loudest in proclaiming that the BJP duped its Hindu base, but it is such simplistic analyses and the melodramatic acts of distributing trishuls that kept the BJP critics employed full time and which led to the undermining of the sage leadership of Vajpayee and Advani.
But more than pointing fingers at the RSS leaders collectively or singling out the shrill VHP leaders, any serious analysis should deal with the fundamental question of the relationship between the various organizations affiliated with the RSS. There is a serious organizational problem in the amorphous structure of the parivar. For example, even though we know that the Jana Sangh was started in 1951 when Shyama Prasad Mookerjee quit the Nehru cabinet over Nehru’s softness towards Pakistan, that the Jana Sangh provided the necessary political plank for RSS volunteers and that it in turn found the workers to carry on the organizational activities, we are not sure what the formal ties are between the BJP and the RSS. I believe there are none. Thus, every time there is a crisis in the party, we have one of the designated RSS general secretaries doing the troubleshooting. But that it is not done effectively can be seen from the frequent and increasingly fractious infighting, exemplified recently with the Keshubhai Patel faction trying to bring down Narendra Modi in Gujarat.
If, however, the BJP is indeed an RSS outfit, then the relationship should be made formal. The RSS leaders could then exercise full control over the nature of its political affiliate and wield their wonted disciplinary stick. The “sarsanghchalak” of the RSS then would be the de facto kingmaker, the RSS general secretaries the policy gurus and all power would emanate from Nagpur. On the other hand, if the BJP is an independent political party, then it should quietly and firmly show the Sudarshanjis, the Singhaljis and the Togadiajis the door. To have the RSS and VHP leaders continuously nipping at the heels of the BJP leaders in public or meeting with them in private to complain, have dinners and shoot the breeze, undermines the BJP’s ability to function effectively as a political party.
The RSS and its leaders have paid little interest in defining the boundaries of their organization and the planks of their activities. If they have done so in some manner at some time, they now egregiously squat on others’ lands and barge into others’ territories. Thus, for example, the BJP, as a political party has been sought to be controlled, managed, influenced and directed by a variety of parivar activists whose agendas could be organizational, personal, or idiosyncratic. The BJP thus has ended up as a shapeless political party but ironically enough continues to be labeled a Hindu nationalist party. The BJP is shapeless not because it has abandoned the core RSS principles and constituents, but because the RSS is unclear about its relationship with the BJP.
The RSS leaders should go back to the drawing board, conduct internal audits to clarify for themselves, for their constituencies and for the outside world, who exactly they are and what their long term and short term goals are. The number of affiliates of the RSS has now grown so large that it seems the original intent of setting up the RSS has become tied in a complicated Gordian knot that no one knows how to untangle.
When Balasaheb Deoras took over as general secretary of the RSS in 1965, he stressed the importance of the affiliates and their assertiveness. But as the complex network of affiliates grew and continues to grow, the RSS has not only been influenced by the work of these affiliates, which are more technical and specialized in nature, but in turn sought to control the affiliates. The RSS was established as an organization to train Hindu men who, on the basis of their character-building experience in the RSS, would work to unite the Hindu community so that India could again become an independent country and a creative society. That was in 1925. India is now independent and a constitutional democracy. What better time than now to evaluate their eight decades of work and who they are and what they should be doing for the next eight decades? The RSS could very well confine itself to what it does best -- run shakas, train its swayamsevaks to be good samaritans, work to reduce if not remove caste discrimination and more importantly identify itself as a Hindu organization whose focus is Hindu interests and whose members are Hindu. The RSS leaders should then sit down and clarify afresh the nature and goals of Hindutva, their guiding principle.
The concept of Hindutva has become so garbled that it is time for a clear, precise statement about Hinduism and the Indian nation-state’s relationship to Hinduism. Huntington, in his now famous/controversial book, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order” argues that human history is the history of civilizations and claims that religion is the central defining characteristic of civilizations. According to him, the defining character of India is Hinduism and India is the core Hindu state. Huntington’s book most probably is on the reading list of RSS leaders and therefore there is renewed thrust to the original Hindutva thesis. But the original Hindutva thesis said that India is home to those who consider it their “pitru bhoomi” (fatherland) and “punya bhoomi” (sacred land). That was in the 1920s and in the context of Muslims trying to carve out a separate country for themselves and all kinds of political machinations by a variety of forces. India is now independent and has anywhere from 130 to 150 million Muslims and 30 to 40 million Christians, who consider India their homeland but may not consider it their sacred land. Thus the original definition of Hindutva has been the nub of controversy and despite Supreme Court rulings in favor of the RSS and some ineffective attempts by RSS leaders to clarify what Hindutva now means, the broadside against and the demonization of the RSS continues.
I believe it is time for the BJP to cut ties to the RSS. To be tied to the RSS in the fashion it has been, has led to disastrous consequences including a lack of focus, indiscipline and insubordination among the BJP ranks. I also believe the BJP can differentiate itself from the Congress while toeing a centrist economic and social policy. Vajpayee has given the lead by proclaiming that India is a multicultural nation. A multicultural nation is different from the secularist brigades’ version of a “composite” society – some strange political product forged in some heated academic chambers. The BJP can go one step further and say India is a multicultural nation that is under-girded and illumined by the Hindu philosophical and civilizational ethos. Saying so will neither be factually incorrect or politically subversive. The BJP can then open its doors to all Indians, irrespective of their religious affiliation and be seen as an attractive political option for moderates of all hues.
If the BJP cart continues to be harnessed to the RSS horses, then its leadership should clarify what kind of India they want in the future: is it an India that is primarily Hindu, or is it an India that is a liberal, constitutional democracy? These distinctions can then lead to careful analyses of the BJP’s economic, social and political agenda and not be shaped by opportunistic alliances or divided loyalties. If such clarity existed before, we would not have seen the Gurumurthys nipping at the heels of the Shouries, the Togadias and Singhals nipping at the heels of the Vajpayees and the Advanis and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh and Keshubhai Patel nipping at Modi’s heels.
The RSS is still fighting old battles and in old-fashioned ways. There is no fresh thinking by and nimble responses from its leaders. I remember the convoluted RSS press statement that was released after the worst of the Gujarat riots in 2002. I criticized the leadership then but I don't think there have been serious attempts to do some house-cleaning and some soul-searching. The RSS can continue to be a Hindu organization, work for the welfare of Hindus and wage battle on behalf of Hindu interests. It can be a legitimate force in Indian society and fight the dangerous monopolistic claims of aggressive monotheistic religions. That then would lead to the refashioning of their education and communication agendas, fine-tuning their understanding of the nation-state, acknowledging the changing roles of men and women in modern societies, getting a grip on the clashes between the modern and the traditional and understanding the new economic, technological and political dynamics in a globalizing world.
The RSS and other parivar leaders seem to be only partly informed about the complex dynamics in the modern world and thus some of their simplistic pronouncements about us and them, new and old, good and bad, right and wrong. I do believe that Hindu civilizational ethos is built on the acknowledgement and acceptance of the multitudinous world. The power and reality of that worldview should be harnessed by the RSS more carefully and more effectively. Releasing the BJP from its fold can make the BJP a more effective opposition party and its leaders can battle effectively the opportunistic combination of parties that has now assumed power. If not, both the RSS and the BJP can be sent to another 40 year “vanavas”, just as the RSS was marginalized for forty years after the assassination of Gandhiji. Meanwhile, overall Hindu interests could then be more easily attacked and undermined by a rejuvenated and determined opposition, who just now happen to have come back to power.
Originally published on June 11, 2004.