The New Mandarins

Amit Shah’s re-election masks a resurgence of RSS power within the BJP

Since Amit Shah (centre) began his second term as the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the number of people speaking for the organisation has expanded to include leaders who enjoy the confidence of the Sangh but had lately been reduced to mere ciphers. arvind yadav / hindustan times / getty images
Elections 2024
01 March, 2016

On 24 January, Amit Shah began his second term as president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, following a first stint that began in July 2014, soon after Narendra Modi assumed power. The controversy over the suicide of Rohith Vemula, on 17 January, was engulfing the party. Vemula was a PhD scholar and a member of the Ambedkar Students Association at the University of Hyderabad, whose stipend had been stopped after a fracas with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Reports that the university’s actions may have resulted from interventions by the union minister Bandaru Dattatreya, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh man, and the human resources minister, Smriti Irani, were damaging the BJP, which was already vulnerable to criticism that it was anti-Dalit. The party’s reaction—which was to question if Vemula was indeed a Dalit—utterly failed to contain the damage. Modi intervened, briefly and belatedly, to express anguish at the suicide, but the overwhelming tone of the party was to strongly defend Dattatreya and Irani.

Less than a month later, on 12 February, police arrested Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, on charges of sedition, after he attended an event where allegedly anti-India slogans had been raised. Once again, the ABVP—whose candidate had been defeated by Kanhaiya in the university’s union elections—was at the forefront of protesting “anti-national” activities. This time, to avoid a repeat of its embarrassment after the Hyderabad episode, the BJP took to branding all opposition to its actions as anti-national. Those leading the charge included the home minister, Rajnath Singh, who tweeted, “If anyone shouts anti India slogan & challenges nation’s sovereignty & integrity while living in India, they will not be tolerated or spared.” In the immediate aftermath, Modi did not offer up even a token statement, though the storm of controversy that followed sidelined an extravagant, week-long programme of events in support of the “Make in India” campaign, one of his pet projects.

Superficially, Shah’s reinstatement as the BJP’s head would seem to signal a continuation of the party’s ways during his first term. Back then, the party line was dominated by the combine of Shah, Modi and Arun Jaitley. But as these two incidents demonstrated, this will not be so in Shah’s second turn. The normally vocal Jaitley, who has never enjoyed the confidence of the Sangh, has been conspicuous by his almost complete silence. Meanwhile, the number of people speaking for the BJP has expanded to include leaders such as Singh and Sushma Swaraj, who enjoy the confidence of the Sangh and had lately been reduced to mere ciphers. And the line they echo is not set by Modi and his lieutenants, but by the RSS.

Shah’s resumption of the party’s presidency was expected—though not because of a successful first term. As part of the Modi-led combine, Shah presided over the BJP’s humiliating defeats in assembly elections in Delhi and then Bihar. But his removal would have meant a loss of face for Modi, which was something neither the party nor the RSS wanted. Still, on several fronts of power within the party and the government, there are changes playing out, as the RSS is asserting its control to unsettling effect. This impact is most evident in the BJP’s electoral management, particularly as it prepares for a series of upcoming assembly elections that will culminate in state elections in Uttar Pradesh in early 2017. In the coming months, the BJP will be focused on Assam, where it senses a chance to come to power, and West Bengal, where it hopes to considerably expand its base. The RSS has already begun to play a very visible role in running the campaign—departing from a habit of largely concealing such overt political activity. Much of the party’s growth in Assam is a result of the RSS’s persistent organisational and campaign work in the state, and the control of the party there is largely in the hands of trusted RSS figures such as Krishna Gopal and Ram Madhav, both deputed to the BJP to liaise between it and its parent organisation. In West Bengal, in the aftermath of the Bihar results, Rahul Sinha, a two-time president of the BJP’s unit in the state, was replaced by Dilip Ghose, an RSS veteran. In both these states—and in Uttar Pradesh, where Amit Shah spearheaded the Modi-centric 2014 campaign—the electioneering looks increasingly less focused on the prime minister.

Potentially the most contentious area of dispute between Modi’s cohort and the RSS is the economy. News reports, albeit ones based on sources from the opposition, have already indicated that voting on the proposed Goods and Services Tax, a major plank of Modi’s economic plans, may be deferred beyond the upcoming session of parliament, partly because of resistance from the RSS and its large base of traders. Possibly the most startling indication of impending change in economic governance was a Reuters report in December, which stated that Arun Jaitley was likely to be ousted from his post as finance minister after presenting the new budget in late February. Surprisingly, despite Jaitley’s formidable clout in the media, the report was widely publicised and reproduced. Less surprising, but more dangerous for Jaitley, was that very few BJP leaders were willing to contradict the report, even when speaking off the record.

