The writer is a Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right.

Master and the past master

Published Mar 14, 2014, 7:03 am IST
Updated Apr 8, 2019, 5:16 pm IST
The quandary of RSS leadership stems from the fact that neither can it jettison Mr Modi nor can it completely allow him a free run
RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat | PTI
 RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat | PTI

Among major narratives in this election season, the sub-plot between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh top brass and Narendra Modi is among the bewitching ones. It is a classic tale of a skewed guru-shishya relationship though this is not the first time that a friction of sorts has surfaced between the RSS leadership and Mr Modi, or between him and his former gurus. There is an aspect of his personality which makes him outgrow the teacher much to their chagrin.

Sangh Parivar loyalists will argue that there is nothing wrong in this affiliation, that the media distorted a speech of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. It is an old argument that while RSS works for a larger goal of promoting cultural nationalism, Bharatiya Janata Party and other affiliates have short-term goals — in this instance, BJP’s attempt to regain power. But since when has the RSS top brass become so sensitive to media reports so as to formally issue several rounds of clarification across various platforms, including the social media? There surely is a problem, but what is it?


To put it briefly, the quandary of the RSS leadership stems from the fact that neither can it jettison Mr Modi nor can it completely allow him a free run. In almost nine decades of its existence and more than 60 years after the RSS set up its political affiliate in 1951, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, RSS has never faced such a difficult situation in “managing” iconic leaders of its affiliates.

In June last, Mr Modi was named chief of the BJP’s campaign committee only after a direct push from the RSS leadership. He was subsequently formally anointed the party’s prime ministerial candidate in September following Nagpur’s go-ahead. The decision was preceded by an agonisingly long period during which leaders were afflicted by a Hamlet-like dilemma. And when the decision was eventually taken in Mr Modi’s favour, there were two factors that prompted it.


Firstly, there was groundswell of support for Mr Modi from the ranks of the RSS and unless the central leadership accepted this sentiment, it would have lost moral authority over the cadre. It would have added to erosion of its power over affiliated organisations, especially the BJP, as witnessed after Prof. Rajendra Singh stepped down as Sarsanghchalak in 2000. Secondly, the RSS accepted Mr Modi’s promotion because they considered him as the best electoral prospect among his peers or seniors in the BJP.

The political agenda of the RSS dropped off the centrestage after the shock defeat of the National Democratic Alliance in 2004 and Mr Modi provides the best chance to bring it back into the spotlight. However, the predicament with Mr Modi stemmed from the fact that despite cutting his teeth in the RSS and basic belief in its ideology, he often showed disregard for working within the hierarchy of the RSS and has a propensity for branching out as his own master.


Though the RSS does not control any of its affiliates in a direct day-to-day manner, it surely wants to be considered the moral authority and would like to use its veto powers whenever necessary.

There have been occasions when Mr Modi challenged this, especially with regard to personal authority of individual RSS leaders. On each occasion, he succeeded in holding his own because of electoral support.

The present dispute arises from what the RSS Sarsanghchalak, Mr Bhagwat, actually intended in his speech at the meeting of Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha recently held at Bengaluru.


Media reports said that Mr Bhagwat directed the RSS cadre to work only in a limited capacity for a political campaign aimed at making Mr Modi India’s Prime Minister. The day these reports appeared in a section of the press, Ram Madhav, one of the spokespersons of the RSS, and Manmohan Vaidya, Prachar Pramukh (publicity head), issued clarifications.

Mr Madhav tweeted that the media reports wrongly interpreted the RSS chief’s statement that the RSS would have its own focus while the BJP would have its own. In an amplified explanation, Mr Vaidya said that the Sarsanghchalak in his concluding remarks laid emphasis on the fact that they “are not working for any political party but for national interest. And after the electoral process is over, they should concentrate on their chosen work of nation building”. It would not require the wisdom of an insider to know that such a statement to the RSS cadre is bound to create an element of confusion especially when elections are less than a month away. No special access to Mr Modi is needed to also conclude that he would not have been particularly pleased at this elaborate effort to delineate the work of the Swayamsevak and party worker at this stage. Such a separation of goals could have been done later, possibly after the verdict.


To be fair to Mr Bhagwat, he preceded the postulation regarding the sharp demarcation of objectives of the RSS and the BJP by observing that the “BJP shares the views of RSS in many national issues” and that it would be “naturally benefitted” by the RSS campaign which is going to press for 100 per cent voting. Mr Bhagwat’s concluding remark significantly highlights the bind that the RSS is caught in: It cannot do away with Mr Modi because he represents the best chance for the organisation to stage a political comeback. Yet, they also fear him because of his ability to make it irrelevant in the event of securing a resounding mandate.


It is not that Mr Modi is completely comfortable with the RSS leadership. He has long held the view that after RSS pracharaks (which he was till 1987) get deputed to affiliated organisations they should no longer be considered as progenies but as equals. Day-to-day political strategising and administrative decisions — after becoming part of governance — will not succeed by constant monitoring.

Yet, the two uneasy partners in this alliance cannot but work together for the moment. The real challenge will come after the verdict. Will Mr Modi secure so massive a mandate that will leave RSS clamouring for attention? Or will the mandate be such that the strongman’s dependence on the RSS will increase? Or, maybe, the BJP does not get the mandate at all, forcing both camps to go back to the drawing board and rework their relationship.
We will know about this in the not very distant future.