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Nanaji Deshmukh — key architect of Janata Party, who quit politics to transform rural India

On his birth anniversary, we take a look at Nanaji Deshmukh’s journey in the RSS and BJS, his friendship with Deendayal Upadhyay and contributions in the field of rural development.

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New Delhi: It’s not very common in Indian politics that a politician quits public life at the peak of his career, takes up social service and then ends up getting the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian award.

But that’s what Nanaji Deshmukh exactly did.

“When the Janata Party government was formed in 1977, Nanaji Deshmukh was requested to join the government as a minister but he did not do so. He followed J.P. (Jaiprakash Narayan) and preferred to devote himself towards rural development and making our villages self-reliant, free from poverty,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said while inaugurating the birth centenary celebrations of Nanaji three years ago.

After quitting politics in 1980, Nanaji, through the Deendayal Research Institute (DRI), set up alternative rural development models based on traditional knowledge in the remote areas of Gonda and Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh respectively. Some were established in Maharashtra’s Beed too.

In 2019, he was awarded the ‘Bharat Ratna’ posthumously.

His contributions in the field of rural development and social transformation were carried forward by the DRI, which has now expanded its work to many more states.

On his birth anniversary Sunday, let’s take a look at Nanaji’s journey in the RSS, friendship with Deendayal Upadhyay, his role during the Emergency and fight against corruption.

Also read: Why Mahatma Gandhi was ‘impressed’ by the RSS, and how the Sangh reciprocated that

Meeting Deendayal Upadhyay

Born on 11 October 1916, at Kadoli, a small town in Maharashtra, Chandikadas Amritrao Deshmukh (affectionately called Nanaji) worked as a vegetable seller to pay for his early education. Through hard work and dedication, he later graduated from the prestigious Birla Institute of Technology and Science in Pilani, Rajasthan.

His family was in touch with Dr K.B. Hedgewar, founder of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Inspired by freedom fighter Lokmanya Tilak and his thoughts on nationalism, Nanaji joined the RSS as a pracharak (full-time worker) around 1940.

As a pracharak, he was first sent to Uttar Pradesh and it was in Agra that he met Deendayal Upadhyay, who later became one of the founders of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the precursor to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Nanaji and Upadhyay worked closely for nearly three decades. The rapport between the two was so strong that after Upadhyay’s death in February 1968, Nanaji founded the DRI in his friend’s memory.

From Agra, Nanaji went to Gorakhpur as a pracharak to expand organisational work in eastern Uttar Pradesh. In a span of three years, over 250 RSS shakhas were established in the region.

He also played a key role in establishing India’s first Saraswati Shishu Mandir School at Gorakhpur in 1952. Today, there are more than 20,000 such schools running across the country and catering to over three million students.

In 1947, the RSS decided to launch two journals Rashtra Dharma and Panchjanya as well as a daily named Swadesh. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was appointed as the editor, Upadhyay the ‘margdharshak’ (mentor), and Nanaji was appointed as the managing director.

Expert at stitching alliances

Nanajikh played a crucial role in setting up a strong base for the BJS in Uttar Pradesh. By 1957, the party had presence in every district of the state, with Nanaji as the organising secretary of its state unit. He later also worked as the party’s treasurer.

As a politician, he was known for his expertise in stitching alliances. In 1967, the first non-Congress government in Uttar Pradesh came to power through an alliance which was put together by socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia and Nanaji.

His organisational skills were best displayed during the Emergency in 1975-76. He led the underground movement against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her regime for restoration of democracy.

Prior to that, he also played an important role in the expansion of the ‘JP movement’ that was spearheaded by veteran freedom fighter Jaiprakash Narayan against corruption in the Congress regime.

J.P. and Nanaji enjoyed such a close bond that the latter named a flagship rural transformation project of DRI in Gonda after the names of both Narayan and his wife Prabhavati Devi. It was called ‘JaiPrabha Gram’.

In 1977, he was one of the key architects of the opposition alliance that finally took the shape of Janata Party. Nanaji contested elections for the first time and won from Balrampur (Uttar Pradesh) in 1977.

He was later offered a ministerial post by Prime Minister Morarji Desai but he politely refused. Nanaji announced his retirement from politics in 1980, after the Janata Party split and the BJP was formed.

The rest of his life was devoted to the cause of rural transformation through two key concepts – ‘gramodaya’ (rise of the village) and ‘swawalamban’(self-reliance).

He also established India’s first rural university, Chitarkoot Gramodya Vishwavidyalaya, in Chitrakoot. In recognition of his services to the nation, he was nominated as a member of the Rajya Sabha in 1999. He was also awarded Padma Vibhushan in 1999. Nanaji passed away on 27 February 2010 in Chitrakoot.

S. Gurumurthy, another RSS stalwart, who had extensively interacted with Nanajih, had written in an article in The Indian Express (3 March 2010), “He (Nanaji) once told me that when he was a child he had nothing to eat for many days. But that did not turn him into a Naxalite. But his introduction to the RSS at the right age, and association with the right persons,had turned him into a great nationalist who lived for his motherland’s glory and nothing else.”

Also read: Who killed Deendayal Upadhyaya? It’s a 50-year-old question

(The writer is research director at Delhi based think tank Vichar Vinimay Kendra. He has authored two books on RSS. Views expressed are personal)

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  1. This should be read by those people who know nothing about the RSS and keep on speaking rubbish about it.
    It also highlights how the RSS has been instrumental in shaping the positive lives of those who were influenced by it.

  2. While it’s good to see some coverage of Nanaji Deshmukh, this feels like a Googled piece. It would have been good to understand the work being done by the Chitrakoot institute, and how it could be scaled nationally (what’s taken it so much time?)

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