Modi–RSS: Split wide open 

The RSS is faced with a paradox: Hindutva may have flourished under Modi but he has clearly overshadowed the RSS and his domineering personality can no longer be reined in by anyone

Narendra Modi and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat
Narendra Modi and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat

Rashme Sehgal

Two years ago, the Modi–Shah duo dropped both minister of road transport Nitin Gadkari and chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan from the BJP parliamentary board, the party’s apex decision-making body (at least on paper). They also dropped UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath from the BJP central election committee.

This was a clear demonstration of power and authority because all three— Gadkari, Chouhan and Yogi—were considered pivotal members of the party organisation. Each had their own strong support base and had been key players in the party.

All three are also known to be close to the RSS. This cutting down to size was a signal to the RSS that it would be permitted to play only a limited role in the party apparatus. The RSS did not take kindly to Gadkari’s exclusion from the apex body.

Nor were they happy with the sidelining of former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia whose mother Vijaya Raje Scindia had played a stellar role in building up the Jana Sangh, the BJP’s predecessor. Given that Gadkari and Raje were not averse to expressing their reservations in public forums about the lack of intra-party democracy under the present regime, the message Modi wanted to send out was loud and clear—he would not brook any criticism.

Historian Ramachandra Guha recently emphasised that the cult of Modi has outdone all previous personality cults; anyone who opposed his will would not be tolerated, not even his alma mater. Modi has made no bones about being groomed by the RSS from a young age, particularly by Madhukar Rao Bhagwat (present RSS head Mohan Bhagwat’s father) who was a ‘pant pracharak’ in Gujarat.

Modi himself has served as an RSS ‘pracharak’. The RSS played a key role in helping him become chief minister of Gujarat, before helping consolidate his victory at the national level in both the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Having said that, there are fundamental differences in approach between the BJP under Modi and the RSS.

These have widened to become a deep chasm. The RSS has never subscribed to the worshipful cult of the leader, maintaining that the organisation is always larger than an individual. ‘Sangathan mein hi shakti’ is the principle of collective strength. Modi believes the opposite.

He has carefully built a personality cult around himself with an unprecedented amount of power concen-trated in his hands. Unlike former RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan who did not hesitate to openly criticise both prime minister Vajpayee and his deputy L.K. Advani for failing to adhere to RSS agenda, Mohan Bhagwat is much more discreet and desists from adopting a confrontational attitude.

He prefers a diplomatic public stance, stating in private conversations that while he has no issue with the BJP as a whole, he is unhappy with Modi’s autocratic style of functioning. In the last 10 years, Modi has steadily sidelined the RSS, refusing to visit party headquarters on his frequent visits to Nagpur. On more occasions than one he declined to meet top RSS functionaries including Bhagwat.

In fact, even at the inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, he turned down a private meeting with Bhagwat. The RSS was critical of Modi’s mishandling of the Covid-19 threat which resulted in the death of lakhs of people. Two years ago, general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale went public with his censure of growing inequality and unemployment across the country.

Several front organisations of the RSS have also expressed their unhappiness over the free market economy being promoted by Modi and the fact that 60 per cent of India’s wealth is presently in the hands of a few crony capitalists. The Swadeshi Jagran Manch has firmly opposed Modi’s handing over of huge tracts of farmland to select corporate houses as well as the government’s ongoing attempts to allow GM crops to enter India.

Modi’s unhesitating implementation of core Hindutva agenda—the annulment of Article 370, the enactment of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the removal of hurdles in the building of the Ram temple—was no doubt right up RSS street.

However, there are two opinions within the RSS regarding Modi’s handling of minorities. Some believe he has gone too far. It is in this context that Bhagwat held out the olive branch and agreed to meet Muslim intellectuals, including former Delhi lieutenant governor Najeeb Jung, former vice chancellor of Aligarh University Lt Gen Zameeruddin Shah, former MP Shahid Siddiqui and businessman Saeed Shervani. Modi was not pleased.

Meanwhile, the RSS is not pleased by what they see as a dilution of their core values, one of them being the active encouragement of an abstemious lifestyle. With Modi setting the tone with his designer outfits, glares and cars, frugality has been tossed out of the window. Not only BJP leaders but RSS senior leaders too are enamoured of, and living, the high life.

While rifts have been widening, even Bhagwat was taken aback when BJP president J.P. Nadda declared in a recent interview “Shuru mein hum aksham honge, thora kum honge, RSS ki zaroorat padti thi… Aaj hum badh gaye hain, saksham hai… toh BJP apne aap ko chalati hai (In the beginning, we were less capable and needed the RSS. Today, we have grown, we are capable… so the BJP runs itself).”

Nadda was clearly referring to the fact that the party structure has grown exponentially: today it is the largest and richest political party in the world. Over the last five years, the BJP has acquired land and is busy building party offices in every district with a budgetary allocation running into thousands of crores.

The RSS is faced with a paradox. Hindutva may have flourished under Modi but he has overshadowed the RSS in such a spectacular fashion that the public see him as being the fountainhead of this philosophy. The epicentre of Hindutva politics is no longer Nagpur but New Delhi.

Having powered his way to the top, Modi’s prime concern is to retain his hypnotic hold over the public. For this, he has a team of technocrats working around the clock, projecting his image 24x7.

The shishya has outgrown his gurukul, and his brash, domineering personality can no longer be reined in by anyone. No wonder Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray chuckled when he said, “Today he calls us ‘nakli’ (fake) Shiv Sena…tomorrow he may call the RSS ‘nakli’ Sangh” and even “ban the RSS”.

Whether he will take such an extreme step is yet to be seen. What is beyond doubt, however, is that Modi believes he is unassailable: so why would he stoop to conquer?

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