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RSS playing a mediator role, says author Walter Andersen

RSS watcher and author Walter Andersen examines the dilemmas Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is facing and its relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2018 23:51 IST
Smriti Kak Ramachandran
Smriti Kak Ramachandran
New Delhi, Hindustan Times
RSS,Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,Walter Andersen
Professor Walter Anderson says the Rashtriya Swayamswvak Sangh survives because of what it offers ideologically, organisationally, and unlike the BJP, does not need votes.(AFP File Photo)

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fount of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is clear that it is not a political entity, but understands the necessity of being involved in policy making, which affects its affiliates, says RSS watcher and author Walter Andersen, whose new book on the Sangh, ‘RSS: A View to the Inside,’ co-written by co-author Sridhar Damle , will be released later this year.

Three decades ago, Andersen and Damle co-wrote ‘The Brotherhood In Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism’, widely considered the most authoritative book on the organisation.

With unparalleled access to the Sangh and BJP’s leadership, Andersen has continued to study Indian politics. Andersen has also served as chief of the US State Department’s South Asia Division in the Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia. He has also been a special assistant to the ambassador at the US embassy in New Delhi.

In an interview to HT, Andersen, who serves as senior adjunct professor of South Asia Studies at Johns Hopkins University and is affiliated with Tongji University in Shanghai, said the RSS had emerged as the populist critic of the BJP government and intermittently, through public comments and decisions, affirmed it does not take orders from the party or the Prime Minister. Excerpts:

How do you perceive RSS’s role in contemporary polity?

The RSS is a parivar (family) that is becoming increasingly big, there are 36 organisations that are formally linked to it, but there are hundreds more that have informal links.

RSS is at the centre of these broad range of groups, such as the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, which also has different views from the BJP. Increasingly its role is that of a mediator. You will see it in a number of cases, for instance when Narendra Modi was nominated as the Prime Minister, it was the RSS that called on LK Advani and convinced him to go along.

Some in the RSS feel they should continue with their orthodox ideological stance; the younger ones want changes. What do you make of this dilemma?

It is a wrong assumption that RSS is a group that does not change, is unified and there is no internal debate. There are instances to show this, take the case of rebellion in Goa, when the RSS leader Subhash Velingkar took on chief minister Manohar Parrikar over the decision to continue supporting English-language Roman Catholic schools. Even though the RSS feels education should be in the mother tongue, in this case they bowed to political necessity, since the BJP in Goa receives Roman Catholic support.

Look at the issue of beef consumption in the North-East. The RSS has been silent on the issue, because that is not expedient. But there are three tensions that it faces.

What are those?

It is at a crossroads and one tension is how political should it be. There is a strong sense in the RSS that politics is for politicians. But here the tail wags the dog, almost all of its affiliates in some ways depend on working with the government; therefore, they have become more conscious of policy issues. A senior functionary told me we don’t want to become the Ramakrishna Mission, it has no influence any more.

The second dilemma is Hindu vs Hindutva.

The RSS is against caste differences and wants to unite all Hindus, but that is diametrically opposed to the essence of much of what Hinduism is about: caste hierarchy. These differences come out in ironic ways, look at Ghar Wapsi (reconversion). You reconvert, but what caste do you reconvert to?

Also, are they willing to push the membership to give up caste? I haven’t seen that.

The third challenge is the linkages to the BJP. RSS has a liaison to the BJP and there are some government types who attend their meetings, the issue here is how intimate do you want that relationship to be. I don’t think they have decided on that. Some feel they need to be more influential while others feel they undermine their essence if they do that.

How has the BJP-RSS equation evolved under RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and Narendra Modi?

RSS asserts it is not the BJP. And in many way it is not the BJP. It survives because of what it offers ideologically and organisationally, and unlike the BJP does not need votes. We now see Amit Shah (BJP president) broadening the base of the BJP and getting for example the North-East, which was a success because of the wholesale migration from the Congress to the BJP. But this upsets some RSS people, because they see this as diluting the message while others recognise it as a political necessity.

The RSS looks ahead a hundred years. When Modi was nominated as PM, there was real fear of it happening that the RSS would be subsumed within the BJP. Both Bhagwat and Modi recognise they have a role to play and know the importance of the organisation, Modi’s is to win elections and providing backdrop for policies that are favourable to the affiliates and RSS’s is to ensure support in these elections.

Bhagwat is a diplomat and he knows it doesn’t serve anyone’s purpose, certainly not the organisations to have a contentious relationship. He has encouraged meetings to help people understand where people stand.

What can you tell us about the RSS’s footprint abroad?

There is vigorous outward reach programme; when Hindus leave, they keep up contact with them. They have affiliates in 31 countries, they mostly go by the name of the HSS (Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh). In the US for example, they have family-organised Shakhas, with monthly and weekly programmes. HSS was instrumental in organising the public appearance for Modi in Madison Square. It was financed, organised and staffed by them and they did it for Modi, but it was an expression of loyalty for the motherland.

In their local shakhas they have had to change the focus a bit. They organise a lot of money for helping others, in Texas after the two hurricanes they sent several hundred people and doctors to help at their own cost.

The Opposition says the 2019 elections will very polarised on account of the ideology pursued by the RSS-BJP. What do you make of such comments?

They have a strong commitment to Hindutva.

Many in the far right feel empowered by their power and you get the beef controversy. Most of the cases I looked at, it is not the RSS or the BJP that have pushed for this (polarisation) to happen, but people on the far right.

There has been a certain caution on their part on how to respond to this; they know on the foreign policy front this is bad for India’s image. They have to respond in a way that they do not drive away the Muslims or their core constituency.

First Published: Apr 10, 2018 23:50 IST