Debating India

POLITICS

An RSS action plan

Venkitesh RAMAKRISHNAN

Friday 15 January 1999, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 16, n?01, Jan. 02 - 15, 1999.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is unhappy with the direction taken by the Vajpayee Government and is working on strategies that will help it achieve its political objectives.

in New Delhi

THE period between the conclusion of the winter session of Parliament in December and the opening of the Budget session in February has been identified by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as the time for rajneethik manthan (political churning), a process that would churn out ideas and strategies for political advancement. Preparatory to this, a five-day chinthan baithak (introspection meet) was held in Nagpur between December 8 and 13, which was attended by the top brass of the RSS and representatives of all Sangh Parivar organisations such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) and the Bajrang Dal. Other programmes include the national executive meeting of the BJP in Bangalore on January 2 and 3 and the dharam sansad of the VHP from February 5 to 7 at Karnavati in Ahmedabad. Concrete proposals to carry forward the "temple agitations" at Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura would come up for discussion at these forums. The basic objective of all these is to evolve ways and means to ensure the ascendancy of the Sangh Parivar in national politics.

All these efforts are based on the premise that the Sangh Parivar has not been able to make the kind of gains it expected by remaining in power at the Centre for the last nine months. The stunning defeat the BJP suffered in the November Assembly elections and the drop in the popularity rating of the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led Government and the BJP have contributed to this perception. The RSS, the parent organisation of the Sangh Parivar, has expressed clearly its dissatisfaction at this state of affairs.

Briefing newspersons on December 14 at the end of the chinthan baithak, RSS joint secretary K.S. Sudershan stated with uncharacteristic candour that the organisation was "not happy" with the functioning of the Government. BJP president Khushabhau Thakre, the party’s spokesperson M. Venkaiah Naidu and prominent leaders such as K. N. Govindacharya and Narendra Modi, apparently concur with this view. Other important leaders who attended the chintan baithak included Acharya Giriraj Kishore (VHP), Dattopant Thengdi (BMS), Bal Apte (ABVP) and Jaibhan Singh Pawaiyya (Bajrang Dal).

IF Sudershan’s statement and some of the resolutions passed at the meeting were anything to go by, the reason for the overall dissatisfaction is that "the Vajpayee Government is giving in to immediate constraints, including pressures from international agencies, without considering the long-term implications." According to Sudershan, the resolutions cited decision such as the introduction of the Insurance Regulatory Authority (IRA) Bill, the ban on sale of common salt and the move to allow 100 per cent foreign investment in the manufacture of cigarettes. All these measures, he pointed out, went against the "swadeshi" economics adopted by the Sangh Parivar and were bound to lead the country into a financial crisis like the one witnessed in South-East Asian countries such as Indonesia. But it appears that the meeting did not condemn the Vajpayee Government altogether; actions such as the May nuclear tests, the setting up of the Cauvery River Water Dispute Authority and the increase in the allocation for rural development came in for praise.

Sudershan said that the RSS and other members of the Parivar were not happy with the Government’s approach to several vital economic issues. This view was reflected in the BMS’ protest the IRA Bill and in the resignation of Thengdi from the task force on employment generation set up by the Prime Minister. Thengdi’s resignation brought about by the appointment of Planning Commission member Montek Singh Ahluwalia, a votary of the economic liberalisation programme, as chairman of the task force. In a letter to the Prime Minister, Thengdi describes Ahluwalia as "a person who has never lived in a village nor knows anything about the problems faced by the people residing in villages." The very act of his appointment to the position showed that the Government was not serious about finding real solutions to problems that needed to be addressed by the task force, he said. Despite these fulminations by senior leaders of the Sangh Parivar, the Government is continuing with its economic liberalisation agenda.

The Sangh Parivar is worried about this divergence of opinion on major issues, which could perhaps cause a permanent rupture between the RSS and the BJP leaders in the Government. Some people in the Sangh Parivar do not rule out this possibility. A VHP leader says that apart from the policy aberrations, the RSS top brass is upset with the pursuit of private agendas by several leaders in the Ministry and once the decision is taken there will be no problem in dumping them, whatever their standing or their past association with the RSS." The leader also added that there was a theoretical possibility of the RSS switching support to a new political organisation. (The RSS supported the Congress(I) led by Rajiv Gandhi in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections despite the presence of the BJP on the political scene.) In support of this theory, this section of the Sangh Parivar highlighted Sudershan’s remark that "all parties are equal for the RSS."

