How the RSS and its af­fil­i­ates are re­shap­ing gov­ern­ment pol­icy—from eco­nomic is­sues to ed­u­ca­tion

India Today - - INSIDE - By Anilesh S. Ma­ha­jan

How the RSS and its af­fil­i­ates like the Swadeshi Ja­gran Manch are shap­ing gov­ern­ment pol­icy on ed­u­ca­tion and the econ­omy

The RSS sarsanghch­a­lak Mo­han Bhag­wat chose the time, place and au­di­ence care­fully to mark a de­par­ture from his prin­ci­ple of not pub­licly op­pos­ing the Naren­dra Modi gov­ern­ment’s poli­cies. On April 16, ad­dress­ing a packed au­di­ence of fund man­agers and stock bro­kers at the Bom­bay Stock Ex­change, the heart of In­dia’s eco­nomic cap­i­tal, the RSS chief ques­tioned the gov­ern­ment’s pol­icy to sell off its loss-rid­den na­tional car­rier Air In­dia.

“If Air In­dia has not been run prop­erly,” Bhag­wat said, “then give it to those who will be able to run it prop­erly.” He added later that “it should be an In­dian as you should not let your skies be con­trolled by some­one else” .

The RSS chief was only ar­tic­u­lat­ing what Sangh af­fil­i­ates like the Swadeshi Ja­gran Manch (SJM), which lob­bies for do­mes­tic in­dus­try, and the labour union arm, the Bharatiya Maz­door Sangh (BMS), have been say­ing for months about the sale—that it would be a raw deal for em­ploy­ees and that the gov­ern­ment should in­stead di­vest a mi­nor­ity stake in the stock mar­ket to raise cap­i­tal.

The RSS chief’s state­ment saw the civil avi­a­tion min­istry swing into dam­age con­trol mode. The min­istry has as­sid­u­ously worked over the past 10 months to off­load its ma­jor­ity stake in the air­line, but has strug­gled to find buy­ers. Within a week of Bhag­wat’s speech, the min­istry re­worked the pre­lim­i­nary in­for­ma­tion mem­o­ran­dum (PIM) on Air In­dia’s strate­gic dis­in­vest­ment to make it more at­trac­tive for In­dian play­ers. The new struc­ture will al­low ex­ist­ing play­ers to in­cor­po­rate Air In­dia un­der a sin­gle hold­ing com­pany along with their ex­ist­ing brands. “We will def­i­nitely be in­ter­ested in making sure that Air In­dia re­mains in In­dian hands. Not more than 49 per cent will go to for­eign­ers,” says civil avi­a­tion min­is­ter Suresh Prabhu. On April 23, ex­actly a week after the Sangh chief’s speech, MoS (civil avi­a­tion) Jayant Sinha met SJM na­tional co-con­venor Ash­wani Ma­ha­jan over break­fast to al­lay their fears over the sale.

The stale­mate, though, con­tin­ues, but the SJM had man­aged to bring Sinha to the ne­go­ti­a­tion ta­ble (the next meet­ing is due in the first week of May). Four years into the gov­ern­ment, an out­sized fam­ily of Sangh af­fil­i­ates like the SJM and BMS, has been able to ad­vance the Sangh’s line on cru­cial is­sues—from labour, ed­u­ca­tion and econ­omy to even health­care.

Or­gan­i­sa­tions like the Laghu Udyog Bharti forced cor­rec­tions in the im­ple­men­ta­tion in GST and ex­pan­sion of the def­i­ni­tion of SMEs. The SJM has en­sured that the old for­mat of free trade agree­ments (FTA) has been dis­con­tin­ued (which it feels jeop­ar­dises In­dian in­dus­try) and con­tin­ues to be the big­gest hur­dles for FDI in multi­brand re­tail, brown­field pharma and se­cu­rity agen­cies. In ed­u­ca­tion, the Akhil Bharatiya Vid­yarthi Par­ishad (ABVP), along with the Shik­sha San­skriti Ut­than Nyas (SSUN), have stalled the rec­om­men­da­tions of the T.S.R. Subra­ma­nian com­mit­tee to the HRD min­istry in 2016. They are also push­ing for the re­struc­tur­ing of ed­u­ca­tion bod­ies All In­dia Coun­cil for Tech­ni­cal Ed­u­ca­tion (AICTE) and the Univer­sity Grants Com­mis­sion (UGC). And the BMS has stalled labour re­forms and sell­offs of pub­lic sec­tor un­der­tak­ings.

