RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Rao Bhagwat’s three-day lecture series in New Delhi titled “Future of Bharat: An RSS Perspective” is significant, representing as it does the organisation’s first effort at public outreach on such a large scale. Analysts have speculated that it is an answer to Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s recent characterisation of the RSS as the Indian version of the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’, an Islamist group that combines social work with political activism and peddles peace while allegedly supporting terrorist activities.
Portraying the sarsanghchalak’s event as a defensive exercise is a facile attempt to downgrade the RSS’ bold effort to change the terms of engagement. Given that the Congress-Left routinely dubs the RSS as fascist, divisive and communal, Rahul’s grandstanding in London is unlikely to have disturbed the sangh parivar. The event has more to do with the evolution of the RSS in terms of outlook, character and style of functioning. A need was felt to communicate, to a foreign and Indian audience, where the sangh parivar stood at this juncture. In the here and now, with an eye to the future.
The sarsanghchalak’s lecture binds the RSS of today to the Constitution of India and its secular values. It commits the RSS to inclusion, pluralism, open-mindededness and flexibility and signals a readiness to grapple with and resolve contentious issues of gender and ethno-nationalism. It gives the lie to the image of a shadowy organisation mired in the past and touting a xenophobic and retrogressive agenda.
From the turn of the century, it became clear that the rapid expansion of the sangh parivar from the early 1990s onwards, no longer allowed a ‘closed’ organisation. In the Age of Informationalism, relying on in-house publications, shakhas and face-to-face interactions to disseminate its message was no longer viable. Engagement with the mass media deepened post-NDA I, with a young pracharak from Andhra Pradesh, Ram Madhav, becoming the de facto voice of the RSS. Until he was deputed to the BJP as general secretary in 2014, he continued to be the first port of call for journalists looking for the ‘RSS view’.
The organisation struggled with a deeply-inculcated abhorrence of the limelight, but eventually came to terms with the fact that it could no longer respond to attacks in the media with deafening silence. Once that Rubicon had been crossed, it took to mass communication with a vengeance, first through email and then social media platforms. Inevitably, extremist elements claiming to represent the ‘RSS view’ emerged, giving credence to Congress-Left accusations of fascist and communal underpinnings. Speaking out against such elements became necessary. The RSS leadership became more vocal, countering charges of “intolerance” and “authoritarianism”.
The RSS has proved flexible and adaptive in the past. From time to time, thinkers such as Madhukar ‘Balasaheb’ Deoras, Morepant Pingle, Dattopant Thengdi, Nanaji Deshmukh and K N Govindacharya introduced new ideas in consonance with an evolving society. Not without resistance and not always with complete success, but enough to prevent the RSS from becoming moribund and allowing it to grow.
From the 1950s, there were two streams within the RSS. M S ‘Guruji’ Golwalker, who helmed the RSS for more than three decades, was disinclined towards even a tangential involvement in politics. Deoras, who would become his successor, felt it had no option but to engage in social activism, rather than confine itself to shakhas and ‘character-building’. Golwalker’s reluctance may have stemmed from the crackdown on the RSS and general distrust of the Right, after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Deoras, by choosing to let his cadres take the field during Emergency, ended its isolation and brought it into the mainstream. The cadre had a brief taste of state power during the short-lived Janta regime and by 1980, was ready to strike out on its own.
The BJP espoused Gandhian socialism and positive secularism with his blessings. He did not see state power as a bad thing and understood that if the BJP was to be a national party, it would have to tom-tom its commitment to the Constitution. That did not preclude a pragmatic approach to mass mobilisation, as evidenced by the Ram Janambhoomi Movement. RSS idealogues introduced the ‘social engineering’ concept which helped the BJP expand its footprint among the OBCs and take power in the Centre and states. The approach to social transformation was now both bottom-up and top-down.
It is obvious that Bhagwat is more inclined to Deoras than Golwalker. In fact, the latter has been systematically downplayed in the last decade, perhaps because his writings are not in consonance with post-millenial India and indeed, have been used to denigrate the RSS. The sangh parivar itself has become increasingly politicised, regardless of the ‘arms-length’ principle it touts. The line between social and political activism is a thin one and in the case of the RSS, is often breached.
The big takeaway from the three-day RSS event is the organisation’s stated willingess to engage with and accommodate all interest groups. In these troubled times, it is more than welcome.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.