BACK IN the day when Congressmen and RSS pracharaks could meet like honourable opponents, an anecdote doing the rounds went thus: In a discussion on how to tackle the socialists, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Dwarka Prasad Mishra, Congress’ ‘Chanakya’ and father of former National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, told RSS pracharak Dattopant Thengdi how to neutralise a political organisation.
“Make its cadre comfort loving and its leaders status conscious. The cadre will lose touch with the masses and the leaders with the cadre,” said Mishra. Thengdi, who was to later create the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, would often recall this advice as a warning. This was a time when the question among Sangh’s supporters and critics was: will the RSS stop interfering with the BJP and let it grow into a mass-based political party? Because it was the RSS cadre that formed the BJP’s backbone.
Those days are long gone. Now that the BJP has tasted power for six years at the Centre, and currently commands eight state governments, the question has come a full circle: Can the RSS free itself from the BJP’s influence? The RSS brass, reputed for its apathy to its public image and for doggedly pursuing its ideology, is now conscious of how it is perceived. The Sangh has accepted the politics of perception. And this is reflected sharply in the way it has handled charges of Hindutva terror.
On 10 January, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat refuted the charges, saying the RSS has always asked extremists to leave. It looked like he was in denial. He came across as a patriarch trying to distance himself from a rowdy youth. Had he first acknowledged the RSS links of some ex-pracharaks facing terror charges, and then detailed how the Sangh tried to stop them or sack them, he would have been more credible.
Insiders say there were several discussions among the RSS brass on how to counter the terror charges, and one section wanted to own up past associations with the likes of Sunil Joshi, a pracharak in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh, who was asked to leave after a series of incidents in which he defied his superiors and bad-mouthed them openly, saying they were cowards.
“Most families know what it is like to deal with rebellious young men. In the public eye, we would have struck a sympathetic chord by accepting an uncomfortable truth. And we would have shown our cadre that we would never shy away from owning them,” says an RSS source. But the RSS has moved on the path of denial, and there is no return. It is the fear of disrepute, typical of the middle-class when the police comes knocking at the doors. The RSS faces a situation it has no experience in tackling. Reportedly, when the Anti-Terrorism Squad went to the RSS Kanpur office and identified itself as ATS, an office-bearer asked: “Yeh ATS kaun si company hai?” (What company is this ATS)?
In internal discussions, one faction favoured making a clean breast of it, and letting national executive member Indresh Kumar defend himself. If he is not guilty he would emerge unfazed; if he is, he should pay the price and not the entire organisation. Sources believe this faction includes Bhagwat’s trusted deputy and RSS general secretary Suresh ‘Bhaiyaji’ Joshi.
But Bhagwat has been indecisive, and he has made a prestige issue out of Indresh’s defence. Indresh’s rise is attributed to former chief K Sudarshan, who was careless in his choice of people, often backing unscrupulous ones. Bhagwat also took a liking for him. The need to defend Indresh is now driving the brass’ reactions — it is sure it did enough to expunge radicals like Joshi, and that it cannot be held accountable for their deeds. It is sure that Swami Asimananda’s confession came under duress. But it is not sure of how to make the bad publicity disappear.
Bhagwat, who cut a statuesque figure in his deft handling of the Sangh Parivar after the 30 November Ayodhya verdict — it was he who kept a tight leash on those who wanted to make political capital out of the verdict — has come up short this time around. Sources say he had got feet of clay just now because he is overly bothered about his image and that of the RSS.
On 10 November, Bhagwat became the first RSS chief to sit on a dharna — RSS bosses tend to behave like queen bees that stay deep inside the honeycomb and are seldom seen outside. In his first year at the helm, he gave so many interviews it became a problem for scribes to keep track of his statements. Sources close to the RSS sense that Bhagwat now has his own faction, something that a chief should never do. This has created confusion, and it is not just the Congress and its general secretary Digvijaya Singh who are waiting to capitalise on it. Some within the RSS also smell an opportunity.
