RSS outfits grow, away from politics

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By RADHIKA RAMASESHAN in Delhi
  • Published 16.10.09
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New Delhi, Oct. 16: The BJP’s ongoing membership drive may be struggling but the party’s Sangh parivar siblings are growing robustly.

These other RSS progenies claim that being away from power and politics is an advantage, and that the BJP’s departure from the Centre and loss of ground in some state strongholds have actually helped them.

Since its electoral success in 1989, the BJP had been the Sangh’s favourite child until it lost power in the 2004 polls and began showing the rot that had set in within the organisation.

Now, as BJP leaders vie with each other for a shrinking political space, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) and the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram are bursting with good health.

They have some way to go yet before they can match the BJP’s numbers, but the day that happens, the BJP would lose its rank in the parivar, a Sangh source warned.

The BMS, India’s largest trade union, has over one crore members — about half the BJP’s 2.14 crore.

According to the last official count by the labour ministry in 2002, the BMS had 62.2 lakh members while the Congress-affiliated Indian National Trade Union Congress (Intuc) had 38 lakh and the CPI’s Aituc, 33 lakh.

Both the BMS and Intuc now claim they have a crore each. But when quizzed hard on what accounted for the leap, Intuc president and Rajya Sabha member G. Sanjeeva Reddy became cautious and said: “A Congress government at the Centre has certainly helped us make inroads into the organised and unorganised sectors.”

Girish Awasthi, the BMS chief and a man of Sangh provenance, however, argued that “governmental affinity” was a hindrance rather than a help.

He said that for the six years the BJP had ruled at the Centre, the BMS had repeatedly taken on the government over economic reforms and foreign direct investments — and that each time it did so, its membership grew.

“Trade unions virtually don’t exist in the private sector. We draw our strength and sustenance from the public sector. So each time there’s a major divestment project and we raise our voice, the PSU employees rally round us,” Awasthi said.

“Because the BMS is not attached to a political party but to a service organisation like the RSS, we are not encumbered by compulsions to back a party’s agenda.”

The leaders of some other RSS front outfits too cited their “autonomy” from the BJP as the main reason for their survival and growth.

Dinesh Dattatreya Kulkarni, organising secretary of the farmers’ union, said: “Our only competitor used to be the Shetkari Sangathan of Sharad Joshi. But he too converted it into a political party, the Swatantra Bharat Paksha. Not being in politics gives a core of integrity to our work because we are not forced to make compromises or deals, or to defend the indefensible.”

The BKS, which was born in 1979 with 1,500 members and now has nine lakh, confronted the Narendra Modi government when it hiked the power tariff for farmers in Gujarat and arrested those who failed to clear their arrears. Its activists were arrested and the RSS went into a sulk.

Before the last Gujarat elections, many thought the Kisan Sangh’s near-revolt against Modi might turn the peasants against the BJP. But in keeping with an avowed policy to remain “neutral” in politics, the organisation didn’t work against Modi, either.

The ABVP, the Sangh student arm that the BJP often appropriates as its own, is convinced that “political neutrality” is the passport to success. It claims 19 lakh members (the Congress-backed NSUI refused to give figures saying its elections were on).

The ABVP has the largest following in BJP-ruled Karnataka and in Andhra Pradesh, a state where the party practically doesn’t exist.

“Students are attracted to us because we work beyond the campus for the betterment of society. Our biggest slogan is against the commercialisation of education and that affects one and all,” said Ravi Kumar, ABVP national secretary.

Kripa Prasad Singh, joint general secretary of the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, which works mainly in the Maoist zones, said an “apolitical” outlook was the best way of ensuring that state governments did not stand in the organisation’s way.

“Congress governments have never harassed us because they appreciate the services we render to the tribals,” Singh said.

“Even the CPM government in Tripura has been friendly. But not the Bengal government — they deprive the tribals who use our schools and hostels of the monthly stipend they are entitled to.”