THE Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) underwent a smooth change of leadership on March 10 when Kuppahalli Sitaramaiyah Sudarshan took over as its sarsangchalak (chief) from Professor Rajendra Singh alias Rajju Bhaiyya, who stepped down owing to poor heal th. More than 1,000 delegates at the inaugural session of the three-day meeting of the RSS' Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha in Nagpur heard in rapt attention the outgoing chief's announcement of the change of guard.
"If the head is not physically fit, it is bound to reflect on the organisation's working. So, I have decided to relinquish the responsibility," Rajendra Singh said.
In resigning from the top post, Rajendra Singh has emulated his predecessor Balasaheb Deoras. On grounds of illhealth, Deoras broke the tradition of holding the post for a life time. The RSS' founder chief, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar and his successor M.S. Golwalkar held the post until their death. They left sealed envelopes containing the names of their successors.
The mantle fell on Sudarshan, 69, who is the joint general secretary and ranks third in the hierarchy, because the second-in-command, H.V. Seshadri, is also ailing. Sudarshan was groomed in the past two years to succeed Rajendra Singh. He travelled exten sively and met swayamsevaks (volunteers) and performed the chief's duties on his behalf. Both Rajju Bhaiyya and Seshadri have crossed 80.
Sudarshan, a pracharak since 1954, studied in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, and then graduated in telecommunication engineering from Sagar University. In the RSS he has held several posts: he was Akhil Bharatiya Sharirik Pramukh (in charge of the physical de velopment programmes) from 1969 to 1979, and for the next 10 years, he functioned as boudhik pramukh (in charge of ideological orientation programmes); as joint-general secretary since 1990, he looked after the northeastern region. Sudarshan has written a book on the Punjab problem. Besides his mother tongue, Kannada, Sudarshan is conversant in Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Gujarati and English.
What does Sudarshan's elevation signal for the RSS and the BJP? Insiders in both organisations deny the general perception that Sudarshan is a "hardliner" and the age barrier between him and the present BJP leadership might be reflected in the equations between the two organisations. These leaders point out that the RSS has always functioned as a collective entity and that there is no scope for decision-making by individuals. Although Rajendra Singh and Seshadri may not hold any post in the organisation , they will be consulted by Sudarshan before every decision is taken, they claim.
Rajendra Singh's statement that the RSS was not concerned with the Gujarat circular was a result of collective deliberations within the RSS and not an outcome of the "excellent" equations between Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Rajendra Singh, th ey pointed out. In fact, if BJP insiders are to be believed, the circular episode was caused by Chief Minister Kesubhai Patel's lack of vision: by this gimmick he sought to please the RSS during the sankalp shibir in Ahmedabad in January, although the RS S did not expect any significant fresh accretion to its shakhas from the ranks of government servants. However, when the RSS sought to wriggle out of the situation by issuing a disclaimer, it was too late and it carried little credibility.
Throughout the crisis, while Home Minister L.K. Advani vacillated between endorsing Keshubhai Patel's order and denying any move to emulate him at the Centre Vajpayee pretended to distance himself from the controversy and revealed his mind only when he f elt that the crisis was nearer a solution. Vajpayee and Keshubhai Patel have not had the best of relationship in recent times; Keshubhai Patel apparently did not meet or greet the Prime Minister even once in his official capacity. Although Sudarshan was a key participant in the RSS' decision-making process, he could hardly influence either Vajpayee or Rajendra Singh in this episode, informed sources said.
The Advani camp in the BJP thus does not expect any significant change in RSS-BJP relations after Sudarshan's elevation. A senior BJP leader said that Vajpayee had no reason to be worried about Sudarshan, whose views on swadeshi, Hindutva, the environmen t and human development were fairly well-known. Sudarshan is not a hardliner but a clear-headed personality, claimed K.R. Malkani, editor-in-chief of the BJP's official organ, BJP Today.
Whatever the nature of the relationship between the BJP and the RSS in the coming days, it is certain that Sudarshan has a heavy agenda before him. The strength of the RSS - it has no formal membership - has grown from 35,000 shakhas (daily gatherings of about 50 people, who are given ideological and physical training) in 1992, when Rajendra Singh took over, to about 45,000 shakhas now. Frequent elections since 1992 in various parts of the country have forced RSS activists to concentrate more on electio n campaign in their "individual capacity" as voters (to quote a swayamsevak) than on organisation-building. Seshadri Chari, editor of the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, told Frontline that the accent under Sudarshan would be on increasing the p ace of the Sangh's activities, rather than changing its direction. Different areas such as education, tribal welfare and rural development would get due attention; there would be an attempt to increase the number of the Sangh's social centres (seva praka lps) from the current 70. Sudarshan said that he would visit as many shakhas and interact with as many swayamsevaks as possible during his first year as the chief, he said. Will that mean more of "socio-cultural" activity and less of "political" involvem ent? Only time will tell.