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RSS and realpolitik

By Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

It is too early to predict whether the recent controversies over Arjun Singh's statement, the Savarkar row, and Uma Bharti's arrest will prove beneficial to the RSS.

THE ONGOING spat between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Union Minister for Human Resource Development, Arjun Singh, has meandered into diverse issues since it erupted in the second week of August. It started with Mr. Singh's comment on the RSS and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, and his appeal to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to cleanse the administration of people owing allegiance to the Hindutva organisation. It then rapidly developed into a discussion on how leaders of the national independence movement perceived the RSS.

The latest development in this series was the RSS' move of filing a defamation case against Mr. Singh. Undoubtedly, the row will continue in the days to come both within the courts and outside.

The wide-ranging argument is basically on historical, ideological and theoretical issues. But perhaps the more interesting dimension may have to do with questions of realpolitik rather than with these `serious' issues. In fact, the RSS leadership's initial responses to Mr. Singh in August contained allusions to questions of realpolitik.

The crux of these references was that Mr. Singh's statements against the RSS were motivated essentially by a personality struggle within the Congress against the Prime Minister. The RSS spokesperson, Ram Madhav, dwelt on this rather explicitly when he described Mr. Singh's statement as "a mere act of one-upmanship aimed at projecting himself as a greater champion of `pseudo' secularism than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh." Mr. Madhav added that "[Mr.] Singh was indulging in a spit and run tactic and the real objective of this was to strengthen his own position within the Congress." Sections of the Sangh Parivar top brass maintained that Mr. Singh had employed similar one-upmanship techniques earlier too during the Congress regimes led by Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao.

The contention about an internal struggle in the Congress could be true or otherwise. But by all indications the RSS concern about issues of realpolitik was triggered by some of the challenges its own leadership faced in dealing with the present political situation. In fact, there is a growing agreement within the different levels of the RSS hierarchy that the controversy has come at the most inopportune time for the organisation.

It was hardly a fortnight before the eruption of the controversy that the RSS top brass "initiated concrete measures to set right the course of [the] BJP, the Sangh Parivar's political arm, and make it vibrant once again." These measures were put forth at the Chintan Baithak (brainstorming) held in Goa from July 29 to August 1. The political context of the baithak was that the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar as a whole had failed in evolving an effective opposition strategy after suffering an unexpected defeat in the Lok Sabha elections.

At the baithak, the RSS leadership impressed upon the BJP's leaders that large sections of the party had erred by neglecting both its ideology and the interests of its social base. It was also pointed out that aberrations in the lifestyle of several senior BJP leaders had to be corrected to rediscover the verve and mass appeal of the party. The RSS also asserted that the BJP should return to Hindutva as its main political plank.

And, to guide this process of return, ideologically as well as organisationally, the services of the senior RSS leader, Madan Das Devi, were offered to the BJP. Leaders of the RSS, including its sarsanghchalak, K.S. Sudarshan, had reportedly stated in the internal meetings of the Sangh Parivar that with a "larger and more direct involvement" of the RSS, the BJP would become more disciplined. And, through this, its current tentativeness in playing an Opposition role would come to an end.

The existing leadership of the BJP did give a patient hearing to the political lectures of the RSS top brass at the baithak. However, a large number of leaders were vehemently opposed to the proposal to induct Mr. Devi into the party. At the time the controversy on Mr. Singh's statements broke out, the RSS leadership was still working out ways of inducting Mr. Devi into the BJP hierarchy. The RSS efforts, at this time, were in high gear, particularly in the context of its `success' in appointing 21 pracharaks to crucial positions in the various State units of the BJP.

It was almost as though Arjun Singh was privy to the plans the RSS had for the BJP and the reactions they had triggered among various sections of the party. One of his statements during the early days of the controversy was to dare the RSS to register itself as a political party and contest the elections instead of controlling the administration through the backdoor. This was perceived within the Parivar as a kind of reference to the happenings in the BJP and the RSS. It was as though Mr. Singh was speaking for sections of the BJP leadership opposed to the greater involvement of the RSS in the party.

There is no doubt that the controversy, including its timing and the manner in which it developed, has caused a setback of sorts to the plans of the RSS of playing a larger role within the BJP and thereby in national politics. In fact, large sections of the Hindutva combine are of the view that the proportions of the setback are rather huge. Particularly because the point of argument was the RSS' role in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

The general view within the Sangh Parivar is that the manner in which its leaders marshalled facts for the defence was inadequate. The faux pas in releasing a copy of a letter written by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as "proof of RSS innocence" is cited as a case in point. The letter written by Patel just 28 days after Gandhiji's assassination did state that "the RSS was not involved in it [the assassination] at all." But it also had a sentence which said that "it was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under [Vinayak "Veer" Damodar] Savarkar that [hatched] the conspiracy [to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi] and saw it through."

The release of the letter amounted to tarnishing a great Hindutva leader like Savarkar in order to save the RSS from guilt. The overwhelming opinion within the Sangh Parivar is that it should have merely highlighted Guru Golwalkar's (the then RSS sarsanghchalak) condemnation of the killing of Mahatma Gandhi and his instructions to suspend RSS activities for 13 days as part of mourning.

Large sections of the Sangh Parivar are also of the view that citing various instances of Mr. Singh seeking help from RSS leaders in the past has also not helped score political points. The RSS had highlighted instances like Mr. Singh calling a senior RSS functionary to appear on his behalf in an election petition case in 1957. It had also said that Mr. Singh's brother, Rana Bahadur Singh, was a district RSS chief many decades ago.

Ironically, it was on the day the RSS spokesperson cited Patel's letter that the BJP members of Parliament were demanding an apology from the Union Petroleum Minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, for removing a quotation of Savarkar's from the `Swatantra Jyot' at the Cellular Jail in the Andamans. Obviously, the embarrassment of the RSS faux pas was heightened because of the timing.

The attempt of the Sangh Parivar, after suffering tremendous loss of face, is to cling on to the issue and try and develop it as a political campaign point. The acrimonious debates, within Parliament and outside, on the arrest of the former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister and Hindutva icon, Uma Bharti, in the Hubli Idgah Maidan case as well as the alleged belittling of Savarkar by Mr. Aiyar have all been added to this campaign concoction. And all through this multi-dimensional campaign there is an attempt to assert the "nationalist commitment" of the RSS.

It is too early to predict whether this concoction is good enough for the RSS to make that major foray into the realm of realpolitik. But the ideological fountainhead of the Sangh Parivar can indeed take some consolation that, through the campaign, it has been able to bring Hindutva back into the mainstream political discourse. But it may take a while before this leads to tangible gains in the arena of realpolitik.

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