I wrote this contribution in The Pioneer on the changes in the RSS. It is a personal view of the challenges that the new sarsanghachalak needs to address:
There is often a striking mismatch between how the media paints an event and how the actors in the drama perceive it. The appointment of Mohan Bhagwat as the new sarsanghachalak of the RSS was viewed by many through the prism of factional alignments in the BJP. In view of the ongoing general election campaign and the political importance of the BJP this was, perhaps, predictable. Viewed from the perspective of the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, however, electoral politics didn’t enter the calculations.
The RSS has traditionally viewed politics as a necessary but disagreeable facet of national life—one purist equated politics to the toilet in the home. From its perspective, the regeneration of India cannot be brought about by politics but only through the spread of worthwhile values in civil society. As an institution, the RSS has invariably chosen to sidestep the murky world of politics—though it has not always succeeded. Bhagwat’s elevation to the top position may have incidental political fallout, but it was not premised on politics. It centred on the creation of an ethical, nationalist leadership with tentacles in all walks of life.
The issue that is foremost in the mind of the RSS—which Bhagwat alluded to in his first public address after assuming charge—is the challenge of “modernity.” To a very large extent, the organisational and ideological priorities of the RSS were determined and moulded by an India that existed prior to the post-1991 economic transformation. The daily shakhas, with its blend of physical fitness, fun and some food for thought, held a great attraction in an unhurried world. In small towns and closely-knit mohallas, parents were happy to send their sons to the shakhas because the atmosphere was wholesome. In the absence of too many distractions and other leisure opportunities, the shakhas became a centre of community bonding.
The emergence of a fiercely competitive world and the mushrooming of leisure opportunities have dented some of the austere assumptions that defined the RSS till the 1990s. The RSS is still perceived as one of the most important load-bearing pillars of what can loosely be called the Hindutva movement. However, this has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the importance of the shakhas. The difficulties faced by the RSS are also a consequence of a fierce political-media onslaught that has painted the entire brotherhood as a secretive, backward-looking bunch of monsters committed to harassing non-Hindus.
There is an additional paradox. The Hindutva movement touched a political nerve of Middle India during the Ayodhya movement. Since the mid-1990s, however, the importance of Hindutva as a political rallying point has steadily declined. Yet, ironically, the importance of Hindutva as a social and even religious phenomenon has increased quite dramatically. The spread of “evangelical Hindutva” centred on modern gurus, yoga and TV discourses has kept pace with the modernisation of India. There is a new symbolism and even a modern iconography of the new Hindutva which is sharply removed from the symbols of the RSS.
Additionally, there is a new, assertive patriotism in the country. The public discourse, particularly the English media discourse, may be overwhelmed by secularist cosmopolitanism but Indians have simultaneously become more aware of their Indian and Hindu identities. The Indian flag is far more visible today than was the case two decades or so ago. Indians today feel a greater pride in being Indian than during the shortage economy era. In the diaspora, this has translated into Hindu pride and even Hindu activism.
Yet, and this is another paradox, the rise of a fiercely patriotic Indian hasn’t necessarily seen a corresponding strengthening of Indian nationalism—at least not politically. Narendra Modi may be the exception. The Gujarat Chief Minister has grafted the energies of a modern society on a Sangh tradition. This is an experience waiting to be more widely emulated.
As the head of India’s foremost Hindu movement, these are some of the challenges before Bhagwat. How can the RSS connect more effectively with the new India? How can the movement incorporate change without losing sight of its core values?
In many ways, Bhagwat is ideally placed to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. As general secretary of the organisation during the tenure of K.S. Sudarshan, he has formidable organisational experience and familiarity with the entire country. This is coupled by ideological rigour.
Having interacted with Bhagwat on at least six different occasions, I have been struck by the fact that his firm commitment to the RSS ideology is not coupled with dogmatism. Unlike some RSS functionaries who are trapped in an insular mutt culture—the Sangh is their entire world—Bhagwat seems acutely aware that the Hindu movement runs on many parallel tracks and, sometimes, on different assumptions. It is this recognition of plurality—an essential facet of the Hindu inheritance—that sets him apart from those who want the Hindu movement to be modelled along Leninist lines—the hegemonic role of the Sangh. In the coming days, I see the RSS under Bhagwat retreating from micro-management of its fraternal organisations and according great space for a varied articulation of Hindutva. Naturally, this will have a bearing on the future orientation of the BJP. As the head of the parivar, Bhagwat’s responsibility is to both guide and ensure that the different streams are in broad harmony.
The challenges before Bhagwat are daunting. This is not because either the Sangh or the Hindutva movement is in crisis but because the opportunities presented by the new, assertive India haven’t been fully realised. How the Sangh chief negotiates his way through these multiple openings and reaches out to the whole of India will be keenly scrutinised in the coming years.