In other cases, there might not be changes in the nature of policy, but new personalities are coming to the fore. This is true for defence, where both the RSS and Modi take a strong line. But, on internal security, Rajnath Singh is likely to try and counter the influence of the current national security advisor, Ajit Doval, a Modi favourite already weakened by the Pathankot fiasco. A similar tussle, this time pitting Doval—who aspires to be the czar of India’s strategic outlook on the world—against Sushma Swaraj, is set to play out in the ministry of external affairs, which Swaraj officially helms.

Most BJP leaders outside Modi’s closest circle, including Singh and Swaraj, will have little problem with the fact that their rise in prominence depends on them speaking the RSS’s language. The reality is that the BJP, from temporarily being Modi’s party, is changing back to what it has largely been throughout its history: the political front of the RSS. What is really different now, though, is that, for the first time ever, the RSS will be in control of a party that enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha. This gives the organisation a newfound confidence in asserting particular beliefs that, though a core part of its political ideology, it had earlier remained silent about.

For much of the history of independent India, the RSS has lived with a particular form of deceit, taking postures in public that have little connection with its real convictions. The ban on the organisation in the aftermath of the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi was lifted, in 1949, only after it pledged loyalty to the Indian constitution, and adopted a written constitution of its own drafted by its second sarsanghchalak, or leader, MS Golwalkar. Despite the RSS being forced to swear by the Indian constitution, Golwalkar’s actual views on the document were no secret. In his 1966 book Bunch of Thoughts, he stated,

Our Constitution too is just a cumbersome and heterogeneous piecing together of various articles from various Constitutions of Western countries. It has absolutely nothing which can be called our own. Is there a single word of reference in its guiding principles as to what our national mission is and what our keynote in life is? No! Some lame principles form (sic) the United Nations Charter or from the Charter of the now defunct League of Nations and some features form the American and British Constitutions have been just brought together in a mere hotchpotch.

In all the decades since, the RSS’s ideology has never moved beyond Golwalkar’s views. But, for much of that time, it has practiced a public concealment of its private views—so much so that this became second nature for the organisation. Its stance recalls ketman: the act, defined in Islamic jurisprudence, of overtly complying with authority while reserving personal resistance. It was famously used by Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet and dissident, in his nonfiction book The Captive Mind, which attempts to illuminate Polish intellectuals’ compromises with Communism in the wake of the Second World War. In it, Milosz quotes the French writer Arthur de Gobineau describing the Shia practice of ketman in the face of religious persecution:

He who is in possession of truth must not expose his person, his relatives or his reputation to the blindness, the folly, the perversity of those whom it has pleased God to place and maintain in error … Nevertheless, there are occasions when silence no longer suffices, when it may pass as an avowal. Then one must not hesitate. Not only must one deny one’s true opinion, but one is commanded to resort to all ruses to deceive one’s adversary. One makes all the protestations of faith that can please him, one performs all the rites one recognises to be the most vain, one falsifies one’s own books, one exhausts all possible means of deceit.

The RSS’s ketman played out for over six decades. But, over the last few years, it has departed from this practice in ways that express a clear discomfort with continued concealment. Mohan Bhagwat, the organisation’s latest sarsanghchalak, has played a more prominent role in public life than any of his near predecessors. Shortly after Modi came to power, Bhagwat announced, “Hindustan is a Hindu nation ... Hindutva is the identity of our nation.” The assertion challenges the very basis of the Indian constitution, which does not take recourse to religion, ideology or history to define Indian identity. At the beginning of this year, though, Bhagwat, with equal ease, asserted that the RSS has no disagreement with the constitution. Clearly, from the ketman of the years when it had little access to power, the RSS has moved to a more ambiguous position, testing the limits on the open articulation of its views.

Bhagwat’s greater public assertion of his organisation’s political views is a good indication of what we are likely to see over the next year or two. Through Shah’s first term, the RSS’s influence on the BJP seemed largely limited to what is considered the “cultural” domain—policies on education, history and dietary practices. Now, it is likely to extend its sway over other aspects of the party’s stance, including on the very definition of citizenship in the constitution, which at the moment does not privilege any particular religious origin.

Despite the larger-than-life presence of Modi, the BJP, within two years of its most visible success, has been reduced to a greater subservience to the RSS than it ever was under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In fact, the very possibility of a BJP prime minister who, like Vajpayee, could steer a government line largely free of RSS control, is no longer conceivable. The one thing that the RSS will still have to wait on is its desire to replace the constitution. But then, the organisation’s history reveals that if there is anything it knows well, it is how to bide its time.