Mo­han Bhag­wat and a ven­tril­o­quist’s trick

The RSS chief’s ap­par­ently con­flict­ing call for an in­clu­sive In­dia and clam­our for a Ram tem­ple are born out of a need to stay rel­e­vant in un­cer­tain times

Gulf News - - The Views - By San­jib Ku­mar Das Se­nior Pages Edi­tor ■ You can fol­low San­jib Ku­mar Das on Twit­ter: @moumi­ayush.

It’s a re­dux, but one that makes sure you do not miss out on the dog-whis­tle bit! Start­ing with the com­ments at the three­day con­clave in New Delhi in Septem­ber and right up to his Vi­jayadashami speech late last month, Rashtriya Swayam­se­vak Sangh (RSS) chief Mo­han Bhag­wat has of late ap­peared to be send­ing out rather con­flict­ing sig­nals that may even seem to con­sti­tute a counter-nar­ra­tive to a more stri­dent Hindu na­tion­al­ist agenda as cham­pi­oned by In­dia’s rul­ing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“Hindu rash­tra [a Hindu state] doesn’t mean there’s no place for Mus­lims;” “Hin­dutva means in­clu­siv­ity and ac­cept­ing Mus­lims is a part of it;” “The sangh [RSS] talks of a global brother­hood. This brother­hood en­vis­ages unity in di­ver­sity.”

These and sev­eral other ob­ser­va­tions by the top­most func­tionary of In­dia’s fore­most right­ist-na­tion­al­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion cre­ated quite a stir in the me­dia and po­lit­i­cal cir­cles in In­dia. Ap­par­ently, Bhag­wat’s com­ments would im­ply a repo­si­tion­ing of the RSS brand iden­tity, a re­dux that would leave many a po­lit­i­cal ob­server stumped.

For an or­gan­i­sa­tion that has al­ways been so very vo­cal about es­tab­lish­ing Hin­duism and its ba­sic tenets as the be­drock of na­tion­al­ism, one that has al­ways sought to es­tab­lish Hin­dutva (Hindu na­tion­al­ism) as its tem­plate for a monochro­matic In­dia; for the head of such an or­gan­i­sa­tion to sud­denly come out in the open and ex­tol the virtues of an in­clu­sive In­dia that em­braces Mus­lims and other mi­nori­ties is in­deed a wa­ter­shed. To some, it may even seem that the RSS has stepped on the BJP’s toes with its overt ‘out­reach’ to a non-Hindu au­di­ence.

And yet, the same Bhag­wat was quite ret­i­cent in his claim for a Ram tem­ple in Ay­o­d­hya in his lat­est speech — the RSS chief’s cus­tom­ary an­nual ad­dress on the oc­ca­sion of Vi­jayadashami.

Taken to­gether, the Bhag­wat dou­ble­s­peak of sorts is a care­fully-cal­i­brated par for the course: Throw in a bit of ‘sec­u­lar’ win­dow-dress­ing for a pri­mar­ily Hindu na­tion­al­ist agenda, thereby mak­ing sure there’s a bait of one’s choos­ing in every fish­pond!

Apart from a des­per­ate bid to re­po­si­tion RSS’s image among a largely sec­u­lar elec­torate, Bhag­wat’s words at the Delhi con­clave con­sti­tuted a ven­tril­o­quist’s trick to test wa­ters among a poll­bound au­di­ence. One doesn’t re­ally have to be a po­lit­i­cal pun­dit to say that the BJP faces quite an up­hill task at next year’s gen­eral elec­tion. Un­der the cir­cum­stances, RSS singing paeans to In­dia’s cul­ture of in­clu­siv­ity and di­ver­sity is pure pol­i­tics.

By talk­ing about Hin­dutva that em­braces Mus­lims and by try­ing to re­cast the RSS as an out­fit that is for all In­di­ans, and not just re­stricted to a very nar­row def­i­ni­tion of a quasi-re­li­gious or­gan­i­sa­tion in terms of its con­stricted world­view, the wily Bhag­wat has sent out a dog-whis­tle to the pri­mar­ily apo­lit­i­cal, sec­u­lar sec­tion of the elec­torate that had bought into Naren­dra Modi’s de­vel­op­ment pitch in 2014. That same sec­tion may not be that en­thu­si­as­tic in sub­scrib­ing to the saf­fron agenda this time around, given the Union gov­ern­ment’s largely lack­lus­tre show­ing over the last four years. And with every pass­ing day, as the non-Hindu and sec­u­lar vote crys­tallises more and more un­der a Congress-led op­po­si­tion flag, the BJP’s prob­lems are likely to com­pound, par­tic­u­larly in large swathes of North­ern and Western In­dia where the Lo­tus had bloomed with such alacrity in 2014.

Con­flat­ing the sec­u­lar mes­sage

In that vein, Bhag­wat root­ing for an in­clu­sive In­dian so­ci­ety marks an RSS move to­wards the Cen­tre from its hith­erto ul­tra-Right po­si­tion. This leaves the core con­stituent of the BJP’s Hindu vote in­tact, but con­flates the sec­u­lar mes­sage of the Congress and other non-BJP par­ties with the RSS’s own brand of quasi-re­li­gious, pseudo-na­tion­al­ist blus­ter that very cun­ningly doesn’t shy away from talk­ing about Mus­lims as equal stake­hold­ers in a na­tional de­vel­op­ment agenda.

Head­ing into an elec­tion year, as the RSS tries to turn more left-of-Cen­tre, it may as well di­lute the mes­sage that the Congress and other sec­u­lar par­ties would like to bear, thus help­ing con­sol­i­date the Hindu vote more de­ci­sively for the BJP.

This ploy be­comes all the clearer when the same Bhag­wat airs a fer­vent de­mand in pub­lic for a Ram tem­ple — in a bid to ap­pease fun­da­men­tal­ist Hindu sen­ti­ments and more im­por­tantly, help the BJP chalk out its elec­tion road map.

Now add to this pos­tur­ing the in­vi­ta­tion sent out to for­mer pres­i­dent of In­dia and a Con­gress­man to the core, Pranab Mukher­jee, to be present at the Nagpur head­quar­ters of the RSS ear­lier this year. With that ap­par­ently be­nign move of rolling out the red car­pet for a non-po­lit­i­cal dig­ni­tary, RSS as­serted its mal­leabil­ity to a non-par­ti­san prime min­is­te­rial can­di­date from within the Na­tional Demo­cratic Al­liance sta­ble, should the BJP fail to muster a ma­jor­ity on its own in 2019.

In a nut­shell, Bhag­wat speak is any­thing but a course-cor­rec­tion and ev­ery­thing about stay­ing po­lit­i­cally rel­e­vant in un­cer­tain times.

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