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Convulsions in the Parivar

Print edition : May 06, 2005 T+T-
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RSS sarsanghchalak K.S. Sudarshan at a rally in Guwahati. A file picture. The RSS' authority is in jeopardy as never before.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

RSS-BJP relations are in a grim crisis after sarsanghchalak Sudarshan's outburst against Vajpayee and Advani. There is no easy way out of the power play, which has badly damaged the credibility of both organisations.

THE Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh's (RSS) supremo, sarsanghchalak K.S. Sudarshan, has done something unusual, indeed unprecedented, for the Sangh Parivar's topmost functionary. In a television interview, he openly attacked Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani and asked them to make way for the younger generation. He said Vajpayee has not "done any remarkable work. Yes, he was Prime Minister and he did take some good decisions. But he did not keep up the samvad (dialogue) with others which resulted in their sulking and there was an atmosphere as if there was a big fight in the country."

Sudarshan cut even closer to the bone by launching a tirade against Brajesh Mishra, Vajpayee's former Principal Secretary, confidant and self-proclaimed loyalist (accusing him of being "aligned with both Sonia Gandhi and us"), and his foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya. Sudarshan spoke like an irate adversary of the BJP, not like a pater familias gently rebuking a member of the Sangh Parivar.

Sudarshan's attack has sent shockwaves through the BJP and its cohorts. Despite awkward and unconvincing "clarifications" by RSS functionaries, and a reaffirmation of faith in the Vajpayee-Advani leadership by the BJP's top officials, the tremors refuse to die down. Indeed, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) senior vice-president Giriraj Kishore has added more venom to the Sangh attack by endorsing Sudarshan's views and proposing two women (Uma Bharati and Vasundhara Raje) as the best among the BJP's second-generation leaders.

Vajpayee's peevish and petulant response - "I do not fear death, but I fear getting a bad name" - has not helped cool tempers. Nor have Advani's manoeuvres in getting RSS general secretary Mohan Bhagwat, widely tipped to take over as the next sarsanghchalak, to issue a statement saying "the RSS has always held the leadership of Sri Vajpayee and Sri Advani in high esteem and maintained that the party needs their guidance and leadership always."

The Sangh Parivar, which has long claimed to be - and to a great extent, exploited its image of being - "disciplined" and "united", finds itself in a crisis of first-rate dimensions. Its long-established structures of authority and hierarchy stand badly shaken. Never before has the Hindutva "family" experienced this level of sordid discord, uncontrollable dissension and bitter rivalry. The Sangh has imposed censorship on further statements. Yet, the diktat is unlikely to work and there may be no way of containing the enormous damage the Sudarshan interview has inflicted on the BJP and his own organisation, the RSS.

There has been much speculation over the "provocation" for Sudarshan's assault on the BJP leadership. Many Sangh Parivar observers attribute it to a meeting in Bhopal of the BJP's Intellectual Cell in the last week of March, at which a BJP functionary, rumoured to be Sudheendra Kulkarni, ticked off the RSS and declared its political agenda virtually unworkable. He talked down to the RSS and said that the "myth" of the "Hindu vote," on which the RSS harps endlessly, has proved electorally counter-productive and that the Gujarat pogrom (which the RSS endorses) caused a major setback to efforts to construct a Ram temple in Ayodhya.

Apparently, Sudarshan and Bhagwat, who were both present at the meeting, bristled as he demanded that Jawaharlal Nehru must be adopted by the Parivar as one of India's foremost icons. Advani, who too was present, did nothing to rebut the speaker.

It is possible that Sudarshan was provoked into attacking the BJP leadership because he saw Advani's hand behind this speech. But beyond a point, it is irrelevant if this was indeed the proximate cause for Sudarshan's philippic against the BJP. Differences between the RSS and the BJP have been simmering, and they have been aired, for some years now. On three recent occasions, they became public in a remarkably ugly way.

