Why Is the RSS Distancing Itself From the BJP?

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Why Is the RSS Distancing Itself From the BJP?

BJP and RSS leaders are going to great lengths to send out the message that the RSS is a cultural organization and uninvolved in the BJP’s political activity.

Why Is the RSS Distancing Itself From the BJP?

Members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh participate in a “path sanchalan” or route march in Bhopal, India, October 23, 2016.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Suyash Dwivedi

India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have stepped up efforts to beef up the RSS’ image as a cultural organization and project themselves as distinct entities.

In a recent interview published in Indian Express, J. P. Nadda, national president of the BJP, went to great lengths to establish the RSS as an apolitical organization that is separate from the BJP. The “RSS is a cultural organization and we are a political organization,” Nadda said, adding that the RSS has “a century-long experience of working on socio-cultural issues.”

Distinguishing the work the BJP and RSS do, Nadda pointed out that their “areas of working [are] very clearly established”: “Woh ideologically apna kaam karte hain, hum apna” (They do their ideology-related work, we do ours). With the BJP capabilities having grown, it “runs itself,” Nadda said, stressing that “we are managing our own affairs in our own way.” In essence, the BJP chief was making the point that the RSS is not involved in the BJP’s political work.

A few days later Ram Madhav, an executive member of the RSS and a former spokesperson of the BJP, reiterated the RSS’ apolitical character in an article. The RSS is focused on “nation-building activities” and not politics, he wrote, pointing out that but for the 1977 and 2014 general elections when the RSS was convinced of the need to involve itself in canvassing for parties, it has “stayed away from active politics.”

What the two leaders said is nothing that the RSS and the BJP have not claimed before. The RSS has always maintained that it is a cultural organization and that it neither has political objectives nor engages in political activity. The RSS denies that it has anything to do with politics, decisions, or policymaking of the BJP, or with the BJP’s election efforts. However, RSS and BJP leaders seem to have initiated of late a concerted campaign to send out this message loud and clear.

During the ongoing campaign in the Indian general elections, BJP and RSS leaders have been “striving really hard to make people believe that the RSS is ‘an apolitical’ and ‘a cultural’ organization which has nothing to do with the BJP’s election efforts or its decision-making process,” Dhirendra K. Jha, author of “Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva,” told The Diplomat.

Founded in 1925 to “organize the entire Hindu society” through individual character building and instilling “discipline and social consciousness,” the RSS is the parent organization of the Sangh Parivar (literally the RSS’ Family), which is an umbrella grouping of organizations including the RSS, the BJP, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), etc.

Although these organizations ostensibly have different stated primary functions — the BJP, for instance, was set up as a party to contest elections and gain political power, and the BMS and the ABVP to organize workers and students, respectively — they work in tandem to achieve objectives. Thus, activists from all Parivar constituents participated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, and in the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002.

Jha described the Parivar as “a multi-headed hydra-like organization in which one can make a distinction [between the different constituent organizations] only at the leadership level; the main body is the same.”

During elections, the entire Parivar, “including the RSS, turns itself into a gigantic election machine,” Jha said, with “the disciplined and extremely intolerant cadres of the RSS providing the sheet anchor for the BJP – from working at the booth level wherever they are present to kicking up polarizing issues for the electoral benefits of the BJP.” According to Jha, “a network of senior RSS men in the BJP act as the representatives of the parent organization, monitoring, directing, and guiding the party’s approach to any major issues.”

The RSS denies that it engages in political activity. While it does admit to participating in election campaigns, the aim is to “sensitize voters” on “cultural values and social problems that plague our society,” an RSS pracharak (propagandist) in Bengaluru told The Diplomat.

“We discuss ‘cultural’ issues, like the building of the Ram Temple,” he said, insisting that the demolition of the mosque and subsequent building of the temple at the site in Ayodhya are “cultural matters.” He categorically stated that RSS workers “do not solicit votes for any party, including the BJP.” At best, “we may speak of the importance of having a government that protects our cultural values,” he said.

Why does the RSS deny its involvement in political activity? Why is it anxious to maintain a cultural façade? The reasons can be traced back to events in 1948-1949.

Following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by an RSS functionary in January 1948, the RSS was banned by the central government. According to Jha, the RSS was “desperate to wriggle out of the ban,” and so pledged to function solely as a cultural organization and not engage in politics. The RSS constitution specifically mentions this; Article 4 states: “The Sangh, as such, has no politics and is devoted purely to cultural work.”

Expanding beyond “cultural work” would not only make the RSS seem like it is violating its own constitution but also, legally this would put the RSS in “a very weak spot,” Jha pointed out. It could even “attract government action, in case and whenever there is a change in the regime.”

According to Jha, traditionally, the RSS leadership has maintained “ambiguity in its relationship with the BJP,” which has helped it to project an “image of an apolitical, cultural body.”

However, over the past decade of BJP rule the ambiguity in this relationship, which previously had provided the RSS with “security cover,” has declined. With the “security cover” eroded, the RSS’ political core lies exposed, leaving the group vulnerable to opposition attacks and government action, Jha said.

The BJP is expected to win the general elections and return to power for a third consecutive time. However, the possibility of the opposition INDIA bloc coming to power cannot be completely ruled out. In his speeches, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has often equated the BJP with the RSS, and several INDIA bloc politicians do not seem opposed to banning the RSS should they come to power. The possibility of government action has unsettled the RSS.

According to Jha, “the whole exercise by Nadda and Madhav is, therefore, aimed at restoring the ‘security cover’ to the RSS by re-emphasizing the ambiguity in the RSS-BJP relationship.”

Some have interpreted Nadda’s remarks distinguishing the RSS from the BJP as a “virtual declaration of independence by the BJP from the RSS,” a public declaration that the BJP “doesn’t need any hand-holding by the patriarch anymore.” Such interpretations have triggered speculation over a rift between the RSS and the BJP.

Although the RSS and the BJP have differences and the relationship between Modi and RSS chief Mohan Bhagvat is strained, the Parivar is not staring at a split. Indeed, the manner in which BJP and RSS leaders have swung to action to provide “security cover” for the RSS suggests that this is still one family.