Mean­while, the SJM is op­posed to In­dia join­ing the WTO or big mul­ti­lat­er­als be­cause it fears an ad­verse im­pact on In­dian in­dus­try. It has pres­sured com­merce min­is­ter Prabhu to block the US-led de­vel­oped coun­tries’ bid to take on new is­sues like e-com­merce and in­vest­ment con­cerns at the fo­rum till old ones like a per­ma­nent so­lu­tion for pub­lic stock­hold­ings of food­grains is not re­solved. Even at the cost of a col­lapse of talks at the min­is­te­rial con­fer­ence in Buenos Aires in De­cem­ber. Last May, the SJM forced the gov­ern­ment to dis­con­tinue plans to dis­band the Na­tional Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal Pric­ing Author­ity (NPPA), a body which it says helps slash prices of sev­eral life-sav­ing drugs and crit­i­cal med­i­cal equip­ment— and is a cru­cial part of PM Modi’s Jan-Aushadhi plan of pro­vid­ing af­ford­able health­care. The SJM and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) have suc­cess­fully blocked the clin­i­cal tri­als of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied (GM) crops. Sens­ing the SJM’s grow­ing clout, the NITI Aayog in­vited it to the PM’s meet­ing with top economists in Jan­uary.

‘Dhar­mak­shetra’, the SJM’s non­de­script head­quar­ters in the mid­dle-class res­i­den­tial colony of R.K. Pu­ram in the cap­i­tal, has seen sev­eral high-pro­file vis­its, from BJP party chief Amit Shah to fi­nance min­is­ter Arun Jait­ley just be­fore the bud­get in Fe­bru­ary. Ra­jiv Ku­mar, vice-chair­man of NITI Aayog, be­came the first head of any think-tank to visit the Sangh af­fil­i­ate. Last year, Ku­mar had re­placed Columbia Univer­sity aca­demi­cian Aravind Pana­gariya, who, to­gether with for­mer RBI gov­er­nor Raghu­ram Ra­jan, had topped the hit list of the Sangh and its in­flu­en­tial ide­o­logue, S. Gu­ru­murthy. The SJM had held them guilty of push­ing free mar­ket eco­nomic poli­cies and op­pos­ing


the al­ter­na­tive the­o­ries pro­pounded by RSS ide­o­logues Deen­dayal Upad­hyaya and Dat­topant Then­gadi.

“The RSS is run­ning the gov­ern­ment,” fumed Congress pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi at an elec­tion speech in Kar­nataka this Fe­bru­ary. “It has planted its peo­ple ev­ery­where. Even sec­re­taries in min­istries are ap­pointed by the RSS.” NITI Aayog’s Ra­jiv Ku­mar, who has had fin­gers pointed at him, says, “I don’t have any hes­i­ta­tion in en­gag­ing with the SJM or any other af­fil­i­ates, but they will not have veto power in pol­icy making.”

Ash­wani Ma­ha­jan, a pro­fes­sor of eco­nomics in Delhi Univer­sity and SJM co-con­venor, sports a blue busi­ness suit, match­ing cuff-links and a cra­vat as he works with as­so­ciates on a pa­per for the gov­ern­ment—it ar­gues that an in­crease in min­i­mum sup­port price (MSP) for kharif crops will not trig­ger in­fla­tion as feared. It was on the in­stance of the SJM and BKS that Jait­ley in­cluded the MSP com­mit­ment in the bud­get this year. Ma­ha­jan, along with the BKS, has also suc­cess­fully halted the charge of GM crops, and is now press­ing for a seed bill, declar­ing the farmer as the real owner of the seed. Their stand got a boost with the Delhi High Court judg­ment on April

11 declar­ing that patents can’t be is­sued on seeds un­der In­dian law. “If the own­er­ship of the seed goes to the farmer, this will per­ma­nently block the en­try of GM prod­ucts in In­dia,” says Badri­narayan Choud­hary, BKS gen­eral sec­re­tary.


