Shiv Visvanathan is an academic best known for his contributions to developing the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS). He is currently Professor at OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat
The BJP narratives now sound like a long drawn out novel, predictable in its ¬plot and the stereotypical nature of its characters. At the individual level, the novel found in Amit Shah and Narendra Modi, two individuals who become central to the story. One was once an oppressor who could play party boss; the other was a shakha pracharak who could think of India as a mosaic of shakhas. Between two sets of petty tyranny, BJP’s idea of electoralism found the model for majoritarian dominance. The BJP’s juggernaut is in place by chapter four. The North East has been captured and the South is open. By this time, the reader tires of the obsession with the BJP and looks for subplots and side characters with cameo possibilities.
He will be disappointed because the opposition has failed. The Left as an imagination was too diffused or too Stalinist to be relevant. When it aligned with the Congress, it seemed lost. One did not know whether it was Rotarian or Leninist. Liberalism was too weak, too individualised to have a sense of institution building. A centrist consensus was no longer available, as the BJP appropriated the very discourse of democracy. By playing up the adolescent nature of Rahul Gandhi, the media made Modi appear a potential giant, masculine, managerial and decisive.
No Centrist Consensus
The opposition, if it existed, belonged to regional groups who were too parochial to think of the nation. Whether it was Stalin, Naidu, Chandrashekhar Rao or Mamata, they preferred to play to regional audiences.
The prospect of a centrist consensus swinging neither to right nor to left eluded the Indian imagination. It did not work even as a patchwork of coalitions. The electorate believed that only a pendulum swing from left to right would restore harmony to history. As a result, 2019 seems inevitable, a fait accompli with little excitement and politics was at an impasse. Media made Modi-Shah and company seem almost glacier-like in their inevitability. Journalists and social scientists sense disquiet on the ground, a sense of unease but doubt and critique had little place in the media.
The attention now shifts to the conglomerate called the BJP, to a sense of its internal dynamics.
When the BJP first emerged victorious in 2014, the party found its double, its vertebra in the RSS. Everyone felt that it was the RSS working at the grassroots level that created the possibility of electoral victory. No nukkad was too small for the RSS. It focused on the lower levels of the bureaucracy, working away like a termite through the interstices of the middle-class mind.
The BJP’s ambition was to stay in power. The RSS ambition was to use power to change India in its own image. The strength and weakness of the RSS centered around the image of its self. As a shakha, it ran splendidly. The RSS, in fact, was brilliant at disaster management. It made Communist Party cells look weak, even dubious. Such was the hold of its ideology.
The RSS could put a Kumbh Mela of campaigners on the ground. Superbly indoctrinated, they were at home at the ground level.
While efficient as organisations, both BJP and the RSS suffered from historical envy. As deeply nationalist parties, they discovered they were not part of the national movement. The RSS-BJP duo felt like Rip Van Winkles who had arrived too late in history. They were brilliant in domesticating India, but oddly, they were never at peace with the image of themselves.
It was their image of themselves that was to prove problematic, along with the sense of hierarchy. The RSS felt it was the nursery from which the seedling called the BJP emerged. It claimed a tacit sense of policy and ideological priority. Delhi might seem the centre of the party, but Nagpur was the source of origin of ideas, ideologies and the codes which determined politics.
As an argument for the sixties, it was adequate, but the RSS did not realise that time was crippling them. Nagpur felt like an old age home rather than a safe retreat. The RSS ideology, like its (now abandoned) Khaki shorts, seemed medieval before the modernising thrust of Shah and Modi. The RSS spouted a Victorian dialect. It appeared a period piece. Its leaders like Mohan Bhagwat were revered but seemed outside the mainstream to the new generation. Shah and Modi were more muscular, more immediate, the RSS tended to move from backstage to backdrop. Nagpur seemed to lose out to Delhi as a Centre both for power and ideas. Modi and Shah conveyed a sense of here and now.
Beating the Retreat
The RSS leadership often found themselves as critics and spectators in the show. Suddenly the political tension was no longer with the opposition which was passive. The jugalbandi between RSS-BJP had lost its rhythm. Once the taken for granted rhythm, the much-advertised discipline, the ideological blending breaks, Bhagwat looked like a symphony conductor waving a wand which had lost its magic. His musicians had found a new beat in the Modi-Shah show. It had immediacy, it was topical, the media loved it. Suddenly BJP-RSS politics looked like a long lasting serial that had taken a new turn. It was almost as if an all-powerful mother-in-law had lost out to a new generation. It is only within such a background that recent reports of rites and alignments make sense. Mohan Bhagwat’s recent speeches have to be read in this context. What Bhagwat indicated was that the RSS was not just a huge organisational network or even an ideological frame. He wanted to show that RSS shaped the India out of which BJP emerged. Bhagwat in his speeches wanted to show that RSS was the prime force.
He decided to announce a Glasnost of ideas to proclaim RSS was as dynamic as the BJP. This surge of speeches has to be read both for their understanding of ideology and power. At one level, the RSS is responding to the cockiness of Shah. At a deeper level, it is showing that new rules of the game are emerging and that BJP-RSS, instead of celebrating the present, must plan for the changes of emerging India.
