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Lok Sabha elections 2019: There’s a battle of narratives in Sangh’s LS election war rooms

In 2019, the electoral battle in many ways seems to be a replay of 2014.

lok-sabha-elections Updated: Mar 24, 2019 17:23 IST
Smriti Kak Ramachandran
Smriti Kak Ramachandran
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
he RSS also has another objective -- to protect itself from being demonised by the opposition.
he RSS also has another objective -- to protect itself from being demonised by the opposition.(REUTERS)
         

War against corruption and promises of development, employment and a stronger economy were the wheels on which the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election juggernaut rolled out in 2014. Yet, it was also an election fought laterally to choose a Hindu Hriday Samrat (emperor of Hindu hearts) who would fulfil the long-pending promise to build a grand temple on a disputed site in Ayodhya and help restore “Hindu pride”.

In 2019, the electoral battle in many ways seems to be a replay of 2014. The BJP is still talking of development and the economy and sidestepping contentious issues such as the Ram Temple promise, and left it to volunteers of its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to ensure its Hindu credentials are untarnished. “In 2014 it was a battle to appoint a ruler who would not overlook what the Hindus wanted. [PM Narendra] Modi is an exceptional Hindu and there are many misconceptions about him and the BJP’s tenure that need to be cleared,” said Bharat Sharma, who identifies with the ideology of the RSS and Veer Savarkar, but does not have a formal role in the organisation.

In the run-up to the elections, Sharma, like hundreds of other volunteers, is using social media and door-to-door contact programmes to sell the idea of Modi as the only credible choice.

That the RSS complements and supports the BJP, especially during elections is well-known. In small towns and big cities, across living rooms and in carefully guarded premises, war rooms have sprung up where warriors of the saffron ideology are helping the BJP.

Accomplishments of the government are rolled out in the form of quick takes on social media, speeches and writings centred around Hindutva or Hinduness, as the Sangh calls it, are shared through smartphones and there is fervent prodding to protect what is traditional and religious.

A case in point is the Sabarimala issue, on which the RSS pushed the BJP to oppose a Supreme Court decision to throw it open to women of childbearing age who had for decades been banned from entering the shrine on grounds that its presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, is celibate.

The RSS also has another objective -- to protect itself from being demonised by the opposition. And so, while the Opposition parties accuse the BJP of appropriating Sardar Patel, who was instrumental in banning RSS after Mahatam Gandhi’s assassination; a second group of volunteers has culled information from books about how Patel did not demonise the RSS and how he was let down by first Prime Minister Jawaharalal Nehru.

“We counter the misinformation about the RSS,” said a volunteer who did not wish to be named. He cited books such as With No Ill-Feeling to Anybody by MKK Nair, a former bureaucrat, that are used to counter “propaganda against the Sangh”.

All questions about the unfulfilled promises of Modi --from the construction of the Ram Temple to creation of millions of jobs-- are summarily brushed aside. “He has brought back Hindu pride by banning anti-India non- government organisations; breaking the back of terror funding that was used to attack Hindus; look at the spectacle that was the Kumbh mela; and no one in BJP indulges in appeasement and politics of optics. If people can’t see it, it is their fault,” said Sharma.

A BATTLE OF THE NARRATIVES

Explicit in its zeal to protect Hindu identity and nationalistic sentiment, the Sangh has sounded the bugle for the 2019 battle. This election will be fought on the basis of a definite narrative, said a senior RSS functionary. “The issue of us versus them; where us are the nationalistic forces and them represents forces out to destroy India,” he said.

A plan has been finalised. Volunteers at three levels—centre, state and district—have spread out with the message of protecting the country against the idea of “breaking India” and while doing so, the recent armed action against terror operatives has become a reference point for identifying a government that means business. On February 26, Indian Air Force planes bombed a terrorist camp deep inside Pakistan in reprisal for the February 14 suicide car bombing in Pulwama that left 40 Indian troopers dead.

The RSS brass has already set the agenda for its volunteers to ensure 100% voter turnout. Sangh leaders, through their trademark cryptic messaging, have relayed the need to pick a “nationalistic government”.

“For the RSS, the current elections are not a defining moment, but a crucial moment. A BJP-led government would ensure there is no unnecessary hostility from the establishment (towards the RSS) and the organisation can pursue its activities without diverting its energy to counter the hostile environment,” said Arun Anand, author of two books on the Sangh and CEO of the Indraprastha Vishwa Samvad Kendra, the Sangh’s media arm.

The brief to swayamsevaks is also to ensure that they leave publicising government schemes to “party functionaries” but hammer home the need to protect the country and Hindus.

“After the 2008 [Samjhauta Express ] blasts the Congress came up with the term saffron terror. The world over, people were saying terror has no religion, but in India, where Hindus have been victims of Islamic terrorism, the oldest political party came up with the slur of saffron terror. This angered the Hindus who came together to vote for a party that would restore Hindu pride,” said a second functionary of the Sangh, based out of Nagpur.

The functionary, who didn’t want to be identified, said he is active on various social media platforms to wage a war against “a concerted effort to malign Hindus and BJP”.

Will this shifting of narrative from development to Hindutva work? Ajay Gudavarthy, a professor of political science at the Jawahralal Nehru University, says the idea of a muscular Hindutva will work only when there are a sufficient number of jobs and the economy is growing.

“In 2014 Modi’s appeal was on the basis of the economy doing well during the Congress tenure from 2004-14; he promised faster development. Now, with the rural distress and joblessness this garv se kaho hum Hindu hai (being Hindu with pride) has no connect on the ground. The issue of nationalism post-Pulwama may have stopped the core supporters from drifting, but did not have a pan-Indian appeal. So this narrative is not sustainable,” he said.

SANGATHAN MANTRIS

While homogeneity of ideas exists as the umbilical cord between the Sangh and the BJP, it is the sangathan mantris ,or organizational general secretaries loaned to the BJP by the RSS, who act as the synapse. It is through them that messages are conveyed back and forth, displeasure relayed and concerns shared; it is with them that the course of future action is charted.

They are involved in every aspect of the election strategy.

“They oversee everything, from the very top down to the local level. They decide how the Sangh will canvass without appearing to be the polling agents of the BJP; how voters will be encouraged to vote and what narratives will form the basis of the campaign,” said the first functionary cited above.

And while the larger narrative has been identified; volunteers on the ground will also pick issues that have local resonance.

“For instance, in West Bengal, the units will highlight the politics of appeasement followed by the TMC (Trinamool Congress) government; in Jammu and Kashmir, it will be the politics of discrimination in the form of Article 35A , and nationally the threat that communist ideology poses to the country,” said the second functionary.

Article 35 A of the constitution gives special rights to the permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir, and disallows people from outside the state from buying or owning immovable property or settling there permanently. It bars outsiders them being employed in any government jobs and accessing state-sponsored scholarship schemes.

First Published: Mar 24, 2019 11:41 IST

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