Mohanrao Bhagwat, the current Sarsanghachalak or head of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, may be described as a modest, even self-effacing man. In fact, he resembles the quintessential Indian “Common Man” immortalised in the late R. K. Laxman’s popular cartoon strip.
But since 2009, when Bhagwat took over the reins of what is arguably the world’s largest cultural organisation, he has shown both admirers and detractors of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that he means business. Today, no one can doubt Bhagwat’s visionary ambition, not just for his organisation, but for India that is Bharat. Hardly any other Sarsanghachalak of the RSS has been as quietly influential or effective as Bhagwat. Mainstreaming the RSS and internationalising Hindutva may be summed up as Bhagwat’s greatest achievements.
Few will forget the coup he pulled off in getting India’s former president and senior Congressman, Pranab Mukherjee, to share the dais with him. Mukherjee not only addressed the nation from the Sangh platform at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, but traversed the narrow and congested lanes in the heart of the city to pay homage to founder Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar. At the latter’s erstwhile home, now a memorial, Mukherjee said, “Today, I came here to pay my respectful homage to a great son of Mother India.”
To anyone who cared, Bhagwat was sending an unmistakeable message: the RSS, despite nearly a hundred years of negative propaganda and relentless battering, was not only alive and well but in great spirits and fighting fit. What is more, the Sangh was no longer “untouchable”. Instead, it had become one of India’s most significant organisations, playing a vital role in shaping the nation’s destiny.
The legendary ‘Guruji’, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, steered and saved the RSS through its most difficult post-independence phase, despite a government ban in 1948 and the arrests of thousands of swayamsevaks.
Later, under Madhukar Dattatraya ‘Balasaheb’ Deoras (1915-1996), the third Sarsanghachalak, the RSS played a crucial role in fighting the Emergency imposed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Deoras did write to Mrs Gandhi offering to cooperate with government in the nation’s broader interests, but there is no doubt that the rank and file of the RSS opposed the Emergency at considerable personal cost, and were jailed in the thousands. Deoras also had the satisfaction of seeing, before his death, a former RSS pracharak, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, being sworn in as India’s prime minister in May 1996. But that was somewhat of a pyrrhic, if short-lived, victory since the first Vajpayee term lasted for just thirteen days.
From what some perceived as Golwalkar’s hardliner stance, the Deoras doctrine expanded the Sangh’s horizons: “We do believe in the one-culture and one-nation Hindu rashtra. But our definition of Hindu is not limited to any particular kind of faith. Our definition of Hindu includes those who believe in the one-culture and one-nation theory of this country… So, by Hindu we do not mean any particular type of faith. We use the word Hindu in a broader sense.”
Hindutva as the new-age identity
If Deoras broadened the idea of Hindutva, Bhagwat has tried to abolish the dichotomy between Hinduism and Hindutva. While Hindu Dharma is indeed a way of life, Hindus cannot afford not to assert their religious and political identities by harnessing or consolidating the essential principles of Hinduism. These essential tatvas or codes of conduct, ideas, values, opinions, and doctrines — all constitute the bedrock of Hindutva. Though these core ideas may be age-old, their application or presentation must be context-specific and contemporary.
Hindutva, in order to be relevant and meaningful, must be as flexible, plural, and responsive to the times as Hinduism itself. Bhagwat has thus endeavoured to rescue Hindutva from the narrow straitjacket into which it has been confined for over seventy years. Dubbed and slandered as a supposedly fascist and chauvinist ideology, Hindutva has had a consistently bad press. Bhagwat has rehabilitated it as the proud identity badge of new age Indians and globalised Hindus.
This does not imply that Bhagwat has fought shy of insisting on the traditional RSS call for Hindu unity and solidarity. In fact, he has repeatedly considered these essential for a strong and stable India. To end the civil war between different factions of Hindus has been his dream: “Why should we try to bring everyone under one flag or one banner?” he asked in his recent valedictory address on 3 February 2019 at the Bharatiya Vichar Manch in Ahmedabad. “It is enough that we all work for India. All patriotic Indians should strive to work together for the welfare of Bharat.”
Addressing an enthusiastic audience of admirers, Bhagwat gave the slogan of “working together differently” as the key to the success of Hindu samaj or society. This was the “vyuva Rachana”, the strategic formation, needed to identify and network all those who are active in the larger mission of working for the welfare of India. “Mil jul ke raho, satya khojo — yehi Hindutva hai (mingle and live together peaceably, find the truth — this is Hindutva),” he stressed. Who could object to that?
Like other key members of the RSS and other Hindu organisations, Bhagwat also believes in India’s special mission as the ‘jagat guru‘ or world teacher. Call it our own version of Indian exceptionalism. The underlying idea is that India’s ‘wisdom traditions’ have the knowledge to save humanity from predatory and irresponsible consumerism, the fallout of self-destructive and nature-exploiting modernity.
We are all today the slaves of this inhumane globalised machine, which is eating into the very vitals of our personal, social, and economic relations. This critique of modernity is not very different from Mahatma Gandhi’s in Hind Swaraj (1909). Gandhi considered modernity the veritable proof of Kali Yuga, the Godless age of greed and immorality, destructive of civilisation. He wanted Indians to cleave to India’s ancient way of life as they would to “mother’s milk.”
Bhagwat’s Hindutva, assert RSS ideologues, has the added component of respect for modern science as a parallel quest for truth, quite in keeping with the spiritual imperative of the ancient Vedic Rishi Dharma, propounded and practised by the rishis. A revitalised and contemporised version of this wisdom tradition is the best antidote to the ills that plague the modern world, according to him. India was, is, and will remain a spiritual and spiritualising civilisation; that, to Bhagwat, is our strength and the true implication of Hindutva.
The Hindu nation and the state of India both have to be strong because they are custodians and protectors of this Dharma. As Sri Aurobindo famously said in his Uttarpara speech (on 30 May 1909), “When it is said that India shall expand and extend herself, it is the Sanatan Dharma that shall expand and extend itself over the world. It is for the Dharma and by the Dharma that India exists.”
In 2014, if the RSS supported the candidature of Narendra Modi over the older stalwart L. K. Advani, it was because it believed that Modi had the best chances of winning. Today, Bhagwat can rightfully look back over his first decade as the RSS chief with some satisfaction, especially India’s progress in the last five years under Modi’s prime ministership. Another term for the BJP at the Centre is definitely a high priority, although Bhagwat often says, “Our work will continue regardless of who is in power.”
By mainstreaming Hindutva, Bhagwat has given ideological and spiritual ballast to Modi’s populist slogans, ‘sab ka saath, sab ka vikas’ or ‘saaf niyat, sahi vikas’. Bhagwat’s Hindutva 2.0 is a good platform not only for Hindu political consolidation, but national development, clean governance, and economic progress. Therein lies his unique accomplishment.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His views are personal. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe