Nagpur Bosses Tighten The Screws

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••• Until about a year ago, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) used to depute one person to interact with its political offspring, the BJP, and oversee its day-to-day functioning. This standard practice has been gradually transformed in recent months. Suresh Soni, who has been in charge of liaising with the BJP for almost a decade, has since been supplemented by Suresh ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi (the No. 2 man in the RSS hierarchy after Mohan Madhukar Bhagwat), joint general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale and general secretary Ram Lal. And now, in a move that has surprised several Sangh watchers, two more RSS men — the high-profile Ram Madhav and Shiv Prakash — have been drafted to oversee the day-to-day functioning of the BJP.

••• Less than four months ago, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat sought to publicly insulate the RSS cadre from falling prey to the Narendra Modi surge when he told them in Bengaluru, “Hum rajneeti mein nahin hain… ‘Namo-Namo’ ka uchharan hamare liye nahin hai (We are not in politics. It’s not our job to chant ‘Namo-Namo’.)” The 64-year-old non-practising veterinarian has since had to change his directive, opting to depute senior RSS functionaries to liaise with the party. This indicates a significant shift in the existing pattern of the RSS-BJP interface.

••• In the first week of July, 23 top guns in the RSS think-tank gathered for a two-day brainstorming session in Rajgarh, Madhya Pradesh, for fine-tuning the Sangh’s organisational strategy to face the contemporary political and other challenges. The political offspring was kept out of the deliberations, even as several legislators were more than willing to take part in them.

Make no mistake about it. The subtext of the RSS-BJP relationship is undergoing a subtle change. Beyond the palpable sense of accomplishment in the saffron brigade over recent developments that translated into a phenomenal electoral verdict in the BJP’s favour, there is something far too intricate and complex that is also being played out. The decision to depute Ram Madhav, who is slated to assume an important profile in his current calling, shows that the RSS does not want any let up in its resolve to ensure that the BJP’s recent electoral success is not frittered away. The Sangh’s anxiety is in marked contrast to its time-held protestations that it leaves the political role to the BJP while it carries on with socio-cultural work. Nagpur’s ironclad control over the offspring has actually become deeper still.

RSS insiders at the Keshav Kunj headquarters of the outfit in New Delhi are interpreting this change in several ways. A senior functionary from Madhya Pradesh says, “The decisive mandate in favour of saffron is too precious to be lost due to any organisational weakness. The Sangh knows that day-to-day political compulsions could lead to transient compromises. We have to ensure that the essential content of our message is not diluted.”

The RSS overdrive may seem surprising given the unambiguous nature of the electoral verdict. But if Sangh insiders are to be believed, it is precisely the nature of the verdict that has set the cat among the pigeons. At no time in the history of the Hindutva establishment has one single individual come to so decisively impact the fortunes of the Parivar as Modi has. This has given rise to some subterranean apprehensions among sections of the RSS, and it has only been deepened by the nature of the Modi-Amit Shah equation.

In the good old days when so much pressure was not inbuilt into the RSS-BJP interface, just one person was usually deputed to oversee the affairs of the party. And except for the luckless KN Govindacharya, who was inducted amid great fanfare only to fall out of favour with the AB Vajpayee-led establishment in the 1990s, others were quiet men doing a workmanlike job. The sweeping nature of the 2014 verdict and the sheer weight of expectations it has generated call for something more than just the routine Amravati huddle or ‘manthan shivirs’ (brainstorming camps) involving the Sangh outfits.

Ever since he took over from the ailing KS Sudarshan as RSS chief in 2009, the second-generation sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat, who seems to have weathered the intense scrutiny over his own role in the Aseemanand affair following the change of guard at the Centre, has now been compelled to play an increasingly active political role. But if 2009 meant strategising in the backdrop of an electoral rout, 2014 has meant exactly the opposite.

A year ago, LK Advani had gone into a huge sulk and resigned from three crucial posts in the BJP. At that time, as part of a predetermined script, S Gurumurthy was rushed to intercede, and he promptly put through a call on his mobile to Bhagwat. “The RSS chief dissuaded Advani from carrying out his move by citing, among other things, the immediate need to put up a strong united front at a critical moment in the brotherhood’s history,” says Dilip Deodhar, a businessman close to Bhagwat. As a result of all this pressure, Advani softened his stand.

The real meaning of the episode was to sink in only some time after Rajnath Singh announced that Advani had withdrawn his resignation: the top echelons of the BJP had inadvertently admitted to the crucial role the RSS played in affairs critical to the political wing. What had begun as “micromanaging” the party in 2009 has by now become a more elaborate and serious effort. In the past few weeks, many Sangh observers have said that even though the RSS’ influence over the BJP had been growing since 2004, it’s only now that Bhagwat has tightened the control. No wonder, Advani had to comply with the diktat of someone 20 years younger; he was already a ‘karyakarta’ when Bhagwat was born.

While the recent moves may seem to be harking back to an earlier era in the saffron brigade when the RSS needed its deputies to keep a hawk’s eye on the party, this time the feel and flavour is quite different. The manner in which the gravitas within the saffron camp has shifted to a powerful, seemingly all-conquering individual necessitates a shift in the nature of the micromanagement. This might sound strange to those who are unaware of the nature of the equation that has traditionally existed between the parent and the offspring, but everything falls into place on closer examination.

The RSS move follows the inexplicable delay that took place in appointing a successor to Rajnath Singh, who quit as soon as he was accorded the No. 2 status in the Modi Cabinet. If much of last year was spent in making sure that Modi comes to power at the Centre, the focus in the RSS is having a subtle shift now. The RSS men deputed for the overseeing role been told in no uncertain terms by Bhagwat that even when decisions in the BJP are to be primarily taken by its own leadership, the RSS has to exercise greater control, given the enormous opportunity afforded by the saffron surge and the consequent decimation of the mainstream Opposition.

The delay of at least three weeks in the appointment of Rajnath’s successor was as inexplicable as it was a reflection of some confusion in the highest echelons of the Sangh Parivar. Two names apart from Amit Shah were doing the rounds. JP Nadda, a longtime RSS man from Himachal Pradesh, was being favoured by a section within the flock. The other name was that of Om Mathur, from Modi’s own state. Ultimately, when Shah was chosen as Rajnath’s successor, some RSS leaders accepted it rather reluctantly.

A senior RSS functionary from Madhya Pradesh said that the RSS intends to establish closer control over the BJP “by changing the way it interacts with the party”. The overseer’s job has become far more involved, he added. One reason behind this new sense of urgency is the importance of the moment in the annals of the BJP. Another reason is that the RSS does not want Modi or Shah to develop into such power centres in their own right that they become practically uncontrollable.

Watchdogs (from top) Suresh ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi, Suresh Soni, Ram Madhav, Krishna Gopal, Dattatreya Hosabale
Watchdogs (from top) Suresh ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi, Suresh Soni, Ram Madhav, Krishna Gopal, Dattatreya Hosabale

“Shah may have wrought some kind of a miracle in Uttar Pradesh. But do not forget the role that the RSS played in preparing the ground for the success. The Sangh played a key role in zeroing in on potential candidates, tracing their antecedents and rating their winnability before the eventual selection happened,” says political observer Soumyajit Saha. While Shah provided the front to the BJP’s exertions in the electoral arena, the role that the RSS played in the process was almost as crucial, if not more. The Sangh had at least 34 key men working in each constituency of the state and that process began even before the General Election dates had been announced. Never before had the RSS succeeded as much in galvanising its strategy for the rural vote as it did this time around. “It worked very hard in converting the non-Samajwadi Party and once pro-Congress vote to swing dramatically towards the BJP,” says Lucknow-based analyst Prabhash Bajpai. “And the way the Jatav support base of the Bahujan Samaj Party was neutralised also reflects the sustained grassroots work of the RSS.”

The recent move to depute Ram Madhav and Shiv Prakash is a clear message from the Nagpur bosses that they want to keep their control over the BJP intact even when Modi has had his way thus far on almost everything concerning the party and its politics. Shah has an immediate task on his hands — he has to ensure not only that election-bound Maharashtra produces a pro-saffron result, but also that the BJP no longer has to play second fiddle to the Shiv Sena in the state. Traditionally, the Sena, especially during the time of Balasaheb Thackeray, had the upper hand in state affairs. Both Shah and his mentors would like to change that.

The BJP is also keen to build on the disaffection with the National Conference and the Congress in Jammu & Kashmir as well as regain Himachal Pradesh, which it had ceded to the Congress. Jharkhand is another state that is scheduled to have early polls. All in all, for all his filibuster and the success that he managed in Uttar Pradesh, Shah will have to prove himself afresh.

And all this will happen under the more-than-usually-vigilant eyes of the Nagpur bosses, who are thinking of converting the immediate gains of the moment into long-term results. While the BJP has managed to seize control over the northern states, it is yet to find its bearings in a substantial part of the east and the south. In West Bengal, the BJP might be on the ascendant but its successes are still too few to be counted seriously. “At best, it is a party to watch out for in Bengal, which is not the same thing as having arrived already at some tangible point on its upward journey,” says Soumyajit Saha.