The first time was in 1998, when Sudarshan in a "midnight coup" scuttled the appointment of Jaswant Singh as Finance Minister in Vajpayee's first Cabinet, and got him replaced by Yashwant Sinha, who had positioned himself close to the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. (It is another matter that Sinha defected to the neoliberal camp, and following the Unit Trust of India scam, was replaced by none other than Jaswant Singh.)

The second visible spat occurred in 2000, when Sudarshan at a press briefing launched a broadside against Brajesh Mishra, N.K. Singh and Ranjan Bhattacharya - all considered by the RSS as part of the "multinational lobby" and close to certain business houses. Sudarshan once again reaffirmed the RSS' own brand of swadeshi, itself biased in favour of local traders and industrialists. Mishra held a press conference to refute the charge.

In this round, the RSS had to beat a retreat. Its chief moved his base from Jhandewalan in Delhi to the original RSS headquarters in Reshambagh in Nagpur. The RSS got the VHP, and increasingly, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), to attack the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). While the BMS concentrated on its labour and privatisation policies, the VHP harped on the Ayodhya issue, chiding the Vajpayee government for doing nothing about it.

In 2002, the RSS forced Vajpayee to make Advani the Deputy Prime Minister. The Sangh's calculation was that Advani, identified with the hardline approach, would push the temple agenda aggressively. In return, the VHP put the Ayodhya issue on the back burner - only to earn its violent revenge through the Gujarat pogrom. But Advani let the RSS down on the temple (or so it felt) by bowing to "pragmatism" and the "sensitivities" of coalition politics.

Yet another episode in 2002 that highlighted RSS-BJP differences was the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections. Following its support for Jammu and Kashmir's trifurcation, the RSS floated a separate Jammu-based front, which contested the election against the BJP, marginalising it in that Hindu-majority region.

None of this argues that the RSS has been consistent in its approach to the BJP or that it was largely driven by principle or ideological considerations. The RSS has been comfortable with the Jan Sangh-BJP's participation in coalition politics of the most opportunistic variety right since the late 1960s. It has always gained a great deal in patronage whenever and wherever the Jan Sangh/BJP has been in power, including key positions for its personnel in official bodies and grants of land and funds for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) fronting for it.

The RSS has always gained from and been complicit in the distribution of the loaves and fishes of office. It has often tempered its criticism of the NDA and Vajpayee. For instance, in a July 2003 interview to Outlook, in the middle of a debate over Vajpayee's health and leadership succession, Sudarshan declared: "We don't consider anyone [Vajpayee's] successor."

The RSS' sole consistency is its opportunism. What is new about the current power struggle is, first, that the RSS is openly targeting its longstanding favourite Advani; second, that the possibility of, and mechanism for, mediation between the two organisations has greatly eroded; and third, it is taking place when the BJP has lost power. The attack on Advani bears sharp contrast to the demand voiced in 2003 by the VHP's Ashok Singhal that Vajpayee should "quit and hand over everything to Advani". In organisational matters, the RSS has consistently favoured Advani over Vajpayee.

One reason for the change, apart from Advani's "inaction" on Ayodhya and his capitulation to "pragmatism", is that he "neutralised" the RSS' crucial liaison-man for the BJP, Madan Das Devi, and established his supremacy over all political activities of the BJP-RSS. A second, and perhaps weightier, reason is that Advani took over as BJP president last year from M. Venkaiah Naidu without consulting the RSS. This unprecedented action was seen as an insult. Traditionally, the RSS has always acted not just as a political-ideological mentor but as the organisational gate-keeper of the Jan Sangh/BJP.

THE BJP and the RSS are both jockeying for power and privilege within the Parivar. The RSS' claim to supremacy derives from its belief that its Ramjanmabhoomi campaign catapulted the BJP from two Lok Sabha seats to 89 seats in the 1980s - and eventually into power. It sees the BJP as ungrateful, even an interloper or usurper. The BJP, for its part, attributes its political success, especially since 1998, to coalition-building, to which the personality of Vajpayee was a key. There is some truth in both views. But they clash, resulting in a crude power struggle.