The combination of knee-jerk responses and the vision of a long run, revealed a psychodrama that was fascinating to watch. In this essay we will consider two sets of presentations; the first the outreach speech by Bhagwat to the nation and second his performance at the International Hindu Congress.
At Bhagwat move like a tactic in a chess game itself has drama. The ideologues of RSS rarely step into the limelight. Their pearls of wisdom are ritualistic and occasional. The gurus of RSS always worked indirectly. They corrected course, checked deviance. This time they stepped into the limelight to say they not only write the script but that they direct the play and determine who the actors are or can be. One has to look at the text, context and the nature of performance.
Bhagwat is saying the RSS can speak directly to the nation, set the trend and then step back to watch their scenario. But there are differences here. It is like Nestor or Bhishma playing Hector or Yudhisthir. It is an attempt to redefine the world the RSS shaped.
The RSS is creating a new definition of itself. It is a unique creation, and Bhagwat as head of the biggest NGO in the world is now both civil society and regime. His speech is also a reflection of his vision of a changing India and RSS’s changing role in it. Suddenly a petty power struggle fades, and what one sees is a more imperious notion of power. It is a prelude, a ritual cleansing and a ritual distancing from old habits. Bhagwat dissociates himself from Modi’s personal dream of a Congress-Mukt Bharat. Modi’s hangover about the Congress seems as irrelevant as the RSS’s Khaki shorts.
Bhagwat wants a new vision of unity which goes beyond the identity of Golwalkar era. M S Golwalkar believed in a secondary citizenship for minorities and offered them at best a second-rate sense of citizenship. RSS is not admitting fallibility but is coming close to saying that by admitting a need for modernisation. This goes beyond the faintest dreams of Modi and Shah.
It is a Glasnost movement and one wonders whether RSS is ready for it. One wonders whether RSS would cry Glasnost and then return like Russia to the days of Putin. Bhagwat, like Boris Yeltsin, would be a forgotten figure or is a miracle happening which is difficult to believe that the organisation is moving into the age of transparency.
Modi must be kicking himself for not thinking of such ideas and Amit Shah sounds like a head of a dreary tutorial college. Bhagwat has stuck his neck out. The question is having announced the possibility will he move to denial and play the ostrich? As a vote gathering strategy, going beyond the Hindutva catchment area, the idea has immense possibilities.
There is a pragmatic side to the RSS. After all, it did this when it helped Jayaprakash Narayan oust Indira Gandhi. Is it now planning to oust its old self, and Modi and Shah along with it as a side benefit? Sadly, 2019 might be too early to tell the everyday implications of a society where Muslims are no longer forced to sing Vande Mataram or Akhlaq and Shopian murders look improbable has a touch of utopia to it.
Bhagwat has been a gentle mentor to the BJP. People, in fact, think he is too soft. Maybe the alchemy of these new ideas will change both the imagination and the power dynamics which recognises India’s diversity and the dreams of constitutionalism.
Pragmatically, one senses a possibility and a cynical joke on the nation.
Bhagwat’s outreach speech had as its dramatic counterpart his speech to the International Hindu Congress. The Congress was convened to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the Parliament of Religions at Chicago, where Vivekananda created history. Bhagwat’s speech is more dog-eared. One senses he is not quite a Vivekananda, and his attempt to match that role looks pretty futile. Sadly, he gets texts wrong. He becomes defensive about Hinduism, while Vivekananda makes Hinduism sound like a philosophical invitation, an awakening for all humanity.
Hindutva seems defensive before Vivekananda Hinduism. The parochialism of Hindutva becomes apologetic before the Hinduism of Vivekananda’s imagination. The BJP has a chance to redeem itself if it withdraws its stand on Babri Masjid. Then, what Bhagwat said at the two sites acquires new authenticity. India becomes a civilization of Hinduism and Islam. One cannot see such an electoral plank for 2019.
But the doubt has been planted and suddenly Shah and Modi look like petty peddlers of politics before Bhagwat. As an act of philosophical one-upmanship, the two speeches upstaged anything Modi and Shah could produce. The tragedy is tha they may become parallel worlds to each other. An ethical opportunity will then be lost.
Philosophy and Politics
The essay so far talks about Bhagwat’s speech. Philosophical power cannot do much without petty politics. The downside of Bhagwat’s trip was that Nitin Gadkari was not allowed to accompany him. The presence of the twosome was upsetting, and the Modi government cancelled his visit.
Beyond philosophy, there is the making of the political battle. Gadkari is seen as RSS’ ideal choice to replace Modi. The battles that have preceded have been many. There is a sense that if politics is to be changed, Modi has to be replaced by Gadkari. Yet, Modi is shrewd enough to realise this. He has waged a quiet battle to upstage this move and make RSS buy peace, remain the consultant to the politician in power.
There is a gossip of unease here and rumour shows that the tension between RSS and BJP might be the real dynamic of the 2019 election. India’s politics has a way of picking unthinkable ambushes.