The Sangh re­mains wary of Modi’s pro-reform and pro-lib­er­al­i­sa­tion pos­tures. The early days of the Modi gov­ern­ment had sug­gested a re­turn to the open war­fare seen dur­ing NDA-I. There were se­ri­ous dis­agree­ments be­tween the Sangh af­fil­i­ates and the gov­ern­ment on FDI and labour re­forms. The Sangh was fu­ri­ous at not be­ing con­sulted on is­sues like open­ing up FDI in re­tail, bring­ing the land ac­qui­si­tion or­di­nance, labour re­forms, and de-re­serv­ing of MSME ex­clu­sive seg­ments.

The protest from its ide­o­log­i­cal par­ent saw the Modi regime with­draw the land bill in 2015 and slow down labour re­forms. RSS heavy­weights like Kr­ishna Gopal, Dat­ta­treya Hos­a­bale and Suresh Soni stepped in to iron out the dif­fer­ences be­tween the two sides. This re­sulted in an idea that never took off dur­ing NDA-I: bi-monthly co­or­di­na­tion com­mit­tee meet­ings. These meet­ings are chaired by BJP chief Amit Shah with Union min­is­ters rel­e­vant to the is­sue at hand.

Sangh of­fi­cials say they have learned two big lessons from the past—im­prov­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the Cen­tre and al­low­ing af­fil­i­ates to float think-tanks to make in­puts more in­formed are key.

The SJM pub­licly at­tacked the NDA gov­ern­ment for lib­er­al­is­ing FDI norms in 2016 and has taken up a pub­lic cam­paign to cre­ate aware­ness against dump­ing of cheap Chi­nese goods in In­dia. There is, how­ever, no dan­ger of a blow-up. “We’ve learned our les­son,” says a se­nior mem­ber of the Modi cabi­net.

The smooth flow of in­for­ma­tion is the rea­son why one top fi­nance min­istry of­fi­cial says the Sangh did not op­pose the Goods and Ser­vices Tax (GST) last year. “They re­alised that though it cre­ated trou­ble for their core con­stituents—small and medium en­trepreneur­s—it was good for the coun­try,” says a top of­fi­cial in the fi­nance min­istry.

The Sangh phi­los­o­phy also in­flu­ences gov­ern­ment pol­icy making, says one se­nior cabi­net min­is­ter. He de­fines this as “bring­ing Indic val­ues in cul­ture, com­merce, econ­omy, agri­cul­ture, ed­u­ca­tion and health”. Many poli­cies now di­rectly take from RSS ide­o­logue Deen­dayal Upad­hyay’s ‘an­ty­o­daya’ and ‘in­te­gral hu­man­ism’ con­cepts. These in­clude en­ergy ac­cess to the poor­est, af­ford­able health­care, im­prov­ing ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion, “or the gov­er­nance mod­els of state mov­ing out of wel­fare to de­vel­op­ment mode, to­wards labour ori­ented pol­icy making. We are al­ready do­ing this, if they have in­puts, it’s wel­come,” says Gopal Kr­ishna Agar­wal, the BJP’s na­tional spokesper­son on eco­nomic af­fairs.

On the con­tentious dis­in­vest­ment is­sue, BMS chief Saji Narayanan C.K. says, “A na­tional de­bate is needed on the role of PSUs and how or why they should not be dis­in­vested.” Kash­miri Lal of the SJM says, “Sell­ing PSU stakes to pri­vate play­ers is a west­ern model of lib­er­al­i­sa­tion, we need to find our own way.”

Equally crit­i­cal to the Sangh is the is­sue of open­ing up FDI in re­tail. At a co­or­di­na­tion meet­ing on De­cem­ber 26 last year, Jait­ley asked the SJM lead­er­ship to con­sider the


prob­lem with an open mind: would they con­sider it if all prod­ucts sold in the re­tail shop were Made in In­dia? Jait­ley was un­der pres­sure from Har­sim­rat Badal’s food pro­cess­ing min­istry and the NITI Aayog. The SJM re­jected the pro­posal out­right. Pri­vately, SJM lead­ers ad­mit that FDI is a “de­sir­able devil”. “All we ask is for an ecosys­tem to de­velop the do­mes­tic mar­ket too. This means ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tion of im­port du­ties and strength­en­ing ac­cess to cap­i­tal. We are glad the gov­ern­ment is do­ing it,” says a Sangh ide­o­logue.

