After slow ascent, RSS has firm grip on Indian polity for next 25 years

The RSS leadership is aware that support for its fundamental beliefs and programmes has reached a level from where its influence will not diminish completely over the next few decades, even if the BJP were to lose power

RSS and Indian politics
India’s “eternal culture” and “brave and ethical forefathers” are emphasised by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, who says “national interest” must act as the “sole foundation” of every action of citizens.

It is a paradox that despite its ‘awkward’ relationship with the national flag for the major part of India’s post-colonial history, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) either directly, or through its most potent affiliate, the BJP, took on the role of shepherding the tricolour on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Independence Day.

This watershed moment in the life of the nation and the path ahead coincides with a critical time in the history of the RSS. Formed on the day of Dussehra in 1925, the organisation is already in centenary mode although formal celebrations will kick-start only in 2024, a few months after the scheduled date of the next Lok Sabha elections.

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Of the almost 100 years since it was established, the RSS and its affiliates were politically marginal players for most of the time. It has either actually wielded, or been close to wielding, state power for barely a quarter of a century or so. Although the political ascendancy of the RSS and the BJP began on the shoulders of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, it was only after 2014 that the Sangh Parivar succeeded in shedding the pretence of commitment to consensual politics.

The emergence of the BJP as a political hegemony was possible because of a significant increase in people’s support for the core principles of the RSS, best expressed in a single word – Hindutva.

Amrit Kaal of a new India

As a result, the RSS approaches its centenary year with the confidence of influencing, more than ever before, India’s political discourse over the next 25 years – a period that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a RSS pracharak till the late 1980s, termed as the Amrit Kaal of the country.

Also read: Once a whisper, RSS slogan of ‘Akhand Bharat’ now a dangerous chorus

The catchphrase was coined by Modi in 2021 while launching celebrations for the 75th anniversary of Independence Day. He did so while unveiling a new roadmap for the country for the next 25 years and ways to improve the lives of the citizens. He promised to lessen the gap in development between rural and urban areas, and his pet theme – means to reduce the government’s interference in people’s lives.

“Starting from now, the journey of the next 25 years is the Amrit Kaal of a new India. The fulfilment of our resolutions in this Amrit Kaal will take us till 100 years of Independence,” Modi asserted last year in his Independence Day speech.

The concept of Amrit Kaal, on which the 75th anniversary celebrations are also named – Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav – comes from Vedic astrology. It denotes the auspicious period or moment when the gates of greater pleasure open for all beings – the inhuman, angels and humans.

Build-up to India@20147

Amrit Kaal is considered the most auspicious time to start new work. The idea was introduced into India’s political vocabulary by Modi as the build-up to India@2047 – when the country marks the centenary of its Independence. This period is depicted as an era when official initiatives will act as a panacea for all current deficiencies.

Modi’s presentation was based on the presupposition of the BJP being in power during the entire period. It was implicitly stated that the Prime Minister then will merely ‘deliver’ what was begun during his tenure.

Despite the BJP’s current electoral dominance, it cannot be said with certainty that India will continue being governed by the party for the entire period till 2047. It would be prudent to conclude that Modi speaks of the future with certainty as a ploy to secure his current and impending electoral challenges.

Also read: Spread of Hindutva is blurring caste divisions and regional faultlines

Traditionally, RSS leaders have taken a more long-term view and drawn plans accordingly. The leadership of the RSS is aware that the support for its fundamental beliefs and programmes has reached a level from where its influence will not diminish completely over the next few decades, even if the BJP were to lose power and, with that, the RSS its current benefits for being entrenched within the system.

Regardless of the BJP winning the next elections or not, the RSS leadership knows that while Modi may have brought a certain amount of incremental supporters to the Sangh Parivar fold, the fraternity on its own is currently backed by more Indians than ever before. Importantly, supporters of the RSS are not drawn to it because of any individual but because of its core values.

The centenary year of RSS

As a result, the RSS, besides drawing up plans for engaging with the people in its centenary year, is also looking at a time-frame well into the next couple of decades.

In a signed article in the Hindustan Times on August 14, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat stated that festivities of the moment apart, several “old issues are pending and a few new ones are emerging.” While he did not list these new challenges facing the RSS specifically, Bhagwat indicated these in a roundabout manner.

