We may be on the cusp of an enlightened Hindu consensus
Political debates centred on ideas, if not ideology, are relatively uncommon in India. There are important interventions on tactics — particularly in relation to electoral politics — but when it comes to reflecting on issues of core belief, the post-Independence experience has been found wanting. This is not to suggest that there have been no important innovations. But like the change of economic direction in 1992, the shifts have been undertaken by stealth. This may be a reason why the Congress, for example, wavers uneasily between the Nehruvian consensus and the ideological upgradation that was sought to be introduced by that great unsung reformer, P V Narasimha Rao. In the case of the Left, change has often followed developments in other societies and even the collapse of the communist centre — whether in Moscow or Beijing — has not led to a bout of national creativity.
It is in this context that RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s three-part address in Delhi last week assumes exceptional importance. As a network that straddles three crucial strands in India — politics, social institutions and Hindu samaj — its influence over national life is significant. It may be said to be at the core of an India that is wedded to both inheritance and modernity, the proverbial Middle India. There is no commonly understood expression for conservatism in Indian languages. If there was, the RSS could be said to broadly reflect and shape those impulses. Much more than a guide to people’s voting intentions, the RSS has played the role of a moral centre, competing with other points of influence.
In the recent past, the RSS has been disproportionately preoccupied with extending its social and geographical reach through organisational means. Ever since the body was formally launched in 1925, it has worked on the assumption that a true resurgence of India could come about if there were enough citizens who combined the right values (samskaras) with patriotism and nobility of purpose. That it has shed its initial stand of complete detachment from politics is undeniable and, at the same time, it has tried to maintain an awkward arm’s-length separation of the parent body with the BJP. It has been particularly uneasy over controversies that invariably accompanied its highly complex relationship with the BJP. The distinc- tion it has sought to make over intervening in ‘national’ issues and detachment from purely partisan concerns has often been erratic and dependant on individual sarsanghchalaks.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s relationship with the RSS, for example, went through various ups and downs. He was the poster boy of the Jana Sangh but fell from grace during the stewardship of Balasaheb Deoras. He maintained a level of mature understanding with Rajendra Singh but the relationship became extremely strained during the tenure of K S Sudarshan, a period that coincided with Vajpayee’s term as PM.
Despite initial strains when he was CM of Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has established a happy equilibrium in his relations with Bhagwat. Yet, there are potential points of friction between the compulsions of governance and the idealised picture of Bharat that drives the RSS. Moreover, far from being on the fringes, the BJP is today the principal party in India, its influence having undergone a phenomenal expansion since the late 1980s. The sheer diversity and social complexities of India has meant that many of the assumptions that shaped the RSS in the past needed a review if the RSS-BJP relationship could remain on an even keel for the foreseeable future.
It is to the credit of Bhagwat that he had the sagacity and the self-confidence to be the much-needed revisionist and clarify the terms of the RSS engagement with 21st century India. That he implicitly repudiated Veer Savarkar’s definition of Hindutva and M S Golwalkar’s view of nationhood is apparent. Hindutva as an ideal has been maintained but made non-doctrinaire to embrace three unexceptionable principles: patriotism, respect for the past and ancestry, and cultural pride. This, coupled with categorical assertions that different modes of worship and different lifestyles does not exclude people from the Hindu Rashtra, is important in reforging the RSS to confront the challenges of an India more exposed to economic growth and global influences than ever before. There is a difference between conservative and reactionary and Bhagwat spelt it out bluntly.
Bhagwat has, in effect, tried to convert Hindu nationalism from being a contested ideological preoccupation to becoming India’s new common sense. Depending on how the message is digested by the RSS, BJP and society, India could well be on the cusp of defining an enlightened Hindu consensus.
CHANGING TRACK: Mohan Bhagwat has seen the need to clarify the terms of RSS engagement with 21st century India