One of the enduring political myths in India is the belief that, like the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Bharatiya Janata Party is a cadre-based outfit. This misconception, spread assiduously by both the media and professional saffron-watchers in academia who bank on press clippings as primary source material, is centred on the assumption that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is the BJP’s dedicated volunteer army. Consequently, the BJP is expected to replicate the disciplined drill of the RSS. When it fails to do so — and the failures are becoming more and more apparent — the party is judged far more harshly than, say, the Congress whose projected image as a big umbrella party has outlived its degeneration into a dynastic outfit.
That the BJP sees itself as a part of the RSS parivar is not in any serious doubt. The overwhelming majority of those who attend or used to attend the morning or evening drills (shakhas) of the RSS, in all probability, vote for BJP candidates. Most swayamsevaks, when they think about politics, nurture a profound distaste for the Nehruvian legacy and identify loosely with the BJP. The more ambitious of the RSS full-timers also see attachment to the BJP as a worthwhile career graph. Many of those who relinquish being full-timers and become householders (by convention, RSS pracharaks have to be unmarried) also expect to be accommodated in important decision-making bodies of the BJP as a matter of right. Indeed, within the BJP, there is a discernible divide between those who came to the party from the RSS and those who entered through other routes.
The preponderance of swayamsevaks in the top echelons of the party notwithstanding, the RSS constitutes only a small fraction of those who drive the BJP at the grassroots. Even those who arrived in the BJP from either the RSS or one of the parivar organizations, such as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Vanvasi Kalyan Sangh, end up disavowing the austere exclusivism of the RSS and accepting the more worldly logic of political mobilization. Kalyan Singh moulded himself as a caste leader of western Uttar Pradesh; Narendra Modi became a passionate advocate of modernity and efficient governance; and Atal Bihari Vajpayee took to consensual coalition-building. All of them came into conflict with the RSS at one time or the other.
The tensions between an elusive ideal and the imperfect world of day-to-day politics have played havoc with the BJP for the past five years and contributed towards painting a picture of incoherence. The defeat of the National Democratic Alliance in 2004 was interpreted by the purists in the RSS as an inevitable consequence of ideological heresy. Like unreconstructed communists who perceived the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Berlin Wall as a function of Mikhail Gorbachev’s departure from a pre-determined path, many RSS functionaries gloated over the 2004 defeat. They saw the setback (and the hostility that greeted L.K. Advani’s pronouncements on Mohammed Ali Jinnah) as an opportunity to cleanse the BJP of ideological deviations and force a return to the path of straight and narrow righteousness. To facilitate this, the RSS despatched many more full-timers into the BJP and assumed strategic organizational control.
The experiment took off on the wrong note. Despite giving RSS full-timers, many with no previous experience of politics, total control of the arrangements for the Uttar Pradesh assembly election of May 2007, the BJP performance was pathetic. The party was reduced to barely 50 seats in a House of 402. The failure in Uttar Pradesh derailed plans by a section of the RSS to upstage Narendra Modi in Gujarat. By the end of 2007, the attempt to re-fashion the BJP as an extension counter of the RSS was more or less abandoned. Advani was rehabilitated as the leader, Modi became the new development icon rather than a Hindutva poster boy, and Arun Jaitley was given a free hand to pursue pragmatic electoral politics in Bihar, Punjab and Karnataka.
Yet, tensions between those who saw themselves as guardians of the faith and the politicians in the BJP persisted. Some of these found reflection in the different approaches to the tensions in Orissa’s Kandhamal district last year and the cacophony of conflicting voices on the controversy that has engulfed Varun Gandhi in Pilibhit. Discerning observers may find a striking mismatch between the bellicose support for Sanjay Gandhi’s heir by the VHP and the NRI Hindutva cyber warriors and the embarrassment felt by the likes of Jaitley and Modi. In his interview to Times Now last Tuesday evening, Modi refused to comment on the Varun affair, saying it was “sub-judice” — an evasion that said it all.
The reluctance of the BJP’s modernist brigade to get derailed by the “allegedly” wild and tasteless comments by the candidate for Pilibhit — even Advani has confined his comments to the disproportionate response of the UP government — provides an important insight into the inner turbulence in the BJP. The BJP, unlike other mass parties, is not an organization that perpetuates the Leninist perversion of keeping its feelings under wraps, all in the name of “democratic centralism”. At periodic intervals, it appears disunited and speaks in different voices precisely because activists believe they have an emotional stake in the ideological direction of the party. One of the main strengths of the BJP — perceived as a disability by an unfriendly media — is that its self-image is not that of yet another wheeling-dealing party. However misplaced and occasionally foolhardy, the BJP is blessed with a residual idealism that contributes to both its strength and limitations. Like the Congress of another era, the BJP is as much a political party as a movement.
Regardless of what happens once the votes are counted, the inner tensions within the BJP are certain to surface after May 16. If, as is widely expected, there is no settled outcome, there will be a multiplicity of voices on the question of either having a shy at government formation or supporting a coalition of non-Congress parties from the outside. If the party has to sit in the opposition, there will be furious debates on the nature of the post-Advani leadership. The rank-and-file believe that the future belongs to Modi, but many of the RSS purists are suspicious of a personality cult developing around the Gujarat chief minister. In government or outside, there will be disagreements between the advocates of a broad-based anti-Congress coalition and those who want an ideologically uncontaminated party.
The input of the RSS in the future shape of the BJP will be crucial for the simple reason that the RSS lobby still dominates decision-making. It is for this reason that a lot of importance is being attached to the appointment of 59-year-old Mohan Bhagwat as the new sarsanghachalak of the RSS. With a reputation for organizational rigour and ideological broad-mindedness, Bhagwat’s main challenge is to take the RSS into the 21st century — both in terms of image and orientation. He has to weigh the conflicting impulses of the RSS and adjudicate between the traditionalists who are suspicious of the modern world and the new Hindutva that is centred on economic prosperity and India’s emergence as a world player. So fundamentally different are the impulses that even an adroit juggler may find it difficult to play all the balls simultaneously. Yet, the strategic direction the RSS takes under the new leadership will determine whether the BJP remains meshed in adolescence or breaks free into adulthood.