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Conflict in the Parivar

Print edition : May 06, 2005 T+T-
RSS sarsanghachalak K.S. Sudarashan and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. A file picture.-SANDEEP SAXENA

RSS sarsanghachalak K.S. Sudarashan and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. A file picture.-SANDEEP SAXENA

The Bharatiya Janata Party's attempt, in its silver jubilee year, to please the RSS by reiterating its ideological commitment only fuels further tensions within the Sangh Parivar.

AT the Bharatiya Janata Party's national council meeting held in New Delhi on April 6 to mark the beginning of its silver jubilee celebrations, the party president, L.K. Advani went out of his way to show the BJP's indebtedness to the RSS, the nucleus of the Sangh Parivar. He said: "We have a very large constituency of like-minded nationalist organizations that support us and work for our success for no other reason than the fact that all of us share the same goal to make this holy motherland of ours great once again in every respect. No other family of organizations has suffered so much sustained vilification from ideological adversaries as this. Yet, none has forged ahead so self-confidently, so tirelessly and with so much inner conviction as we and our fellow nationalist organizations have."

Little did Advani realise that within a week of this self-congratulatory claim, he and his "elder leader", Atal Behari Vajpayee - whose primeministership, according to Advani, constituted a high watermark in the party's history - would become objects of vilification not from an ideological adversary but from withinremarks of the Sarsangchalak h (supremo)(the chief) of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), K.S. Sudarshan Sudarshan'smade in the course of an interview to the editor-in-chief of Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta and telecast on NDTV's "Walk the Talk" programme brought out into the open the latent tensions between the RSS and the BJP. Sudarshan suggested that NDA Chairperson, Atal Behari Vajpayee and the BJP president, L.K.Advani, both on the verge of being octogenarians, step aside and let a younger leadership take charge of the BJP.

But what upset the BJP most were his aspersions on Vajpayee's reign as the Prime Minister. Sudarshan felt Vajpayee had not done any remarkable work as Prime Minister -as compared with some of his predecessors like Indira Gandhi and P.V.Narasimha Rao - and alleged that Vajpayee found it difficult to check the interference of his son-in-law, Ranjan Bhattacharya in Government and party affairs. Sudarshan alleged that Vajpayee's Principal Secretary and former National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra was hobnobbing with the Congress. When he pointed this out to Vajpayee, the latter was annoyed, he said.

Sudarshan did not leave Advani either. He was unhappy that Advani could not influence Vajpayee or pursue Sangh's ideological alternative. Advani's excuse, Sudarshan claimed, was that as the BJP was in power for the first time, it would be better not to raise issues which would threaten its continuity in office. Sudarshan, however, disapproved of the BJP's inclination to cling to power just for the sake of it.

Sudarshan also indicated that the former Union Minister Sushma Swaraj, who has a non-RSS background, could make a better party leader, when asked who could replace the current aged leaders. It confirmed who among the second-rung leaders of the BJP enjoyed the backing of the RSS. Swaraj, now the party's deputy leader in the Rajya Sabha, does not hold a post in the party organisation.

Sudarshan's view about the other woman leaderthe extreme behaviour of another woman leader in the party, of the BJP, former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh Uma Bharati, Uma Bharati, that she in politics was because she was not born into a "cultured family" did not invite any rebuke from the BJP, even though the party went public with its rebuttal of his criticism of Advani and Vajpayee, and reiterated its confidence in their collective leadership of the party and the NDA. As ManySudarshan's remark about Uma Bharati smacked of his caste bias against a popular OBC (Other Backward Classes) leader in the party, many found it to be in bad taste. Uma Bharati's estranged elder brother wrote to Sudarshan protesting against his remarks which hurt his family. While Uma Bharati herself did not react to it, his remark was widely seen as anti-woman.

The RSS, through its spokesperson, Ram Madhav, first clarified that sarsanghchalak'sSudarshan made the remarks about the aged leaders quitting and paving the way for younger leaders in a general sense, and these should not be interpreted to mean that both these leaders should quit immediately. Sudarshan's other remarks casting aspersions on Vajpayee's Prime Ministersipministership, however, could not be explained away easily. RSS came under intense pressure from the BJP, to make amends for the remarks. Ram Madhav then claimed that Sudarshan was quoted out of context and that RSS held both Vajpayee and Advani in high esteem. The RSS also acknowledged , through a statement released by its general secretary Mohan Bhagwat who is set to take over from Sudarshan in a few months as the RSS chief - the contribution of Advani to the revival of the party since last elections and wanted him to continue as party president.

There is a view within the BJP that Sudarshan's remarks reflect the collective thinking within the Sangh. "The Sangh conveyed this to the BJP leadership many times earlier, but the BJP leaders did not heed it. Sudarshanji spoke out when it became unbearable", said a source close to the RSS.