That power struggle is reshaping the old division of labour between the RSS and the BJP. The BJP's bargaining power has weakened simply because it lost the election. Some of its leaders have irritated RSS cadres by denigrating their contribution to its electioneering.

Yet, the BJP continues to share the same Hindutva ideology - a point repeatedly emphasised by successive BJP presidents from Bangaru Laxman to Venkaiah Naidu to Advani, and by "swayamsewak" Vajpayee whether in Staten Island, or when he called the communal Ayodhya campaign a "national movement". But a new element has entered the picture. The BJP during its years in power embraced neoliberal policies with great gusto. The RSS, mired in the dark world of Reshambagh, has never been comfortable with these policies or with the corrosive influence that state power has had on some of its own cadres. From devoted pracharaks living austerely, they suddenly metamorphosed into cellphone-wielding functionaries given to opulent lifestyles and chauffer-driven air-conditioned cars.

For its part, the BJP defends its "five-star" culture and asserting its autonomy in electoral politics and day-to-day affairs of government. Take Advani's interview to E-TV just a day before his address to the BJP national executive's latest meeting. There, he put governance squarely before ideology and defended the party's "five-star" culture by saying, "Everything in the country ought to be five-star, which means it should be excellent.... "

Advani's U-turn the next day in asserting the primacy of "cultural nationalism" and the distinctive Hindutva character of its ideology was unconvincing. It seemed like an afterthought. At any rate, it exposed the contradictory nature of his own thinking and earned him more suspicion and hatred.

The RSS has recently replaced Madan Das Devi as its liaison-man with Suresh Soni. This seems an attempt to rework the relationship with the BJP on more favourable terms. Whether or not it succeeds is an open question. What is undeniable is that there is no reliable mechanism left to promote dialogue and dispute resolution between the RSS and its more extremist affiliates like the VHP-Bajrang Dal, on the one hand, and the BJP, on the other.

The RSS' authority is in jeopardy as never before. Traditionally, the sarsanghchalak was a much-revered figure within the Parivar, including the BJP-Jan Sangh. Part of the reason why a certain mystique is attached to his persona is that he is considered a semi-spiritual figure who does not soil his hands with quotidian matters and the nitty-gritty of practical deal-making politics. This began to erode after Balasaheb Deoras. His successor Rajendra Singh lowered his stature by taking too active an interest in Uttar Pradesh politics. Being much younger than Vajpayee and Advani (and inexperienced), Sudarshan never commanded an exalted status. In recent years, he further lost credibility by showing preferences not only for micro-level policies, but even personalities.

Internally, the RSS' power partly derives from the fierce, mindless loyalty of its cadres and its ability to dictate to them and discipline them at will - through slander and ostracisation when necessary, but otherwise through ritualised displays of obedience and a semi-military code of conduct. This power is rapidly eroding. The RSS is riven by dissension. Or else, how could Sudarshan's own deputy Bhagwat contradict him by abjectly defending Vajpayee and Advani?

What does this portend for the future? For all its tensions with the RSS, the BJP is in no position to break its umbilical cord with it or dispense with its craven dependence on it both for ideological legitimacy and for door-to-door campaigning during elections. At the same time, it is unlikely that Advani will oblige the RSS by quitting as party president. He too is addicted to power.

What is likely is an awkward compromise - Advani stepping down after some months in favour of his factotum Venkaiah Naidu, or accommodating a few of the RSS' favourites among his office-bearers. There is another possibility too: the RSS may float other political-party outfits through relative "purists" like K.N. Govindacharya. This would be a big blow to the BJP.

Meanwhile, a stark reality stares the BJP in the face. It has a grave leadership problem. Advani has failed to rescue the party's morale, now at its lowest point ever. Even worse is the succession crisis. There is no way that its super-ambitious second-rung leaders will work together. A smooth transition to the next generation seems extremely unlikely.

Ideologically and politically, too, the BJP is drifting. Its minor gain in Jharkhand may prove transient. It is certainly no elixir. One can only pity the party - without regret or sympathy - and hope it will fade into the margins of politics.

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