With the BJP in power at the Centre since 2014 there is growing interest in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is perceived as the power behind the throne. Is this true? How much does RSS influence the government of the day? How does it use this influence? Is policymaking in the government dependent on the diktats of the RSS or is the reverse correct? More importantly, what role did RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat play in bringing the BJP and Narendra Modi to power? With the 2019 election not too far away, what is the critical thinking in the upper echelons of the Sangh? How does it propose to forge an alliance that will propel the saffron party to power again?
Mohan Bhagwat: Influencer-in-Chief looks incisively at the Sangh and its world view, its inner workings, and how it has molded the Indian mind-set. It also focuses on Mohan Bhagwat and examines what propels him to action to spread the influence of the Sangh across the nation.
Rich in its detail and insight, this is a must-read for those interested in contemporary India and its future direction.
Kingshuk Nag is among India’s leading political and business journalists, who has worked in New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad. Presently, the Editor ofFinapolis, an e-weekly paper targeted at investors, Nag served for twenty-four years at The Times of India holding senior editorial positions. A prolific non-fiction writer, this is his eighth book. Nag’s earlier books include biographies of Narendra Modi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Subhas Chandra Bose, the BJP, Vijay Mallya and the Kingfisher scam, Ramalinga Raju and the Satyam scam. Below you can read an excerpt from his book, Mohan Bhagwat: Influencer-in-Chief. Courtesy: Rupa.
An Excerpt from Mohan Bhagwat: Influencer-in-Chief
Is Modi Helping Bhagwat?
Much of what Bhagwat wants can be implemented only with the full cooperation of the Modi government. So is the Modi government cooperating? On the face of it, yes. But there is a lot that is hidden. Many analysts believe that there have been so many crossovers from the RSS to the BJP that the boundaries between the two have now been erased. This is both true and untrue. Ever since it was founded in 1980, almost all the top guns of the BJP have been from the RSS. In fact, the BJP is seen as the political wing of the RSS.
However, ever since Modi came to power, he has kept the RSS at arm’s length. This is true to Modi’s nature, he usually does not like sharing power with anybody else. Ministers have, however, been cajoled to take a junior RSS man each in their personal secretariat. But that is about all. The buzz is that Modi does not entertain too many individual requests from the Sangh. In fact, it is said that he controls the activities of all ministers through his overpowering omnipresent Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The only minister who has a free hand is Nitin Gadkari. An MP from Nagpur, location of the headquarters of the RSS, Gadkari is close to their top leadership. If the grapevine is to be believed, he was the preferred prime ministerial choice of the Sangh before Modi emerged all powerful and his choice became a kind of fait accompli.
But Modi knows that Bhagwat is interested in social change and reconception of the idea of India. That would mean an interest in the work of the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Human Resource Development. So Modi, it seems, has ordered his relevant ministers to cooperate with the RSS. This has made Bhagwat happy. An important point to note here is that Bhagwat possesses a high level of emotional intelligence, so even if he is miffed with Modi on some account he will be the last man to make a public display of it. So, everything appears hunky-dory at present, unlike in the Vajpayee era when then Sarsanghchalak K. Sudarshan would often shoot his mouth off. This is a smart thing to do, because the public differences, if any, are bound to be exploited by the opposition.
On matters of economic policy, the Modi government hardly takes cues from the RSS or its affiliate bodies. The RSS feels that the government is too liberal on foreign direct investment (FDI) and has opened the door too wide. All this affects self-reliance. It is also unhappy that the government has failed to rein in the Chinese whose goods have swamped all sectors. But Modi’s men say that they are doing as much as can be done in the era of globalization. The Flipkart-Walmart deal in May 2018 has also raised the hackles of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), an affiliate of the RSS. The SJM avers that this is a back door entry for foreign retailers and will put small domestic players at a great disadvantage.
There is a belief in some quarters of the Sangh Parivar that Modi may be trying to control the RSS by promoting ‘his men’ in the Sangh. Apparently, this is with the objective of ensuring that his writ runs smoothly and seamlessly across the entire Sangh Parivar. It is being said that Modi wanted Sah Sarkaryavah Dattatreya Hosabale (who is very close to him) to be elevated to the position of sarkaryavah (the number two official of the Sangh) for obvious reasons in 2015 and in 2018. But the attempt did not succeed. Two senior RSS insiders, separately quizzed by this author, dismissed it by saying that this was a ‘media manufactured story’. When pressed further, one of them said, ‘Even if he wants to control the Sangh, as if we will allow.’ The other said, ‘It is not so simple.’
