RSS had a swagger under Vajpayee. Former pracharak Modi has tamed it

Labour reforms in BJP-ruled UP and MP drew a whimper of a protest from RSS labour wing, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh. Then Gujarat and Goa followed suit.

For all the hype about the clout of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideological patron stands humbled before the Narendra Modi government.

Significant labour reforms introduced by the BJP governments in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh last week drew a familiar whimper of a protest from the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the labour wing of the RSS. The Sangh can’t allow “jungle raj” and put labourers “into the hands of corporates,” BMS president Saji Narayanan said.

The BJP governments in Lucknow, Bhopal, as well as the Centre weren’t losing their sleep. Two days after the BMS’ protest, the Vijay Rupani-led government in Gujarat also announced exemption for new industries from labour laws for 1,200 days. The BJP government in Goa followed suit, relaxing provisions of the Factories Act and extended working hours. The Sangh must live with this snub, knowing that such bold reforms in these BJP-ruled states couldn’t have been carried out without the support from New Delhi.

The RSS can’t but clap and clang thalis in praise of its former pracharak, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has outgrown the Sangh. Shortly after the 2014 Lok Sabha election win, Modi had declared in an interview to a British author that people had voted for him, and not for the party (or, for that matter, the RSS). So much for the Sangh’s reservations against personality cults.

In Modi’s second term, the informal RSS-BJP coordination mechanism exists but only in name. Leaders haven’t met even once to discuss the coronavirus crisis. As a Sangh functionary put it, even the Communist Party of China (CPC) gets more contrarian views from within than what the Modi government is getting from the RSS or the BJP now.

The RSS’ Vajpayee-era swagger is gone. It used to jump down the government’s throat every time the latter went for strategic sale of PSUs such as Balco, Hindustan Zinc and ITDC hotels. The RSS wasn’t very secretive about its discomfort with Atal Bihari Vajpayee (also a former pracharak) for not pushing its hardcore Hindutva agenda. When the time came, it backed Lal Krishna Advani in foiling Vajpayee’s bid to remove Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, for not following “raj dharma” post-Godhra riots in 2002.

Eighteen years later, the RSS is desperately clinging on to Modi to stay relevant and expand its reach. With ‘brand Modi’ becoming bigger than the RSS, the latter is reconciled to playing a bridesmaid of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.

About seven weeks after Modi became the PM in 2014, a group of RSS leaders had a four-hour-long meeting with then BJP president Amit Shah to finalise the contours of a mechanism for coordination between the Sangh and the ruling dispensation, before heading for dinner at PM Modi’s residence. In the subsequent months and years, an informal RSS-BJP core group comprising senior RSS leaders Bhaiyyaji Joshi, Dattatreya Hosabale, and Krishna Gopal regularly held meetings with Amit Shah and ministers in Modi’s cabinet for coordination on policy matters. Even though the two sides didn’t always agree, the wide-ranging consultations did provide regular feedback to the government.

In June 2018, BMS representatives met Amit Shah to oppose the proposed labour reforms by amalgamating 44 labour laws into four codes. The RSS affiliate released a statement saying Shah had assured that any changes in labour laws or reforms would be carried out only after consultations with trade unions. But that meeting turned out to be the last round of consultations on the matter. Fourteen months later, the Code on Wages, 2019 one of the first legislation that the Modi government pushed through after winning the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The BMS came around, calling it a “historic legislation” even as other trade unions criticised it.

In July 2019, the RSS replaced Ram Lal, BJP general secretary (organisation), a post held by a Sangh leader on deputation to ensure coordination between the ideological patron and the political protégé, with B.L. Santosh. Ram Lal had held the post for 12 years and was perceived as having been co-opted so much into the BJP system that the RSS found it necessary to replace him with a more assertive ideologue. Santosh has, however, proved to be a BJP cheerleader.

Not limited to one trade body
The weakening hold of the RSS in the BJP ecosystem that revolves around Modi and Amit Shah is also evident from the way PM Modi suddenly looks disconnected from the ground reality, ingratiating himself with the middle classes while a bigger and more visible crisis involving millions of migrant labourers unfolded on blistering roads and bloody rail tracks.

Swadeshi Jagran Manch, the economic wing of the RSS, finds itself in the same boat as the BMS. It has also been vociferous in its protests — against labour reforms, disinvestment in public sector undertakings, Facebook-Jio deal, and foreign direct investment (FDI) in education, among others. Frequent protests by the Laghu Udyog Bharti, an RSS affiliate representing micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), haven’t made an impression on the Modi government either.

The national education policy, a pet theme of the RSS, has not seen the light of the day in the past six years. Ministries such as the human resource development and health do hold consultations with concerned RSS wings such as Bharatiya Shikshan Mandal and Arogya Bharati, but they are more ceremonial in nature and outcome. The Sangh is also not happy with the Modi government’s response to its stand on organic farming and regulation of e-commerce, among a host of other issues.

Conscious of its eroding authority, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat finally endorsed FDI and disinvestment of industries in his Vijayadashami speech in October 2019.

On the face of it, 38 of the 52 BJP ministers in the Union cabinet have a Sangh background. As do most of the BJP chief ministers. Given that the Prime Minister, the home minister and the defence minister are all from the RSS, the opposition parties often talk about the government being remote-controlled from Nagpur, the RSS headquarters. The reality is, however, more complex as is evident from above-mentioned examples.

RSS’ compulsions
There are two reasons for the RSS’ decision to accept whatever crumbs come its way by way of support from the establishment to its affiliated organisations and appointments of its loyalists on key posts in different institutions.

First, its major ideological agendas have been accomplished under the Modi government — decks cleared for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya; scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status through dilution of Article 370; and criminalisation of triple talaq, which is seen as a step towards the uniform civil code. RSS functionaries are also happy about the “near-universalisation of Hindutva politics” with most parties becoming wary of being seen as supporting Muslims. With its swayamsevaks occupying the top posts at the Centre and in states, there has been a “mainstream-isation” of the RSS in the national political discourse.

Second, the RSS has no other option. Its founder K.B. Hedgewar was once a member of the Congress. Senior Sangh ideologue M.G. Vaidya recalled in an interview that in 1934, M.K. Gandhi had gone to an RSS camp in Wardha. In 1963, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had invited the RSS to take part in the Republic Day parade. In 1965, added Vaidya, Nehru’s successor Lal Bahadur Shastri had consulted then RSS chief M.S. Golwalkar during the India-Pakistan war. “No one is untouchable for the RSS,” he said.

The RSS had also supported the Indira Gandhi government during the Bangladesh Liberation war. In 1984 Lok Sabha election, the Sangh was said to have supported Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress.

But those days were different. The BJP was not a major political force nor was the Congress so decidedly and vociferously against the RSS as it has become under Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul. The Sangh needs political patronage to expand its footprints and pursue its agenda of making India a ‘Hindu rashtra’. It may feel snubbed and marginalised by its former pracharaks and swayamsevaks in the Modi government but the equations have changed. Today, the RSS needs Modi’s BJP more than the BJP needs the RSS.

Views are personal.

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