Bhavdeep has worked for publications like The Times of India, The Telegraph, The Indian Express, India Today & Outlook. She has authored a book ‘Gurus: Stories of India’s Leading Babas’. She is presently freelancing for several publications -both print and digital
Invisible in the public discourse for the better part of its existence, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is now an important force in shaping public attitudes and policy. The impact of sarsanghchalak ‘PP’ (param pujniya) Mohan Rao Bhagwat’s landmark lecture series at Vigyan Bhawan in October, 2018, is a testimony to its growing influence.
With wry humour and blunt speaking, Bhagwat dispelled the hoary construct of a maleficent organisation, pulling Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strings from a shadowy den in Nagpur. He projected the RSS as open, flexible and accommodative, thereby leaving its detractors stumped, at least for the nonce.
As always, when the BJP is in power, there are dire prophecies – invariably by outsiders with little knowledge of its internal dynamic – that it will subsume the RSS. The fact is that the RSS is the mother ship and the BJP a member of the fleet, captained and navigated by RSS-trained personnel. That Narendra Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat, considerably diminished the clout of other RSS organisations in the state is true. But it doesn’t alter the fact that he is himself an RSS pracharak, on deputation to the BJP.
The top rungs of the party are packed with pracharaks and functionaries drawn from the RSS and its other frontal organisations. To say that the RSS has put its ‘stamp’ on the BJP is facile. The BJP, like all the other members of the sangh parivar, is organically linked to the RSS in the person of the pracharak. The pracharak, literally a disseminator or propagator, is thus an influential figure in our current political landscape! The RSS organisation has expanded to keep pace with its growing influence and reach. Obviously, the sarsanghchalak is the pivot. A word from him can make or break an election, or shape the broad contours of public policy. He is not an elected head and does not dabble in the day-to-day affairs of the sangh parivar, but enjoys a moral authority rarely matched in any organisation, social or political.
Executive power vests with the sarkaryavaha or general secretary. Suresh ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi has emerged as a hands-on number two, in close touch with the party and government. His appointment, or ‘election’, as sarkaryavaha in 2008 came as surprise to journalists, who had fully expected Suresh Soni to get the post. Nor was he expected to last more than a couple of three-year terms, largely because he was hampered by dodgy knees.
Certainly, the 2014 election campaign – the first in which the RSS pro-actively threw its full weight behind the BJP – was physically and mentally taxing. It was widely rumoured that Bhaiyyaji would retire and hand over the reins to Dattatreya Hosabale or V Bhaigaih. Rejuvenated by surgery and considerable weight-loss, however, he is now in his fourth term and at 70, is more active than ever.
Bhaiyyaji administers the RSS and supervises the activities of the 4,000-odd pracharaks across the country, some of whom are deputed to the main frontal organisations. Transfers and postings fall under his purview and by all accounts, he takes an interest in appointments right down to the level of tehsil pracharak. His primary concern, and one he shares with Bhagwat, is a robust shakha network. As of 2018, the number of shakhas stands at a shade below 60,000.
In addition, he is a great believer in social outreach. Sewa Bharti, which is actually a ‘sewa samooh’ comprising over one lakh organisations of varying sizes, has always been a hobby horse of his. Through this network, the sangh reaches out simultaneously to contributors and beneficiaries. Last heard, the ‘Sevadisha’ App had been developed to facilitate regular updates on their activities and workshops held to disseminate it.
Bhaiyyaji is also held to have popularised the sangh prarthna, which is now recited at all meetings and not just in shakhas! His pro-active approach extends to interactions with the BJP and government. He has reportedly presided over meetings featuring senior (kshetra and prant) pracharaks and party president Amit Shah, in the context of the 2018 assembly and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Interventions in public policy are limited to big-picture issues, but the concerns of organisations such as the Bharatiya Kisan Union are forcefully conveyed. As for appointments which are within the purview of the government, particularly in the education sector, the RSS naturally draws from its own pool.
Technically, the interface between the RSS and government is Dr Krishna Gopal Sharma, one of the six sah-sarkaryavahas. In the Vajpayee regime, Madan Das Devi handled the job with great aplomb, but persistent health problems rendered him less active thereafter. During the UPA years, the RSS-BJP interaction was handled by Suresh Soni. For a pracharak, Soni displayed exceptional political acumen, but effaced himself after some of his hangers-on fell foul of the law.