Speaking at the Bombay Stock Exchange in April 2018, Bhagwat was quite clear that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) does not reflect India’s economic performance as it is ‘a foreign concept’. He said, ‘There are countries that have rejected the concept of GDP. Bhutan has a happiness index. In the Indian context this may not be suitable. So we can come up with our own index for measuring growth, but this should be based on empowerment of all.’ Bhagwat, in the course of his talk, rejected the concept of a cashless economy (that Modi had been propagating after demonetization) and said that Air India should be sold only to an Indian group. The government was offering to offload shares up to 74 per cent to private parties that did not preclude foreign partners. Due to the lack of any bids the sale of Air India is now stalled but the fact is that the government is in principle ready to sell it to a foreign airline.
The change in cabotage rules in May 2018 that allows foreign-owned ships to transport goods between Indian ports may also fall foul of the RSS. Though the shipping minister, Nitin Gadkari, is close to the RSS leadership, the fact is that such concessions are not allowed to foreign lines even in the US and China.
In public, Bhagwat speaks glowingly about Modi, though a bit obliquely sometimes. On 12 July 2017, speaking at a book release function, Bhagwat said,1 ‘If we give it some thought it was his not-so-famous journey till he became chief minister that led to such brightness surrounding his journey as chief minister and prime minister. The outside world would have little time to appreciate his work, if he remained in the RSS.’ Bhagwat also spoke about Modi’s attributes like hard work, courage, patience, wisdom, strength and valour, and claimed that ‘publicity and fame’ had not affected him. At another time before his election as prime minister, Bhagwat had compared Modi to Shivaji.
However, Bhagwat is critical of Modi (albeit indirectly) when the circumstances so merit. At the beginning of April 2018, speaking at the book release function of a Foreign Service officer in Pune, Bhagwat was quoted as saying, ‘Nation-building cannot be the work of one man; it has to be inclusive and requires contribution of both the ruling party and opposition parties.’2 He went on to say that terms like ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ were mere political slogans and were not in the lexicon of the Sangh which did not believe in excluding anyone. The remarks caused much consternation because Modi had been freely resorting to comments like the above and analysts saw Bhagwat’s utterances as expressing disapproval of Modi’s language.
There have been subtle attempts to pit Bhagwat against Modi but the former has not risen to the bait. When the Shiv Sena proposed Bhagwat’s name for the president of India’s post after Pranab Mukherjee concluded his term, something seemed out of place. The Sena said that if India had to be made a Hindu Rashtra then Bhagwat was the most suitable candidate. The suggestion was bandied about in the media before Bhagwat remarked that this was ‘entertainment news’. He added, in a report filed by PTI, ‘When we joined the Sangh, we closed doors to all other possibilities. We work only for the Sangh and society.’3 Detractors of Modi had hoped that Bhagwat would become the president of India and would set upon a collision path with the prime minister. But that was not to be.
Sources in the top echelons of the Sangh seriously believe that it is not Modi’s popularity that brought the BJP to power. Nor is it the goof-ups by the UPA government in its second term—2009–14. Rather, it is the social change wrought by the continual work done by the RSS over years that created an environment conducive for the BJP. This being the case, Bhagwat believes in keeping Modi under check. A good example is the choice of Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of UP over Modi’s preferred choice—Manoj Sinha, the minister of state for telecom. However, the matter was handled delicately by both Bhagwat and Modi so that there were no bad vibes. Adityanath was later sent by the RSS to Kerala and Karnataka to campaign, raising his profile to almost an all-India level.
1 ‘RSS chief Bhagwat releases book on PM Modi: The Making Of A Legend’, Hindustan Times, 12 July 2017.
2 Shoumojit Banerjee, ‘Congress-mukt Bharat not Sangh’s language: Bhagwat’, The Hindu, 2 April 2018.
3 Not interested in President’s post: RSS chief Bhagwat’, The Tribune, 29 March 2017.