A play in five acts
Narendra Modi and the RSS
- Published 12.12.15
Shortly after the 2014 Indian elections, I wrote that although the new prime minister, Narendra Modi, was "an economic modernizer, in cultural terms he remains a prisoner of the reactionary (not to say medievalist) mindset of the R[ashtriya] S[wayamsevak] S[angh]". Inside Modi's mind and soul, these two contrary impulses were fighting for dominance. Which side would win?
This question was asked by many Indians who had voted for Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party. They knew that Modi had joined the RSS as a young man, and that his political and cultural education had been largely within that organization. But they also knew that in his long tenure as chief minister of Gujarat, he had steadily marginalized the RSS, as well as its sister organization, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, within the state. He had also sought to put the 2002 Gujarat riots behind him, and remake himself as a vikas purush, a man of development. Indeed, in his campaign for the general elections, he had conspicuously avoided the polarizing rhetoric that is the stock-in-trade of the RSS and which he had himself used in the past.
Modi's emphatic victory in the 2014 elections was widely attributed to his having focused on the agenda of economic modernization - that is to say, the need to nourish technological innovation, to make manufacturing viable again, to create better infrastructure, and to improve transparency and efficiency in government. Those loyal to the BJP and Hindutva had, of course, voted for him. But many others, themselves not traditional BJP voters, were so disgusted by the corruption and cronyism of the United Progressive Alliance that they had marked their ballot in favour of Modi's party instead. Finally, many young Indians voting for the first time clearly preferred Modi's economic vision and personal vigour to the tired old shibboleths of the Congress.
Most commentators on the 2014 elections discounted the role of the RSS in Modi's victory. An exception was the Allahabad-based political historian, Badri Narayan. In an essay in the Economic and Political Weekly ( http://www.epw.in/system/files/pdf/2014_49/20/Modis_Modus_Operandi_in_the_2014_Elections.pdf), he documented how, on the ground, RSS cadres worked overtime in mobilizing voters, especially in the large and crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. They took out processions, screened films, and engaged in extensive door-to-door campaigning, reaching out to remote villages in all corners of the state. Volunteers from the RSS also manned election booths at the time the votes were actually cast.
In throwing its weight behind Modi, the RSS chose to ignore his treatment of the sangh in Gujarat. They sensed that with the UPA so discredited, this was an opportunity they must seize. The RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, was quoted as saying that this chance would not come for another 20 years. After all, Modi was a product of the RSS. Individual and organization had become somewhat estranged in recent years. Now, in the interests of both, they had to be brought together again.
What would the relationship between the RSS and the National Democratic Alliance government be after the elections were done and won? Would the agenda of the new government be as focused on economic modernization as Modi had promised? Or would Hindutva radicals insist on being heard, even on having a dominant voice? The early signs were not promising. Several members of parliament spoke abusively about Muslims and Christians. Mr Modi did not chastise them. He also had his own majoritarian moment, when, at the inauguration of a 21st-century hospital, he spoke of how plastic surgery had been invented by the ancient Hindus. This is the kind of nonsense that is taught at the RSS's summer schools in Nagpur, where Mr Modi had sometimes gone for refresher courses, but one thought he had outgrown such fantasies.
In retrospect, it seems that in the first year of the Modi government, the prime minister and the RSS were testing one another out. In a move to appease them, Modi handed over culture and education to the RSS, hoping this would leave the economy and foreign policy firmly in his control. The prime minister knew that the Swadeshi Jagran Manch was opposed both to further liberalization at home and to a greater integration with the global economy. He also knew that the RSS was opposed to good relations with China, and ambivalent about good relations with the United States of America. He seems, however, to have hoped that if he allowed the RSS space in the domains of education and culture, they would not disturb his policies in other, to him more important, spheres.
In the battle of wits between the RSS and the prime minister, it was the prime minister who blinked first. When the first wave of MPs and ministers made those hateful remarks and no one chastised them; a second wave quickly joined in. Allowing the RSS to nominate a third-rate historian as head of the Indian Council of Historical Research and a B-grade actor head of Film and Television Institute of India brought further bad publicity to the government. The culture minister, a particular favourite of the RSS, made a series of outlandish statements, and was rewarded with the tenancy rights to one of New Delhi's grandest houses.
By the time of the Dadri incident, the RSS had decisively emerged from the shadows. This was their government, and they would command it what to do. Had the prime minister acted promptly in condemning the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaque, or, better still, had the moral courage to visit the victim's family, he could have wrested the advantage back from the Hindutvawadis. He did not. Worse, in the final stages of the Bihar campaign, he was persuaded to adopt a sectarian stance himself. His attempt to set poor Muslims against poor Dalits was deplorable. Even more shocking was his party president's statement that those who did not vote for the BJP were playing into the hands of Pakistan.
Soon after the votes were counted in Bihar, the prime minister went off on a foreign tour. As is his wont, he addressed a crowd of delirious non-resident Indians, doubtless a boost to an ego damaged by the voters of Bihar. However, as Modi hopped from country to country, did he have the time, or indeed the inclination, to assess for himself what went wrong in Bihar, and, more generally, to ask, why had a government that came in with such an impressive mandate become so besieged merely a year-and-a-half later?
To this observer, it is clear that Narendra Modi's compact with the RSS has not worked to the country's advantage. He handed over education and culture to them, hoping they would stay out of his way when it came to the economy and foreign policy. However, the malevolent mischief that ministers like Mahesh Sharma and Smriti Irani have unleashed has undermined the credibility of the government as a whole. So have the actions and words of MPs such as Yogi Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj.
The relationship between Narendra Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is a long-running play of which five acts have thus far been witnessed. Act I saw bal Narendra joining the sangh, and, for the next 20 years or so, subordinating himself entirely to its will. Act II saw Narendra Modi being deputed by the RSS to the BJP, to act as a bridge between the two. Act III, which began when Modi was sent to Gujarat as chief minister, saw the individual steadily assert his autonomy from the organization.
As compared to the first three acts, Act IV was short and intense. It comprised the campaign for the general elections, when Narendra Modi presented an attractive and reassuring face for the voter, while, in the background, the RSS worked away silently on his behalf. Act V, which began with the new government being sworn into power, has seen the RSS steadily assert its power over the prime minister.
This fifth act of the Modi/RSS play still has more than three years to run. While it is unlikely that the prime minister will buckle under completely to the RSS, it is unlikely that he can shift the balance decisively in his favour either. Nor, at present at any rate, does he seem to see the need to do so.
The governor of the Reserve Bank of India has argued that an atmosphere of pluralism and tolerance is indispensable for sustained economic growth. This is not a belief that the prime minister appears to share. He seeks to be both a cultural reactionary and an economic modernizer, riding two horses at once, one taking him forward, the other pulling him backward.