When the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological patron of India’s movers and shakers today, revamps its team, it’s bound to raise a lot of curiosity. After all, three out of four of the Bharatiya Janata Party ministers at the Centre have an RSS background, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi who became a Sangh pracharak at the age of 22.
The Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha, the top decision-making body of the RSS, elected a new sarkaryavah — No. 2 in the organisation — in Bengaluru Saturday, followed by the announcement of a new national team.
The RSS has sent out several messages through these appointments, not just about its own roadmap for the future but also by outlining one for its protégé, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Before I come to these signals, a candid admission is due here: I am no authority on the internal dynamics of the 96-year-old organisation.
The RSS mystique
If you were to ask senior RSS functionaries about (non-RSS) authors who have written several books on the organisation, they would respond with a mischievous smile or smirk. “DK ji, jab tak aap ander nahin aayenge, Sangh ko kabhi bhi samajh nahin paayenge (you will never understand the RSS until you become an insider),” a senior RSS functionary, who is a joint general secretary today, told me some time back.
That was after two hours of interactions during which he and one of his colleagues showed amazing patience in trying to satisfy my curiosity about the Sangh and its stand on various issues. And the more one interacts with Sangh functionaries, the more complicated it becomes.
In the early years of studying in university, one was fascinated by dialectical and historical materialism — more because it was intellectually intimidating, I guess. Understanding Hindutva and its distinctness from Hinduism, as interpreted by RSS functionaries, is no less daunting.
What to speak of the complexities of the RSS’ ideological framework? Even basic facts like designations — sarsanghchalak (chief), sarkaryavah (general secretary) and sah-sarkaryavah (joint general secretary) — may be an etymological challenge for many. And that’s before the next level of hierarchy starts, boudhik pramukh (intellectual head), shareerik pramukh (physical head), seva pramukh (social service chief), et al.
Therefore, when someone like Congress leader Rahul Gandhi suggests that a spectre is haunting India — the spectre of the RSS — one doesn’t know what his audience makes out of it. For all one knows, it may be deepening the mystique surrounding the Sangh.
Closer ties with BJP
Coming back to the new appointments in Bengaluru, there are various interpretations. The most common of them is that the appointment of Dattatreya Hosabale, considered close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as general secretary or No. 2 in the RSS shows further alignment between the Modi government and the Sangh.
The shifting of joint general secretary Manmohan Vaidya’s kendra or location from New Delhi to Bhopal is seen as another validation of this argument. Vaidya and Modi couldn’t get along since the former’s days as prant pracharak in Gujarat when Modi was the chief minister. But if one were to see in these decisions an indication of further alignment between the RSS and the BJP, how would one look at BJP leader Ram Madhav’s rehabilitation? From being the most high profile general secretary of the BJP at one point in time, he fell out of Modi-Shah’s favour and was eventually dropped from the BJP’s team of national office-bearers.
His comeback into the RSS as a member of its national executive is said to be a precursor to his elevation in the Sangh hierarchy sooner than later. It’s a fact that the Sangh and the BJP have been working in much closer collaboration than ever before.
A younger Sangh
The makeup of the revamped RSS team does indicate an attempt for smoother coordination with the Sangh and the Modi government, but there was a larger message in Saturday’s exercise: RSS is trying to look younger and is serious about its unwritten code of 75 years being the cut-off age for holding any post. While Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi, Hosabale’s immediate predecessor as general secretary, did want to retire as he wasn’t comfortable travelling around after his knee surgery some time back, what triggered his replacement was the fact that he was well past 73 years of age. The general secretary’s term is for three years and Bhaiyyaji couldn’t have served out the full term due to the cut-off age. Those promoted on Saturday are mostly aged below 60, except Hosabale who is 65. According to Sangh functionaries, 89 per cent of those attending RSS shakhas today are below 40 years, and 60 per cent of the shakhas are students.
The emphasis on the cut-off age means that Mohan Bhagwat, who turns 71 this September, may decide to hang up his boots after the Sangh’s centenary celebrations — the RSS was founded in September 1925.
Narendra Modi is younger than Bhagwat by six days. What will he do if the BJP retains power in 2024? Modi will be a few months shy of 74 then. Will he follow the Bhaiyyaji example and not take up another five-year term as the PM? Will he nominate his successor after turning 75 in 2025? Or will he take a cue from B.S. Yediyurappa, who continues to be the chief minister of Karnataka at 78?
As it is, Modi as the BJP’s USP is indispensable. He might have used the upper-age criterion to keep L.K. Advani and other veterans out of the government in 2014. In 2016, Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel had to resign because she was turning 75. Some ministers in the Modi government such as Najma Heptulla and Kalraj Mishra managed to cling on for a few months after turning 75, but had to eventually resign.
One may argue that all these cases were different. Those leaders were well past their political utility. PM Modi is, however, likely to remain the most popular BJP leader in the foreseeable future. Can the BJP or the RSS let him go when he turns 75? One doesn’t know the answer. But it will be for Modi to decide, for sure.
During a video interaction with people from Varanasi last year, one of the participants had gotten up to urge Modi that he shouldn’t follow the cut-off age criterion and continue instead. The PM’s response was a genial smile.
Views are personal.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.