Chief among them is RSS No. 3, joint secretary Suresh Soni, who is responsible for liaising with the BJP. He has not aligned with either side, playing a waiting game, not willing to risk anything by speaking his mind on how to tackle the terror allegations. He is from Madhya Pradesh and his rise is due to the patronage of Kushabhau Thakre and then Sudarshan. It is said that he literally runs Madhya Pradesh through the BJP state president Prabhat Jha and chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who moved under Soni’s patronage after his mentor Pramod Mahajan died.
Bhagwat has got feet of clay now as he is too bothered about his image, say RSS sources
Soni commands political power and money. He has several critics within the Parivar who blame him for introducing the influence of money. “Earlier, nobody had heard of RSS pracharaks making money from transfers and postings of government officials. But this is a reality now,” says a source in Madhya Pradesh.
There is a caste angle too. Soni, a non- Brahmin from the Vaishya Sunar community, feels upstaged by the return of Maharashtrian Brahmins at the RSS helm in the form of Bhagwat. He believes Bhagwat should have chosen him as the secretary, and not Bhaiyaji Joshi, also a Maharashtrian Brahmin from Indore. While the Sangh has always stood against the caste system formally, its core is dominated by Maharashtrian Brahmins and their sensibility. Madan Das Devi, from whom Soni took the charge of handling BJP after the former had a brain haemorrhage in 2004, was also a non-Brahmin. Devi has an impeccable reputation and is said to have stayed out of factionalism. All this leaves the final and youngest member of the RSS brass, Dattatreya Hosabale, in a corner. He keeps a low profile and there is no loose talk or negative stories on him.
Factionalism is only to be expected in what is India’s biggest NGO, claiming 50,000 branches and a general participation of six million people. But the terror charges have made the cracks more visible. And the power and influence of the BJP in the RSS is now a greater reality than the ideological influence the RSS wields on the BJP.
Some of these changes are natural, given the BJP’s rise in the past two decades. Sangh sources recall how Atal Bihari Vajpayee would sit on the ground in front of former RSS chief MS Golwalkar out of respect. By the time it came to Sudarshan — who had grown up reciting Vajpayee’s poems — he would stand up when Vajpayee walked in. Bhagwat is 23 years junior to LK Advani.
The Sangh is also subject to wider social changes. Sources say the days are gone when pracharaks shied away from politics of power to a fault. When it was easy to find model pracharaks, embodying discipline and character building, the two themes declaimed ad nauseum in RSS Bauddhik sessions. People riding cycles to go meet the high and mighty, shunning the offer of a car because they didn’t want to be seen even in the car with the rich and powerful. Several in the RSS believe that the organisation had occupied the conservative space Mahatma Gandhi had created, which the Congress has abandoned.
BUT THOSE cliches are due for revision. Today, meeting a BJP minister is a matter of prestige for a pracharak. The love for comfort Thengdi warned about has set in. “I know pracharaks who puke at the idea of travelling second class in a train,” says a source. They want to sport the latest laptop and cell phones, whether they know how to use them or not. At RSS meetings, it is not surprising to see swanky cars now.
“In BJP-ruled states, RSS cadre are power drunk,” says a source. The RSS has become a lot more than an instrument of social change; it has become a career option. The RSS finds itself struggling to stay true to its idea of itself, which drew appreciation from even its staunchest critics. An organisation committed to social engineering finds itself in the midst of social changes that have the power to redefine it.
The influence of the BJP on RSS is now a greater reality, not the other way round
What fuels such talk is the RSS’ informal nature. It is not a registered body. A host of peripheral bodies handle its expenses and administrative costs. Trusts run by swayamsevaks usually own and maintain RSS offices, and the pracharak’s expenses are taken care of by a system of guru dakshina. But where the BJP is in power, it is not uncommon for the party to foot the bills of pracharaks. This means BJP leaders at the local level dictate the RSS agenda.
And this is why several in the RSS fear the terror charges. Having tasted power and become familiar with how a government can pursue a probe, they fear unwarranted surprises. For example, what if the sleuths inspect the pracharaks’ travel expenses and find unsavoury details? Which is why several in the RSS believe coming clean would have been best.
It would have allowed the outfit to defend itself aggressively in public. Instead, with its status-conscious leadership and comfort-loving cadre, it is now reduced to a passive entity in a trial by media that does not look like ending soon.