In Odisha, Naveen Patnaik has successfully defended his bastions in spite of the BJP’s frenzied drive in the state, while in Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK is far too comfortably placed to be immediately worried about the saffron brigade. Even Karnataka, in spite of the reverses the Congress faced in the Lok Sabha polls, is by no means a settled case for the BJP. The RSS has scores of ‘shakhas’ in the coastal regions of the state, but it has never been able to dominate Karnataka as a whole.

But the focus for the moment is on Maharashtra. Nagpur is geographically at a fair distance from Mumbai, and while the BJP could make inroads into much of central India from its headquarters, its foray into Maharashtra, especially in districts and regions dominated by the Marathas, has been sparse. From the days of YB Chavan, the Congress strategy had ensured that the Marathas saw it to be the natural party to support. And now, the Prithviraj Chavan government has dangled the reservation card to deepen the Congress equation with the predominantly farming community.

In the 1980s, Pramod Mahajan managed to convince the BJP and Bal Thackeray about forging an alliance in the state. It paid off, but not to the extent that the saffron forces wanted. From the 1989 Lok Sabha polls, the Shiv Sena has been the senior partner in the state, while the BJP plays that role at the central level. But the Sena is now a house divided, and in Delhi, the BJP has for the first time won power on its own. The Shiv Sena under Uddhav Thackeray is facing a direct threat from Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. It is thus an open question whether Shah will manage to narrow the gulf that divides the Sena and the BJP.

While all these are germane issues, the critical and tricky one concerns the style and content of Modi’s leadership and his understudy Shah’s own political past and present. Thirty-three years after they met first, both Modi and Shah have been blessed with the kind of political largesse that they could not have dreamt about only a few months ago. But it is the nature of their highly individualistic and, what critics consider, autocratic style of functioning, based as it is on a kind of polarising appeal, that will determine the limits to the core saffron agenda.

“Caste-based parties and those playing identity politics may have been routed in UP and Bihar, but they are likely to regroup,” says Bajpai. “The UPA had been done in by its disastrous non-performance and the scams. But that would not remain a factor in the public memory forever. One crucial mistake by the Modi establishment or continued pressure on the economy could change the picture. Politics, after all, is about perceptions and competition.”

Ramping up support in uncharted areas is a challenge, but no less daunting are the subjective pressures on the RSS-BJP leadership. “The saffron brigade does not have an inclusive political call, and that is both its defining credo and potential problem area. It could be hoist with its own petard much sooner than it anticipates,” says Ish Mishra, who teaches political science in Delhi University. He adds that the Modi-Shah duo would be more open to patronising the more fundamentalist outfits of the Parivar like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal than the earlier leaders of the BJP did.

For the moment, however, Nagpur is a more interested and hawkish observer of the BJP’s day-to-day affairs than it has been perhaps at any time in the past. Those who think that Amit Shah’s selection as the party chief was a cent percent smooth affair need to take another look at the situation.

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Caste behind disquiet?

Is there a subterranean caste angle to the ongoing drama in the RSS? There are strong historical reasons why that seems to be so, and it makes the RSS leadership wary of the threat posed by the Modi-Shah combine. From its inception, the RSS has been dominated by the Brahminical elite, especially the Chitpawan Brahmins, who regard themselves as a cut above the rest. With the notable exception of Rajendra Singh (Rajju Bhaiyya), a Thakur from Uttar Pradesh, and KS Sudarshan, a Kannadiga Brahmin, the Chitpawans’ domination in the Sangh’s highest echelons has been almost total. But the way the electorate, particularly in key northern states, have behaved, there seems to be a gradual consolidation by the saffron party even within the OBCs and a section of the Dalits, and over time, that may decisively impact the RSS’ social base. The results in UP show that except for the Jatavs, who have more or less remained with the BSP, and the Yadavs in Mulayam Singh Yadav’s own strongholds, who are still marginally supportive of him, the picture is changing far too radically for the upper crust to feel comfortable about. Amit Shah and the RSS have managed to make significant gains within the OBCs and intermediate castes. The disaffection with Mulayam and Mayawati and outright rejection of the Congress seems to have translated into an unprecedented surge in favour of the saffron brigade. While the electoral victory was an unmixed blessing, the caste equations going topsy-turvy will eventually impact the tenor of the RSS in a wide swathe from the Doab in western UP to Bihar.

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