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Shadowy men and public spaces

Harish Khare

Political parties are public institutions, not personal arrangements among private individuals. The BJP cannot be allowed to get away with the argument that its relationship with the RSS is its "internal" matter.

WHO IS Suresh Soni? Till a few weeks ago no reasonably well informed political journalist would have been able to identity the gentleman. But on Monday Mr. Soni was among the three Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh "commissars" who travelled from Nagpur to New Delhi to talk to the Bharatiya Janata Party leaders. The threesome read the riot act to BJP president L.K. Advani. Party spokesperson Sushma Swaraj insists the trio did not ask Mr. Advani to put in his papers. RSS spokesman Ram Madhav confined himself to saying that all that the RSS commissars had done was to impress upon the BJP leadership the need to remain unwaveringly loyal to the "ideology."

Who are these shadowy figures and what right and what legitimacy do they have to tell the senior leaders of a national party how to conduct themselves in matters political and public? The BJP is celebrating its golden jubilee this year and can collectively be deemed to be capable of acting autonomously. Till the other day the BJP was claiming to be a natural alternative to the Congress as the "governing party." Yet the entire party hierarchy was being treated like an errant child in need of a stern scold.

And, Mr. Advani is not a taluka level politician who needs to be instructed in the rites of political correctness by a superior functionary. Till a year ago, he was Deputy Prime Minister of India. Yet for weeks now the entire country — as also the rest of the world — has witnessed self-appointed controllers behaving as if it was within their power to terminate Mr. Advani's 50-year-long career in public life.

If Mr. Advani and Mr. Vajpayee find themselves at the mercy of the unknown, unelected, unaccountable Suresh Sonis and Mohan Bhagwats, it is because they and other BJP leaders continue to choose to owe "allegiance" to the Sangh and its hierarchy. Even when they were presiding over the Indian state they diligently attended the Sangh rituals of guru dakshina. So if the same "guru" or his coterie decides to act the headmaster, the BJP leadership cannot complain.

And, when George Fernandes publicly cautions the RSS brass not to meddle in matters political, Sushma Swaraj, Uma Bharti, and other assorted voices tell the National Democratic Alliance convener to mind his own business. But this line of argument can no longer work. When the RSS devised the Jan Sangh, it was a different India and a different era. Since then Indian democracy has learnt a thing or two about the virtues and demands of transparency, openness, accountability, and responsibility in the public space.

In 1949, the RSS gave an undertaking to Sardar Patel that it would remain a "cultural organisation" in return for the lifting of the ban that the Iron Man had imposed on the outfit after the Mahatma's assassination. If today that "cultural organisation" controls over 120 organisations of various hues and purposes, it is because the Advanis and the Vajpayees have opted to the elevate the BJP's hostage relationship to the RSS to inherently superior and spiritual ties. And if the RSS bosses want a favour returned, the BJP leaders cannot protest too much.

Political parties are public institutions, not personal arrangements among private individuals. Just as the informed public has a right to take a critical view of the stranglehold of families over other political parties, the public needs to know — and question — the RSS' right to determine the BJP's chehra (face) and charrit (personality). Mr. Mohan Bhagwat or K.S. Sudarshan never go before the Indian electorate, seeking approval, wanting a mandate to have a say in matters of polity and economy. It is a democratic incongruity that these gentlemen should be in a position to dictate things to those very leaders who engage with the voter.

Whatever be the inner organisational compulsions and personal calculations of the so-called "second generation" leaders, the BJP cannot be allowed to get away with the argument that its relationship with the RSS is its "internal" matter. This is the age of civil society, when even "reasons of state" is not a sufficient argument. Indeed no institution is beyond the pale of scrutiny. The armed forces are subjected to human rights regimes, governmental authorities are asked to respect `right to information' regimes, public officials are asked to reveal their personal assets and incomes. In this time and age, the RSS can neither be allowed to continue to function in a shadowy manner nor allowed any say in the matters of a political party working in the democratic space.

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