Vajpayee made statements about his impending retirement deliberately at the party forums earlier in order to underline his indispensability to the party, and muster support for his continuance as the leader. This time, he expressed a similar view at the party's national council meeting in New Delhi, saying he was tired as well as sad, and would quit in favour of Advani. While the party seemed to have dismissed it as a banter, Sudarshan appears to have posed a challenged to Vajpayee to practice what he preached.

After Advani became the party's president last October, he met Sudarshan to seek the Sangh's blessings. Sources said Sudarshan then clearly suggested to him that he should quit one of the two posts he was holding, the other being that of the Leader of the Opposition. When Advani explained that he did not have a suitable person to take up the mantle, Sudarshan suggested the name of V.K.Malhotra, (He is the only prominent leader of the BJP in the Lok Sabha after Advani and Vajpayee) saying party should provide opportunities to new leaders to emerge.

There is a feeling within the RSS that the Sangh had wasted six years of the NDA's reign at the Centre, by not concentrating enough on its core agenda of infiltrating the social space, through its vast network of organisations. This has led to a growing disenchantment with the BJP's style of personality-based politics as the party is seen to have failed to contribute in any substantial measure to the realisation of any of the RSS's goals, for example, building of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya and controlling the illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Seeing itself primarily as a social organisation, RSS wanted to keep itself out of the political process, by letting the BJP fend for itself in many seats, when it came to electioneering during the Lok Sabha election. RSS sources admit that as the voters in rural areas were far removed from the thinking of the rulers in New Delhi, its cadres could have hardly made any difference to the electoral outcome, even if they were enthusiastic in campaigning for the BJP.It is this feeling of alienation of RSS cadre, that Advani wanted to address when he underlined the need to nurse the core constituency of the BJP - the failure to do so, he claimed, was one of the s ofleading to the party's electoral debacle in 2004. It is with this in view that Advani dealt with some of the issues dear to the Sangh in his speech at the recent national council of the party, but it failed to convince the Sangh.

Advani claimed that there was consensus within the NDA and among some Muslim representatives that there had to be a negotiated settlement of the Ayodhya dispute. He claimed in an interview to a television channel that the NDA Government was nearing a solution to the dispute and had it been returned to power, it could have helpededthe building of the Ram temple through a negotiated settlment, within six months.

His critics, however, asked why the NDA preferred to advance the polls by eight months if a solution to the dispute was in sight. Sudarshan, for instance, pointedly asked in the telecast interview why the NDA Government failed to hand over the land in Ayodhya to the Ramjanmabhoomi Trust to begin construction of the temple.

Similarly, the BJP's demand -made at the national council meeting - for scrapping the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act (IMDT) on the ground of its ineffectiveness in checking illegal migration from Bangladesh sounded hollow as the NDA Government failed to repeal it during its six-year long term in office. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government has refused to repeal the Act, saying the BJP's fears about it were exaggerated. The RSS, on the contrary, is disappointed that the BJP and the NDA Government did not do enough in curbing militancy in the northeast, let alone identify it as a serious issue to be addressed.

The timing of Sudarshan's public lament reveals RSS' helplessness in influencing the affairs of the BJP, which according to the present thinking in the Sangh Parivar, does not stand any chance of returning to power at the Centre in the immediate future. It is this sense of helplessness which forced the RSS to withdraw its joint general secretary, Madan Das Devi from the responsibility of a coordinator between the BJP and the RSS, as it found Devi too soft on the BJP.

In the latest round, the BJP succeeded in getting Bhagwat to come to the party's rescue in the wake of Sudarshan's revelations, lending credence to the view that Sudarshan is perhaps getting isolated within the RSS on the issue. However, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad,an RSS affiliate, through its senior leader, Giriraj Kishore, defended Sudarshan, and justified his slur on Vajpayee, Advani and Brajesh Mishra. Mishra too joined this ongoing spat by calling Sudarshan's allegations inane and absurd.

The public exchange of invective and innuendoes between the senior leaders within the Sangh Parivar apparently explains why the BJP did not undergo a major split unlike other parties during the last 25 years - an aspect of BJP's history which Advani considered as an achievement. If the leaders of different organisations within the Sangh Parivar could still coexist after all this display of acrimony, clearly, there is much to gain if the BJP sticks together, rather than split and invite irrelevance, as a leading dissident within the BJP put it, in view of the inconsequential following of its individual leaders.

This is not to suggest that individual BJP leaders do not have any influence at all. The BJP, for instance, made huge political gains under the leadership of Vajpayee. Although Vajpayee may have only a limited following in the party because of his poor rapport with the cadre, the BJP used his image effectively to increase its popularity. But for Vajpayee it would not have been possible for the BJP to broaden its alliance - several NDA constituents remained with the BJP only because of Vajpayee's acceptability to them. Sudarshan's lament shows that the RSS is indifferent to and impatient with the pressures on the BJP to behave like any other political party, expanding its electoral base with the help of strong political allies, even compromising on its core ideology.