Sangh af­fil­i­ates say they can over­look FDI in cer­tain sec­tors, but they have a list of no-go ar­eas: multi-brand re­tail, se­cu­rity and man­power in­dus­try, brown­field phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals and in­vest­ments from China.


The last men­tioned area is why Modi’s outreach to China in 2018 will be vet­ted very care­fully. The Sangh has a very clear line on China: it is not a friend of In­dia. “Ini­tially, the gov­ern­ment told us the 21st cen­tury is of In­dia and China,” says Kash­miri Lal. “But we ex­plained to them that China is not our friend.”

The SJM be­lieves its shrill cam­paigns after the bor­der stand-off at Dok­lam forced the gov­ern­ment to pull the plug on sev­eral projects al­lot­ted to the Chi­nese, in­clud­ing rail tran­sit equip­ment man­u­fac­turer CRRC’s Nag­pur project for metro coaches, in­stal­la­tion of a smart grid and a bid for a train sets man­u­fac­tur­ing unit at Kanchra­para in West Ben­gal.

Part of the SJM’s pique has to do with the trade deficit be­tween the two coun­tries cross­ing $50 bil­lion and the dump­ing of Chi­nese goods in In­dia. It has run a mas­sive cam­paign to push anti-dump­ing du­ties of prod­ucts rang­ing from steel, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, chem­i­cals, fish­ing nets, elec­tri­cal equip­ment, to mo­bile hand­sets and more. Of the 370-odd com­plaints re­ceived by the Di­rec­torate Gen­eral of Anti-Dump­ing & Al­lied Du­ties (DGAD) — a quasi ju­di­cial body un­der the com­merce min­istry, nearly 220 were against Chi­nese im­ports and du­ties were levied on 120-odd prod­ucts.

The SJM is al­ready push­ing for set­ting stan­dards for var­i­ous prod­ucts, and amend­ments in the Gen­eral Fi­nan­cial Rules (GFR) to curb cheaper Chi­nese im­ports. Im­ports of low-end prod­ucts like toys, for in­stance, dropped by less than half after the gov­ern­ment man­dated tougher qual­ity cri­te­ria and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion by ac­cred­ited agen­cies last Septem­ber. Be­fore this, Chi­nese toys ac­counted for 70 per cent of In­dia’s Rs 5,000 crore toy in­dus­try.


In July 2015, Modi in­vited the BMS’s Narayanan to the PM’s res­i­dence for tea. The union was an­gered by the gov­ern­ment push­ing for changes in labour rules like the Ap­pren­tices Act, 1961; the Fac­to­ries Act, 1948, and Labour Laws, 1988, along with the re­lax­ations of­fered by states like Ra­jasthan and Mad­hya Pradesh. Within a fort­night of the meet­ing, the PM had formed a five-mem­ber min­is­te­rial group. By Au­gust-end, eight of the union’s 12 de­mands were met. This min­is­te­rial group still ex­ists, and con­tin­ues meet­ings with not only the BMS but other labour groups as well. That said, there are fierce dis­putes still—it has op­posed the in­tro­duc­tion of ‘fixed term em­ploy­ment’ in the bud­get speech of Jait­ley, which led to na­tion­wide protests and a threat to boy­cott the In­dian Labour Con­fer­ence (ILC) due in Fe­bru­ary this year (the PM was sched­uled to at­tend it). Fear­ing an em­bar­rass­ment, the gov­ern­ment can­celled this year’s edi­tion of the ILC.

