Debating India

The return of the swayamsevak

Monday 2 May 2005, by KHARE*Harish

Atal Bihari Vajpayee ... back to his roots?

Now that Mr. Vajpayee is no longer Prime Minister he has no hesitation in asserting his RSS links.

THE OFFICIALLY transcribed record of the Lok Sabha debates on April 26, 2005 shows the former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as saying: "I have been associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh since my childhood..." Thereafter, there were interruptions, according to the record.

This innocuous sentence reveals quite a bit of the sometime on and sometime off relationship between the Sangh and Mr. Vajpayee. The April 26 statement should, in particular, disappoint all those who jumped to Mr. Vajpayee’s defence when RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan recently delivered an unusually harsh indictment on his Prime Ministerial record.

However, the April 26, 2005, declaration has to be juxtaposed with a similar affirmation by Mr. Vajpayee in September 2000. He was then Prime Minister and had gone to New York to attend the United National General Assembly session. During his stay he found time to travel to Staten Island to share a Vishwa Hindu Parishad platform and declare himself a swayamsevak. He spoke of "dreams" which remained unfulfilled because the Bharatiya Janata Party lacked a two-third majority in the Lok Sabha.

Damage control

Within hours of Mr. Vajpayee’s "I, too, am a swayamsevak" affirmation the Prime Minister’s media managers launched a damage limitation exercise and tried to play on the "sevak" (servant) theme rather than the defining "swayamsevak" phraseology. Surely, the Prime Minister could not be seen as proclaiming his partisan affiliation, that too when he was on an official visit abroad, representing all Indians.

True, Prime Minister Vajpayee did participate in the annual RSS ritual of guru-dakshina (the swayamsevak’s reverential homage to the guru/leader), which used to be held on the sprawling lawns of ministerial bungalows in New Delhi. But the entire ceremony - and especially Mr. Vajpayee’s participation - was never flaunted.

In 1998, when Mr. Vajpayee was marketed as the man to answer India’s prayers there was this small question of his association with the RSS. As it were, the BJP’s detractors resurrected an article in the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, on May 7, 1995. The article, "The Sangh is My Soul," penned by Mr. Vajpayee, had very provocative formulations on the Muslim community in India.

These views were totally at variance with the image of the "liberal Vajpayee" that was being sought to be marketed. Mr. Vajpayee took the unusual recourse of suggesting that he had not written the controversial article and that he had merely given an interview to the RSS magazine and that the interviewer had taken liberties his with opinions.

Spin-doctoring

Too much attention on this swayamsevak business was not good spin-doctoring on the eve of the Lok Sabha elections.

Once Mr. Vajpayee became Prime Minister he did not proclaim too loudly his RSS connection. He never visited the RSS headquarters at Jhandewalan, a gesture L.K. Advani, for example, often made.

Now that Mr. Vajpayee is no longer Prime Minister he has no hesitation in asserting his RSS links, sending out a loud and clear message not only to the sangh parivar but also to liberal India. The swayamsevak is back.

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