How Amit Shah and the RSS managed the BJP’s Varanasi campaign

11 May 2014
“It is like Modi’s wedding," a senior RSS worker in Varanasi said of the campaign. “The BJP is like the son’s friends, who dance and create a lot of noise. The Sangh is like the groom’s father."
Associated Press

Ask any Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh official about the organisation’s interest in politics and you will usually receive some version of a stock reply: the RSS is an apolitical, socio-cultural organisation involved in social (and cultural) work. In reality, of course, the Sangh exerts a profound influence on the Bharatiya Janata Party on many fronts, from policy framing to selection of leaders.

The organisation has remained largely away from the political spotlight during this election. But at least in Varanasi, centrestage in this year’s electoral war, a closer look reveals that it is not the BJP, but the Sangh that has been the engine powering the campaign.

A nagar karyavaha—a mid-level RSS worker—whom I met in the city used an unusual, if telling, metaphor to describe the RSS’s role in the campaign. “You see this hand?” he said, holding up his palm. “You can only see the palm lines and it is clean. The millions of microorganisms will only be visible under a microscope. Similarly, the Sangh workers are invisible, but always at work.” Portraits of the RSS’s first and second sarsanghchalaks, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar and Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, stared down from the wall behind him. The karyavaha explained that the RSS workers had been instructed that this was a “karo ya maro” (do or die) election for them. At the same time, they were never to “cross the line,” and were to avoid being seen actively campaigning. “The instructions given are: never go to the BJP office, don’t hold the BJP flag, don’t be seen on the BJP stage, don’t use Modi’s name in pamphlets, et cetera,” he said.

At one point during our conversation, the karyavaha received a phone call from Praful Patel, a former home minister of Gujarat, who was in town to help with Narendra Modi’s campaign, and wanted to enquire about a meeting later that day in Mahamanapuri Colony, which fell within the karyavaha’s area. That evening I went to the meeting, an unofficial open-house where locals came to meet Patel, and where he looked into certain aspects of campaigning. Most of the workers present were from the RSS. “If you don’t work for your own man, when will you work?” Patel said to them with a smile, just before leaving.

While the “Gujarat model” of development has been discussed to death this election, the “Gujarat model” of campaigning, being implemented by Amit Shah in Varanasi, has received less attention. Shashi Kumar Singh, the sampark pramukh—also a mid-level RSS worker—for the Ganganagar area, explained it to me. “The RSS aim is to reach every house in the constituency,” he said. “So they have divided the responsibility.” A “booth prabhari,” or booth in-charge, oversees a certain number of booths in the constituency. Under the booth prabhari is the panna prabhari, or page in-charge. “A panna prabhari is given the responsibility to reach out to 60 voters listed on two sides of a page of the voter list,” Shashi said.

Praveen Donthi  is a staff writer at The Caravan.

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