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The sangh parivar and the candid camera

Vidya Subrahmaniam

The crisis in the Bharatiya Janata Party is real. Yet it is doubtful if the RSS-BJP differences would have come to a head if Mr. Vajpayee had won another term.

WHAT IS it between the sangh parivar and the small screen? The camera has merely to turn towards a member of the family and the secrets tumble out. Last year, Lal Krishna Advani and Uma Bharti had a flaming row before a worldwide television audience. Last week, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief K.S. Sudarshan treated the camera as if it were a close confidante. He never thought much of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the company he kept, Mr. Sudarshan said, adding for good measure that Mr. Advani, once the apple of the sangh eye, did not measure up either. In any case, the geriatric duo was long due for retirement.

On both occasions, it was the parivar that confirmed a truth long speculated upon in the media but which the BJP-RSS spin machine unfailingly dismissed as a figment of the "pseudo-secular" imagination. Now it is official. The BJP not only has internal quarrels to fix, it has also messed up its scene with the RSS. Ms. Bharti's bitter complaints against her colleagues established the BJP's next generation as an undisciplined, bickering lot that was not fit for leadership duties. Indeed, the exposť caused Mr. Advani,77, to ease himself into the party president's post — just months after he spoke of bringing forth a newer, younger leadership.

Who after Advani?

Unfortunately for Mr. Advani, Mr. Sudarshan has now demonstrated the futility of that gambit by showing the door to the BJP chief. In one fell swoop he has exploded the myth that Mr. Advani's comeback was blessed by the RSS.

Taken together, the two TV episodes lead to one question: with the second rung ruled out by Mr. Advani, and Mr. Advani, in turn, ruled out by the RSS, who succeeds the incumbent BJP chief? Which "young BJP leader" can carry forward the RSS agenda? If Mr. Advani, who was thought to epitomise loyalty to the RSS, has been decreed as not being good enough, who else can take his place? Assuming such a person is located, will he or she not further undermine the decision-making apparatus in the BJP by constantly seeking approval from Jhandewalan?

The news point in the Sudarshan story is not that the RSS cannot get on with Mr. Vajpayee (which was an open secret anyway) but that it is unhappy with Mr. Advani. A senior RSS figure thus explains the organisation's position. A leader must possess three qualities: conviction, character, and competence. Mr. Advani met the second criterion fully, the third partially but failed entirely to demonstrate his conviction. As Deputy Prime Minister, he was so busy espousing pragmatism that he overlooked his duties towards the RSS. So much so, a small matter like Mr. Sudarshan's request for facilities to pilgrims visiting Ayodhya went unheeded.

That Mr. Advani reverted intermittently to talking ideology following the BJP's Lok Sabha defeat only added to the RSS' ire. A day before the BJP's silver jubilee celebrations, the former Home Minister told the press that if the BJP aspired to return to office it would have to compromise on ideology. Once on the podium for the formal function he did a volte face. Mr. Advani's presidential speech revolved around the BJP's irrevocable ties with the RSS and its ideology ("Our inflexible stand on our association with the RSS gave us a distinct ideological identity about which we have never been apologetic nor will we ever be.") If for the better part of his six-year-long stint in Government, Mr. Advani advocated separation of ideology and governance, now he attributed the BJP's defeat to its focus on "issues of governance" and the consequent neglect of its "core constituency of ideological supporters." Unsurprisingly, the RSS fumed at this "duplicity."

So is this the end of the road for the BJP-RSS relationship? Not by a long stretch. The BJP duo's alleged lack of deference to it notwithstanding, the RSS remains, and will remain, the single biggest influence on the BJP. Despite his public humiliation by Mr. Sudarshan, Mr. Vajpayee — the first non-Congress Prime Minister to last six years — has been unable to defend his record in office, much less hit back at Mr. Sudarshan or throw off the Sangh yoke. Mr. Vajpayee did not embark on that path even at the height of his popularity, when he was arguably best placed to break with the RSS. After all, there was no dearth of pundits who urged "Atalji" to take that final, daring step and have his name engraved in bold the pages of history. Far from it, Mr Vajpayee's years in office is marked by frequent capitulations to the RSS — from allowing it to dictate the composition of the Union Cabinet to appeasing it with various placatory statements on the Ram temple and Hindutva, not to mention Narendra Modi. Mr. Vajpayee asked Mr. Modi to follow the raj dharma of office. But he also asked that fatal question, kisne jalayee aag (who lit the fire?)? Mr. Vajpayee declared himself a "swayamsevak" to a rapturous NRI gathering in the United States and later gave the gloss of "national sentiment" to the divisive Ram temple agenda. As for Mr. Advani, whatever his private shortcomings in relation to the RSS, in public perception he was ever the proud warrior, the hero of the Ram temple movement and the man who bound the BJP forever to the RSS.

Value of office

The BJP and the RSS are extensions of each other. The BJP knows that alienating the RSS would mean alienating the thousands of Sangh workers who fetch it votes in election after election. On every occasion that the RSS switched its allegiance to another party, the BJP has suffered a devastating rout. The most glaring example of this was the general election of 1984 when the RSS cadre shifted en masse to the Congress. Equally, for all its fulmination against the current BJP leadership, the RSS knows that no other party can take it towards its ultimate goal of Hindu Rashtra. Certainly not Sonia Gandhi's Congress. The RSS knows the value of office and has made — and will make — compromises as and when necessary.

The RSS and its affiliates experienced a phenomenal surge in membership when the Jan Sangh was part of the Janata Party Government. Years later, with "Atalji" as Prime Minister, the RSS' clout increased manifold: it was now able to influence policy decisions and place its own people in important positions. Who can forget the midnight call Mr.Vajpayee received even as he was about to finalise his first cabinet? Can any other Union Minister for Education accomplish for the RSS what Murli Manohar Joshi so doggedly and systematically did in the six years that he occupied that crucial post?

The crisis in the BJP is real. It has severely hurt the party's image and its electoral prospects. Yet it is doubtful if the RSS-BJP differences would have come to a head if Mr. Vajpayee had won another term. There is quite a bit of play acting here — on both sides. The RSS may rail against the dilution of ideology brought about by the compulsions of coalition politics but it has never flinched from supporting coalitions if that was the only way to access power. As far back as 1967, the RSS endorsed the Jan Sangh's participation in coalition governments in the Hindi belt. Power remained a goal for the RSS even during the "dual membership" crisis that broke up the Janata Party in 1979.

Parivar folklore has it that the Jan Sangh gave up office to preserve its pristine ties with the RSS. In actual fact, it was the Charan Singh faction that walked out. The Jan Sangh not only stayed on in the Janata Party but tried its best to return to power by persuading the RSS to agree to a face-saving formula. The formula was that the RSS would itself — but only for public consumption — bar its membership to holders of elected office. At that time Mr.Vajpayee — again as part of a deal with the RSS — wrote an article critical of the RSS in The Indian Express. Said the article dated August 2, 1979: "It is possible that some people genuinely feel apprehensive about the RSS. A certain onus accordingly devolved on the RSS, an onus that has not been discharged effectively by the RSS."

That the RSS was very much in on this pragmatic project is evident from the fact that less than a year later Mr. Vajpayee became the founding president of the BJP. Years later, the RSS backed Mr. Vajpayee for another experiment in coalition governance — one that lasted six years.

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