A year ago, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat brushed aside opposition from within the organisation to back Narendra Modi, saying his leadership and projection were imperative for recharging the BJP.
But on March 9, Bhagwat surprised many in the BJP when he said in Banglaore: “Chanting NaMo NaMo (reference to Modi’s moniker) is not our issue. Our focus is on the issues before the nation. We have to keep in mind we are not a political party.”
Modi — he used to be a pracharak — owes it to the RSS, BJP’s ideological parent, for his anointment as the saffron party’s prime ministerial candidate. BJP too had acknowledged Bhagwat’s choice of Modi as beneficial for the party.
Yet, with less than a month left for the first phase of Lok Sabha polls, Bhagwat sought to remind his cadres that they should not get into BJP’s personality-driven campaign during the election.
Read: RSS can't chant Namo Namo: Mohan Bhagwat
Was it a signal from the RSS chief to maintain distance from Modi and the BJP? Or did he make a tactical mistake by embarrassing Modi with his remark? The controversy, BJP and RSS insiders say, may have little bearing on Modi’s or BJP’s poll prospects because of the current mood of the electorate. But it could be seen as a shot in the arm for some BJP leaders who are yet to come to terms with Modi-centred talk within the party.
Bhagwat’s message to swayamsevaks was regarded in line with the Sangh’s policy to be cautious about promoting a personality cult while supplementing the BJP’s poll efforts. At the same time, the RSS would not like to come across as trying to create last-minute hurdles for Modi, BJP’s best bet for the prime minister’s post, and spoiling the party’s chance of coming to power after a decade.
A media release the RSS issued on March 11 justified why icons like Modi are important. “In present times, icons are needed in election campaign. It is the prerogative of the party to choose their leader to lead the campaign and BJP has chosen their leader accordingly,” it said.
Sangh leaders said that the RSS-Modi relationship has had several ups and downs. But RSS followers do not find anything new in this; the organisation has often tried to strike a balance between playing a ‘detached’ mentor and be the driving force.
In 2010, RSS emerged from behind the scenes to pick Nitin Gadkari as head of the party during a difficult phase. The move ended up in embarrassment after Gadkari ruffled feathers in the BJP with his ‘NGO style’ of functioning and landed in a controversy over investment in his Purti Group in Maharashtra. Many in the BJP as well as the Sangh questioned Bhagwat’s choice too.
Again in the 1990s and during NDA rule, the RSS chose Atal Bihari Vajpayee over its ‘blue-eyed boy’ LK Advani, who had emerged popular after the Ram temple stir. The RSS was never comfortable with Vajpayee’s larger-than-life image.
Read: RSS to initiate legal action against Rahul Gandhi
This time, victory the key word
* Mohan Bhagwat’s disdain for ‘NaMo NaMo’ chant ruffles feathers in BJP
* His remark seen as a bid to prevent RSS cadres from being swayed by Modi’s personality
* But for the Lok Sabha polls, RSS has put its weight behind Modi to steer BJP to victory
* Sangh leaders are excited by the prospect of Modi, a pracharak, becoming PM
* RSS was forced to accept former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s larger-than-life image because he was popular
* LK Advani was iconic too but fell out of the Sangh’s favour for eulogising Pakistan founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah in 2006
* In 2009, RSS swallowed its pride to go along with BJP’s move to project Advani as PM candidate