The RSS has prioritised its focus areas on social and political campaigns that will be followed in the coming years and decades. The RSS, through its campaigns and programmes, will work towards bolstering what its leaders have traditionally termed as ‘selfhood’, or the prefix of swa in various words like swarajya or swaraj, meaning independence.

Also read: Why RSS is keen on dividing Bengal even as BJP drops the demand

Clarity on what constitutes ‘selfhood’ can come only with ‘unconditional patriotism’, ‘discipline’ – both individual and collective and finally the last of the quartet of the RSS’s priority areas – ‘unity’.

On the face of it, the actual programmes or the intentions of the RSS appear a benign lot over which there can be little dispute. But it becomes problematic when there is emphasis on “eternal ideals of Bharat and its contemporary manifestation” without specifying what these are. A promise is in effect extracted without spelling out what one must abide with.

After all, what person ‘A’ considers to be the ‘eternal ideals’ of the nation may not be deemed as perpetual principles by individual ‘B’. Furthermore, what is “contemporary manifestation”? In the course of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, it was consistently argued that the epic hero must be considered mahapurush or ‘revered individual’ by all citizens – and in the manner as devotees of Ram ordain – even though such treatment may not be allowed for the followers of a different faith.

The concept of unity  

The RSS has secured an ideological stranglehold over a significant section of Indians by underplaying Indian diversity and laying greater emphasis on the concept of unity. India’s “eternal culture” and the “brave and ethical forefathers” are emphasised by Bhagwat, who also adds that “national interest” must act as the “sole foundation” of every action of citizens.

Given the dominant position of the RSS, many ‘demands’ on citizens which used to be veiled previously, are expected to be included, without disguising them, in RSS campaigns over the next few years.

In the past few years, we witnessed leaders ranging from Modi to former President Ram Nath Kovind emphasising on Fundamental Duties of citizens over Universal Rights of citizens enshrined in the Constitution. The element of conditionality was introduced – first ‘perform your duties’ and only then ‘seek’ your rights, was the argument.

For an organisation which officially claims to be ‘cultural’ in orientation, it is ironical for Bhagwat to dwell on “certain essential preconditions for the success of a democratic system”. The first prerequisite is “synergy between national interest, political ideologies, and the merit of the individual candidates.” This demonstrates an enhanced role of the RSS in electoral politics in the coming decades.

The RSS is also going to emphasise on “the natural habit of following laws, obeying the Constitution and civic discipline”. On their own, none of these commands can be faulted.

However, it is worrisome when these are listed with no mention of actions that are considered ‘legitimate’ in the event of the State failing in providing rights or looking the other way when these are being trampled upon by fellow citizens.

Emphasis on duties, not rights

Protesting against injustice of any kind, by either institution or individual, is one of the cornerstones of democracy. The RSS, however, appears to emphasise more on duties and not on rights in the coming decades as it works towards strengthening the hegemony of the state on individuals.

Also read: In a polarised ecosystem, the tricolour too has not been spared

Given that there is no shift in the RSS viewpoint that discrimination in society is solely on lines of “caste, region, language and sect or petty selfish interests arising out of material or social aspirations” and not on the basis of ‘religion’ too, India’s Amrit Kaal certainly does not appear to be coming true for the religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians.

The RSS shall, over the next decades, work towards taking India (that is Bharat) towards glory but it is also working to ensure that the future is not all that rosy for a significant section of society and, of course, who are inherently contrarians.

The RSS has always been an advocate for citizens blindly following certain principles which are depicted as ‘eternal’. The expanded ‘engagement’ of the organisation over the next decades will include promoting “lesser-known stories of struggles and sacrifices made by people from various sections of society.”

Strikingly similar to many government initiatives, including the 75-episode serial Swaraj – Bharat Ke Swatantrata Sangram Ki Samagra Gatha on Doordarshan, the worry is over the exclusion of eminent nationalists who contributed immensely to the national movement. The effort of the RSS will be to create an alternate history because had not the codifier of Hindutva, VD Savarkar, famously contended that Hindutva was history?

(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is ‘The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India’. He has also written ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’)