The tricky assignment then passed to Krishna Gopal, who was earlier stationed in the North-East and played a role in the BJP’s success in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. He is respected for his intellectual depth and grasp of complex issues. However, realpolitik is not his forte, which might explain why Bhaiyyaji exercises oversight. The most charismatic face of the RSS is unarguably Dattatreya Hosabale. Long regarded as the number three, it was believed that he was being groomed as a future sarsanghchalak and would, therefore, take over as number two. This expectation was belied at the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha in Nagpur earlier this year. It is now widely rumoured that if Bhaiyyaji bows out, it is V Bhaigaih who will succeed him.
Hosabale has a committed following in the RSS, particularly in the ABVP, but insiders are mystified by media efforts to portray him as being ‘close’ to PM Modi. Of late, he has confined himself strictly to affairs of the sangh and displays no interest in politics. He is believed to have been the motive force behind the highly successful three-day lecture series by Bhagwat, titled “Future of Bharat: An RSS Perspective”.
The third tier of the RSS now has six members, up from two just a decade ago. Apart from Hosabale, Soni, Bhaigaih and Krishna Gopal, there are Manmohan Vaidya and Mukunda CR, who were elevated earlier this year. Vaidya’s inclusion is interesting, given that he has never seen eye-to-eye with Modi. Mukunda’s is even more so, because he is from the same state as Hosabale (Karnataka). It would have made sense to elevate him if Hosabale was taking over from Bhaiyyaji, but that has not proved to be the case.
Another senior pracharak worthy of mention is the venerable Suhas Rao Hiremath, former Sewa Pramukh, who enjoys Bhaiyyaji’s confidence. Also noteworthy is Madhubhai Kulkarni, who is not important in the hierarchy but has the ear of the sarsanghchalak. Like Vaidya, his equation with Modi has not always been comfortable.
Then there’s Arun Kumar, who was recently designated spokesperson and is expected to be as discreet, but more communicative, than his predecessor. Not too long ago, Bajrang Lal Gupta, sanghchalak of Delhi, exercised considerable influence but his star has waned of late.
More than 30 RSS pracharaks and functionaries have been deputed to the BJP, a measure of the importance the sangh now attaches to its political wing. Ram Lal has been a general secretary (organisation) for nearly a decade, but has kept a low profile. In the past, general secretaries from the RSS, such as Khushabhau Thakre and KN Govindacharya, were more vocal and influential.
Ram Madhav, the face of the RSS on TV channels for over a decade, was deputed to the BJP as general secretary in 2014. His domain expertise in foreign affairs and the diplomatic network has come in handy for the government. He has also enjoyed success as election in-charge of Jammu & Kashmir and the North-East.
However, the buzz in the party is that he is no longer a blue-eyed boy, although he continues to have Bhagwat’s confidence.
The third RSS general secretary is P Muralidhar Rao, who is not a pracharak but was something of a wunderkind in the sangh parivar, handpicked by Swadeshi Jagran Manch founder Dattopant Thengadi to helm the organisation. He became political attache to BJP president Rajnath Singh after joining the party. Rao supervised the Karnataka assembly elections and has recently been asked to look after Rajasthan. The word in party circles is that the two general secretaries from erstwhile Andhra Pradesh do not get on. Among the more prominent of the joint general secretaries from the RSS are V Satish, who is believed to be close to Hosabale, and Shiv Prakash who was a kshetra pracharak before the RSS loaned him to the BJP. Along with Sunil Bansal, another of the joint general secretaries, he is credited with the party’s success in UP and Uttarakhand. Saudan Singh, who was once very close to Soni, is not as influential as of yore.
The RSS is not quite the monolith it appears to be. There are many shades of opinion, and heckling the government and its policies at meetings is par for the course. Members of strong frontal organisations have no compunction in taking the government and party severely to task, albeit behind closed doors. Friction between top functionaries is also not uncommon, but rarely gets out of hand. Whatever the internal differences, after the core committee of the Akhil Bharatiya Karyakari Mandal takes a decision, everyone falls in line.
Occasionally, there’s disaffection in the ranks, as in the case of Praveen Togadia, who was recently ousted as VHP working president. Breaking discipline is uncommon but by no means unprecedented. Earlier casualties were Govindacharya and Suresh Joshi, both former pracharaks. The notable fact here is that although they are no longer part of the hierarchy, they continue to command a large following among swayamsevaks across the country and are treated as members of the RSS family. The former in particular is frequently invited to deliver talks and lectures at various RSS events, shares the stage with senior functionaries and is called upon for advice.
A swayamsevak, once and for all
The RSS today is more active and interactive than it has ever been. The approach to its stated goal of social transformation is now both bottom up (through the shakhas) and top down (through state power). Whatever ‘control’ the RSS exercises in the public sphere is through the individuals it has trained. The trouble is, humans are notoriously imperfect and this holds true for pracharaks.