Deepanshu Mohan considers how the influence of the RSS on the BJP has shaped the party’s actions in their first six months of power. He argues that there are worrying signs that Hindu nationalist agendas are being given priority over long-standing development issues that Modi promised to address in his election campaign.
The role of dynastical families in shaping national politics has been widely written about. In 67 years since independence, the Indian National Congress has largely been governed by the Gandhi Parivar (family) starting with Jawaharlal Nehru and continuing with Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. More than simply being in power, the Gandhis remain momentously responsible for the governing dynamics of India’s largest and oldest national party.
In 2014, for the first time in the history of Independent India, we saw the Congress party abridged to double digits in terms of seats won during the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of the Indian Parliament). The Congress now seems to performing badly even in state-level elections. This has been made possible with the rise of India’s second largest national party, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) which is monitored and internally governed by its parent organisation, the Rashtriya SwayamSevak Sangh (RSS), a group previously cited for espousing openly militant Hindu activism and the suppression of minorities in India.
Unlike the Gandhi Parivar, the RSS is not constituted as a family with the same bloodline but it operates on a common ideology which flows in the bloodline of those recognised as its members (the sevaks). The organisation was founded in 1925 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, a doctor from the central Indian town of Nagpur in Maharashtra, who agitated for both independence from the British crown and the strict segregation of Hindus and Muslims. What may astonish some in the West is that most prominent figures (like M.S. Gowalkar) of RSS deeply admired Fascism and Nazism, the two totalitarian movements sweeping through Europe at the time.
It is critical to first understand the historical link between the RSS and the BJP. The current BJP is the successor of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) party, which itself was the original political arm of the RSS. Although only officially formed in the 1980, BJP’s history can therefore be traced much further back to the pre-1947 era when right-wing Hindu nationalists not only demanded an independent India, but one completely dominated by Hindus. The RSS in some cases still aspires to this vision of ‘Hindustan’.
As we enter 2015 with the BJP in power, we seem to be witnessing a metamorphosis in India’s social, political and economic environment. The party that was voted into power with a landslide victory, fighting for the cause of ‘development’ seems now to be all-too-frequently in the limelight for the wrong reasons, linked to its roots and the parivar it belongs to, pointing to a ‘propagandist’ approach to the Hindutva philosophy at a nation level.
In the first six months of Narendra Modi’s rule, we have seen some policy reforms in the form of slogans like ‘Clean India’, ‘Make in India’, ‘Act East’ and ‘The business of government is not be in business’, and photo ops well-suited to primetime TV. These much-hyped initial reforms make economic sense. However, more worrying are some of the other, less economically-focused changes that are being brought in, often with less fanfare. In a pluralist society, best known for welcoming and preserving the right of people to follow any religion or faith of their choice, it is precarious to push for laws like the Anti-Conversion Law. The law may have been introduced to ban unfair, forced conversions in India but in reality it appears to be a law pushed by the RSS Parivar and used to justify Ghar Wapsi (‘Homecoming’) camps.
Other examples we have seen from the Hindu front line include the absurdly precipitous move by Human Resource Development minister Smiti Irani to introduce Sanskrit in Kendriya Vidyalayas midway through an academic session and the ‘Love-Jihad’ campaign. But perhaps they should not occasion any great surprise; as Suhit K. Sen rightly puts it, ‘To be fair to the Hindutva pedlars, they have never made any secret of their allegiance to what they are pleased to call cultural nationalism, never mind that by riding roughshod over the cultural diversities of the “nation”, they imperil its integrity, to which they are rhetorically wedded’. What seems worse is how the Hindutva project propagated by the RSS Parivar uses its own interpretation of history based on Hindu mythology to privilege its reading of what constitutes the Indian nation even as it seeks to use state power to validate it.
Furthermore, I sincerely question here the prioritisation and sequencing of such measures at the cost of focussing on Modi’s idea of development. The country for decades now has crippled under a medieval Education Policy (last updated in 1986) and primary education structure; a despondent policing and law and order system (at both the centre and state level); a derisory public health care system; and an enormous informal sector at the root exacerbating issues pertaining to disguised unemployment, to name but a few.
One can argue that for the central government to thrive, act effectively and promptly on policies increase in state level co-operation is the key and a BJP rule in most of the states is a good thing for new policies to be implemented. At the same time, this puts the social structures of the country under greater vulnerability at the hands of the RSS Parivar, which seems to interpret the election of the nationalist party as an opportunity to continue with its’ decades-old groundwork of cadre building, social service, and dharamjagran (religious awakening) and matantar (conversion) among vulnerable constituencies. Or as a RSS leader reportedly put it, ‘We work with SCs (Scheduled Castes), STs (Scheduled Tribes) and the poor to build unity’. Of course, this unity is paternal, and reproduces the hierarchies and inequalities of class and caste, as evidenced by the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently calling Muslims and Christians “apna maal” (my goods or property).
In a year, where the BJP will continue to dominate and spread across its political power to Delhi and Bihar – states which already have a strong BJP hold, and the only ones going to the polls this year – the real questions for 2015 is in front of Mr. Narendra Modi is what does he and his party in power actually stand for? Is the emphasis really on ‘development’ or is it shared with a political order that promotes Hindutva? And who does the party stand with? As of now we will have to wait and see how these seemingly competing priorities will play out under Narendra Modi, who maintains his distance but clearly isn’t opposed to Hindutva.
Deepanshu Mohan is a regular columnist for India At LSE and Senior Research Associate at the Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, India. He graduated from LSE with an MSc. in Economic History in 2012. Read more of his posts here.