The RSS sends a message 

Sangh Parivar’s comments on party strategy and leadership qualities hint at a change in power balance within the BJP and in its equation with the RSS.

Published : Jun 23, 2024 11:46 IST - 7 MINS READ

Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads the rituals during the ‘Pran Pratishtha’ ceremony in the sanctum sanctorum of the Ram Janmabhoomi Temple, in Ayodhya on January 22.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads the rituals during the ‘Pran Pratishtha’ ceremony in the sanctum sanctorum of the Ram Janmabhoomi Temple, in Ayodhya on January 22. | Photo Credit: ANI

It is the centenary of the RSS next year, and it is an organisation that plays the long game. Towards that end, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a great enabler of their ideological agenda. But now that the BJP has crashed in the nation’s two most populous States, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, there is a realisation in the mothership that the party (which is the political wing of the RSS) has managed to retain power, albeit at the head of a coalition, only because of a surprise heist of 20 seats from Odisha.

In such a scenario, the recent utterances of the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat cannot be brushed aside as empty moral posturing or as an attempt to quickly occupy the opposition space. It must be read as a clear message to Modi, and it could be the beginning of a change in the power balance within the BJP and in its equation with the RSS. The RSS chief said, among other things, that a true sevak does not have arrogance. Given that the 2024 campaign was reduced to a message about “Modi ki guarantee” and that a once voluble party with multiple power centres is now a one-man cult, using the word “arrogance” was a clear signal from the head of the Sangh Parivar.

It was reinforced in a signed piece in the RSS magazine Organiser by Ratan Sharda, author of several books on the Sangh. He critiqued fighting from all 543 seats on Modi’s name as “self-defeating”. There were other scathing lines in the article, such as: “Targets are achieved by hard work on the field, not sharing posters and selfies on social media. Since they [BJP leaders] were happy in their bubble, enjoying the glow reflected from Modiji’s aura, they were not listening to voices on the streets.”

Also Read | A stunning rebuke to Narendra Modi’s divisive, anti-Muslim rhetoric

A very significant challenge to Modi, therefore, comes from within the Sangh Parivar. First, it is no accident that the high command did not follow the protocol of calling a meeting of the BJP’s Parliamentary Party that consists of newly elected MPs to elect their leader in the House. There was a meeting of NDA MPs, but significantly not a meeting of BJP MPs. The reason for this was that the RSS had positioned some MPs to not challenge Modi directly but to ask questions about the conduct of the election and the issue of fixing responsibility. This sort of conversation would have been par for the course in the era of the first BJP Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but Modi was having none of that, so the meeting never took place.

Next, there are two leaders who have the absolute trust of the RSS: the MP from Nagpur Nitin Gadkari (Union Transport Minister) and the former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who has now been given the Agriculture portfolio. Neither has been included in the Cabinet Committee on Security, which remains unchanged. Modi is signalling—both to allies and to his ideological family—that he will do it his way.

Still, it is useful to share an anecdote from the era when both Chouhan and Modi were seen as successful Chief Ministers. Both also happened to be OBCs, which was a deliberate RSS template in the post Mandal-Mandir era. At a meeting of the BJP held to assess State performances, the praise for Modi’s Gujarat model was countered by leaders who said that Gujarat was always a rich State, but the Chouhan model was more remarkable since Madhya Pradesh was performing well even after its bifurcation and the loss of its resource-rich parts to Chhattisgarh. A veteran recounts that even then, “already a cult hero, Modi did not like it”. This anecdote is applicable to equations today, as Chouhan represents a counter to the Modi persona of narcissism/authoritarianism combined with proximity to big capital. The RSS has kept quiet since it has also been a beneficiary of the Modi phenomenon, but there is a genuine liking and admiration for Chouhan who is modest (no arrogance, as the RSS chief would say) and is seen to have performed well in agriculture.

Also Read | Mohan Bhagwat’s hollow sermon

The other personality about whom there is speculation is Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath. The RSS does not hold him responsible for ticket distribution in the State, especially because it has become clear that he had limited influence, with Modi and Amit Shah using their greater clout. The Delhi duo obviously lived in the bubble of belief that the “Modi magic”, as reiterated by their loyal media servants, would overcome organisational rumblings and public disconnect. The “deluded high command”, to use the language of a veteran, also pushed the “400 paar” narrative that was clearly damaging because it reinforced the idea of constitutional change, which hurt the party in Uttar Pradesh. There is also a strong critique within the party about the handpicked social media team, which entirely missed this, obsessed as it is with petty and daily trolling.

A more serious view emerging from the RSS is that the Modi regime created confusion on the issue of a caste census—something the Sangh opposes fiercely. In some places the Prime Minister made quota promises and in others he did not. Today, the RSS believes that the potential gains from a formidable social coalition in Uttar Pradesh were lost because of this mixed messaging. Once the caste genie is out of the bottle, it is not easy to expect Hindutva issues to bring it together in this State’s political and social terrain.

No more mandir issues?

Also linked to this is the fact that the RSS did not create any mass movement on the mosque-temple demand in Mathura and Kashi. It is speculated that this was because the RSS chief signalled that more mandir issues will not work on the ground for the next few years. According to well-placed sources, the entire mobilisation on Kashi and Mathura was done by lawyers, some sadhus and sants, and local individuals with sporadic backing from the BJP. The RSS did not believe a mass movement on either issue would be “appropriate or successful”. As mandate 2024 showed, overplaying the Ram card also flopped.

While Adityanath is not being held directly responsible for the Uttar Pradesh debacle, should the RSS/BJP feel the need to project an OBC or Dalit face in the future then his Thakur caste would be a liability. Many veterans in the BJP insist that the perception of Adityanath as good in handling law and order would work in the Assembly election, but it is not clear which, individual or regime, will survive until then, as the next election in the State is due only in 2027. The NDA alliance did well in Bihar, but Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is the first author of the caste census, which makes the Sangh very uneasy. It is fundamentally a Brahmanical outfit that works on social engineering to uphold traditional caste structures.

Also Read | 400? 272? 210?

The RSS’ anger with Modi also extends to Maharashtra, as the instruction to go for a smash-and-grab policy here by breaking other parties came from the Delhi high command. There is a clear view that the strategy damaged and lowered the morale of the BJP’s Maharashtra unit. With the State’s election due in a few months, it will be interesting to see how things pan out not just between the BJP and the opposition, but in the leadership and candidate choices the BJP makes from now on.

It is true that the RSS is BJP, and the BJP is frequently RSS. But what the RSS firmly believes is that Modi is not the BJP and that both party and parivar are bigger than the Prime Minister, who has turned out to be entirely biological.

Saba Naqvi is a Delhi based journalist and author of four books who writes on politics and identity issues.

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