However, there are not many takers for this line of thinking. The overwhelming view among those who took part in the chinthan baithak was that the present phase of divergence of view was temporary and that the RSS would re-assert itself to guide the BJP and its Government in the "right direction". It is in this context that the personality factor acquires importance. What stood out right through the offensive unleashed by the RSS top brass, especially BMS leaders, was that it was directed more against Vajpayee than against any other leader in his Ministry. Thengdi’s letter to Vajpayee is not the only case in point. His attack was more direct at a rally of BMS activists held in New Delhi, to protest against the IRA Bill. Thengdi said at the rally that "Vajpayee should learn from the experiences of Nehru and (former United States President) Woodrow Wilson that they lost their credibility because of selfish advisers." Other RSS leaders too are reportedly cut up with Vajpayee and hold him responsible for the policy aberrations. So, one projection within the Sangh Parivar is that once the leader of the Government is changed, the RSS will be able to make the Government fall in line.

However, Sangh Parivar insiders agree that it is not easy for the RSS top brass to effect a change of leadership in the Government with a single diktat. Such a task would have been relatively smooth in a party that is not as big as the present BJP, which has a massive presence of members without an RSS background. The fact that the coalition Government’s survival depends on many non-Hindutva parties, which forged an alliance with the BJP on account of the liberal image of Vajpayee, is also a restraining element. By the RSS’ own assessment, allies such as the Trinamul Congress would rally round Vajpayee if there was a move to replace him.

ANOTHER problem with this proposal is that there is no agreement within the RSS on a successor. While Home Minister L.K. Advani is the natural choice for many persons, including the present Sarsanghchalak Rajendra Singh, leaders such as Thengdi and H.V. Seshadri prefer Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, for he is closer at heart to the "basic agenda of the RSS, such as swadeshi, the temple agitations and the singing of Vande Mataram." By all indications, one of the objectives of the meetings being organised by the Sangh Parivar constituents is to take a decision on this issue.

Meanwhile, the moves Advani has been making of late point towards an effort to position himself in such a manner that he emerges the winner. Advani has tried to present himself as a leader with as moderate an image as that of Vajpayee. His recent utterances terming the demolition of the Babri Masjid as unfortunate is a case in point. Five years ago, he did not consider that the demolition was an unfortunate event. In an interview to Frontline in August 1993, Advani equated the action of the kar sevaks to the Naval Mutiny of 1947.

However, of late, at meeting after meeting, Advani has been almost reproachful of the kar sevaks action. This, coupled with his support to the policy of economic liberalisation, his supporters hope, should stand him in good stead with the liberal crowd and allies such as the Trinamul Congress and the Samata Party, which have a Muslim support base.

Another advantage that Advani has, according to one of his close associates in the higher echelons of the BJP, "is the credibility he enjoys with large sections of the RSS top brass." Notwithstanding his efforts to develop a moderate image and his advocacy of the policy of economic liberalisation, Advani remains the most acceptable BJP politician to Rajendra Singh and Sudershan. According to a BJP leader, "the reason is not far to seek. After all, Advani is the original champion of the Hindutva agenda and it was he who led the rath yatra of 1989 that gave the party to its present strength." Again it is no secret that the Sangh Parivar was not happy with the performance of the BJP during the 1980-84 period when it was under Vajpayee’s leadership. Vajpayee argued that the party had to enter the mainstream of national politics on the platforms of secularism and Gandhian Socialism. Many RSS leaders are of the view that Vajpayee was trying to take the BJP out of RSS control. In contrast, the period after 1986, which marked the rise of Advani and the aggressive pursuit of the Hindutva agenda, is rated as the time when RSS control over the BJP was the firmest.

The leader added that too much meaning should not be read into the opposition of the RSS leadership to the economic policy flip-flop. "Remember," he said, "the RSS is capable of taking tactical positions for the advancement of its larger political goals as in 1977 when it directed the Jan Sangh to merge with an entity like the Janata Party, which had a sizable presence of Socialists and Congress(O) activists." The idea then was that the merger would, in the short- and medium-term, help the Sangh Parivar’s interests. And the RSS does rate the 1977-79 period as politically rewarding. Similarly, the leader pointed out, if the political and leadership situations are correct, the RSS might even advance an ideal combination of swadeshi and liberalisation. All this makes Advani the frontrunner if and when the leadership change takes place.

However, the success of the plan to effect a change in the leadership would depend on the counter manoeuvres of Vajpayee supporters. By all indications, Vajpayee is determined to deploy his popular appeal - although much of it has been lost during his nine months in power - as also his equations with the alliance partners to fight back. The induction of Jaswant Singh and Pramod Mahajan into the Ministry and the decision not to reinduct Sushma Swaraj (she is considered close to Advani) are clear indications of his resolve.

According to a section of the Sangh Parivar, if the present struggle for supremacy turns into a war of attrition, in which no side can win, some RSS leaders might even think in terms of supporting non-BJP leaders, who are acceptable to them, for the top post. Whatever the net result, it is certain that with the present struggle and the intrigues that have emerged in its context, the Sangh Parivar has started resembling the Congress(I) in many ways. And certainly it is not a comparison that Parivar leaders can be proud of.