The PM’s Eco­nomic Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil chair­man Bibek De­broy says there is a need for har­mon­i­sa­tion of labour laws—some were framed as far back as 1885. “But this is vo­lu­mi­nous work, and we need a con­sen­sus on this,” he

“The NDA gov­ern­ment’s big­gest con­tri­bu­tion would be to be re­cep­tive to fresh ideas. Good ideas can come from any­where— one should pick what is good for the coun­try and for ed­u­ca­tion as a sec­tor” ATUL KOTHARI Gen­eral sec­re­tary, Shik­sha San­skriti Ut­than Nyas “We don’t pres­sure min­is­ters, but give them in­puts. Sangh or­gan­i­sa­tions work with peo­ple and are aware of their as­pi­ra­tions. It is the duty of the gov­ern­ment to lis­ten” MANMOHAN VAIDYA Joint gen­eral sec­re­tary, RSS

says. In the past four years, the BMS has pushed the en­ve­lope on many fronts. This in­cludes the re­vival of the Na­tional So­cial Se­cu­rity Board for Unor­gan­ised Work­ers. The body has an ad­vi­sory role, but the BMS has a 14-point agenda, in­clud­ing af­ford­able hous­ing, upgra­da­tion of skills, im­prove­ment of pub­lic health, pro­vi­sions of old age homes etc.


Sangh af­fil­i­ates like the ABVP reckon that a ma­jor test of its in­flu­ence will be the new ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy which will over­haul the one for­mu­lated in 1986. The ABVP, led by its pow­er­ful na­tional or­gan­is­ing sec­re­tary Su­nil Am­bekar, suc­cess­fully op­posed the T.S.R. Subra­ma­nian draft of the New Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy sub­mit­ted to the HRD min­istry in 2016. Am­bekar is an in­flu­en­tial pracharak and his op­po­si­tion led to the for­ma­tion of the new com­mit­tee, headed by for­mer ISRO chief K. Kas­turi­ran­gan. It sub­mit­ted its report to HRD min­is­ter Prakash Javadekar in the first week of April. The new pol­icy, they say, will bring more syn­ergy with skills, an em­pha­sis on val­ues and study of his­tory along with cre­at­ing more space for teach­ing in ver­nac­u­lar lan­guages. In 2014/15, just after the NDA took charge, Atul Kothari and Di­nanath Ba­tra of SSUN also en­sured the re­moval of dis­crep­an­cies in the CSAT and UPSC ex­ams. This al­lowed for a level play­ing field for those from ver­nac­u­lar medi­ums.

The re­vival of San­skrit is another item on the Sangh’s agenda. Af­fil­i­ates like the San­skrit Bharati are push­ing for the study of sci­ence and technology as re­flected in San­skrit lit­er­a­ture, along with an in­ter-dis­ci­plinary study of San­skrit and mod­ern sub­jects. In 2016, all IITs and IIMs were asked by the HRD min­istry to of­fer elec­tive lan­guage cour­ses in San­skrit. In Jan­uary this year, IIT Kan­pur started text and au­dio ser­vices re­lated to San­skrit and Hindu texts.

The HRD min­istry is also be­ing lob­bied with de­mands like a faster re­view of the Right to Ed­u­ca­tion and state-wise reg­u­la­tors for ed­u­ca­tion. Am­bekar is push­ing for the in­tro­duc­tion of state-wise reg­u­la­tors to curb the “com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion” of ed­u­ca­tion. “Reg­u­la­tors played a piv­otal role in both tele­com and civil avi­a­tion sec­tors where the en­try of pri­vate play­ers not only im­proved ser­vices but also re­duced the cost for con­sumers,” he points out.

While the Sangh af­fil­i­ates now form a huge pres­sure group on the gov­ern­ment, they chafe at the slow pace of pol­icy im­ple­men­ta­tion. A se­nior RSS pracharak blames the bu­reau­cracy. “Some­times, we get the vibe that they don’t take us se­ri­ously,” he says. Clearly, another area of con­ver­gence be­tween the Sangh and the gov­ern­ment.

“We are their (the gov­ern­ment’s) con­science keep­ers. We stand with them when they are right, we op­pose them if we find their de­ci­sions are anti-peo­ple” ASH­WANI MA­HA­JAN Co-con­venor, Swadeshi Ja­gran Manch



BULL CHARGE RSS chief Mo­han Bhag­wat at the Bom­bay Stock Ex­change, where he gave a lec­ture on April 16


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