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
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.