The wait for Dattatreya Hosabale was longer than most expected. Long seen as a person close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, besides being an ‘outsider’ within the sangh parivar, the old-guard resisted this change for six years. Before the special triennial meeting in March 2015 of the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha, months after the onset of the Modi-era in Indian politics, speculations mounted if Hosabale would replace Suresh (Bhaiyyaji) Joshi who had already been sarkaryavah (general secretary) since 2009.
But, the Nagpur-based leadership blocked this move, officially because there was no reason for replacing someone who steered the RSS’s participation in the successful electoral campaign that ensured Modi’s anointment. The actual reason was somewhat different: the RSS top brass was wary of failing to remain a counterbalancing force to the government and Modi specifically. RSS Sarsanghchalak, Mohan Bhagwat, who has known Modi from the time they were in their twenties and embarking on a political career in the RSS, was of the view that replacing Joshi at that stage would convey the sense that the organisation had accepted Modi’s political hegemony.
The same story was repeated in March 2018 at the next once in three years ‘election’ meeting of the ABPS. The only difference being that after 2015, Joshi’s health had declined primarily because of a dodgy knee. When his substitution by Hosabale appeared imminent, the RSS establishment launched a rear-guard action, arguing Joshi’s condition had improved following a knee replacement surgery.
As a consequence of these moves, Hosabale continued in the position of sah-sarkaryavah (joint general secretary) bidding for his time. His case not aided by the fact that from the post-monsoon period in 2017, Modi faced electoral turbulence in Gujarat and in few bye-elections in early 2018. With the next Lok Sabha due in barely a year, Modi did not press for a change in the RSS leadership lest the dissonance with the ideological fountainhead reached the level it did during the Vajpayee era. As is well known, the lack of enthusiasm on part of the RSS leadership in the build up to the 2004 polls, trickled down to the cadre, and this was a principal reason behind the startling defeat of the BJP-led alliance.
It is not that Hosabale is more a Modi loyalist and not as ideologically committed to the ways of the RSS. It is also untrue that Joshi was in anyway, anti-Modi: he in fact was said to be instrumental in ensuring that every wing of the RSS fraternity turned up to join the feverish campaign of 2014 to ensure Modi’s election as prime minister.
The difference between Joshi and Hosabale was that the former was more grounded in the conventional RSS approach to politics whereas, Hosabale had acquired greater amount of flair and practicality due to the years as the spearhead of the students’ wing of the RSS, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. In contrast to the latter always having to deal with issues of realpolitk because of his involvement with electoral and power politics, Joshi spent the major part of his career in Sewa Bharti, the penetrative division of the sangh parivar which reaches out to people and communities when they are most vulnerable and this get beholden to any organisation or its functionaries who provide them relief and enable them to rehabilitate in life. As a result, Joshi had little exposure to political pragmatism that is inherent in Hosabale’s personality.
Modi’s successful campaign in 2019 and his enhanced mandate, forced the Bhagwat-led RSS to come to terms with the Modi’s dominance and his continuing popularity. The prime minister also secured more elbow room after the verdict in 2019 to pursue purely ideological promises which had appeared to staying stuck permanently in the sangh parivar’s wish list. This enabled the two sections of the parivar — the sangathan and sarkar — to be at greater ease with one another.
The decision to nullify the special status of Kashmir, besides measures like amending Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, passage of the Citizen’s Amendment Act, and the crucial role played behind the scenes to secure a ‘suitable’ verdict from the Supreme Court paving the way for construction of the Ram temple, raised Modi’s stock within the fraternity. This presented the RSS leadership with a quandary similar to what it faced in 2013, when it feared a virtual ‘revolt’ within its ranks, if Modi was not nominated as the BJP’s electoral mascot.
As a result after the 2019 verdict, Bhagwat’s speeches were more appreciative of Modi than before — for instance, previously he was rarely, if not never, superlative in appreciation of Modi. In contrast, Joshi remained reticent when it came to endorsement. When he spoke, as recently on the farmers’ stir, he displayed a certain amount of duality — there was a ‘problem’ at hand and this required more official ‘sensitivity’. But he ensured to balance this by contending that leaders of the stir must be less rigid.
In contrast, Hosabale was more firm — there was a nuanced divergence over what they prioritised. Eventually, the general secretary’s report presented to ABPS reflected the new sarkaryavah’s approach. On the farmers’ stir, the document claimed that settlements are difficult when “anti-national and anti-social forces try to thwart the ongoing efforts towards a solution.” The reports raises a scare: “In the near past, we have felt that such- anti-national forces are trying to create an environment of disturbance and instability in the country and to achieve their political ambitions.”
This contention reflects Modi’s viewpoint, that there is a category of professional agitators, derogatorily labelled andolanjeevis and that these forces have a nexus with separatists, so-termed urban Naxals, left-liberals and of course the opposition parties which are all depicted as being dynastically oriented.
Under Hosabale, the RSS till be certainly be more in sync with the political perspectives and immediate objectives of the regime. But the biggest challenge before the new sarkaryavah would be to ensure how various other frontal organisations which are in competitive sectors — Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, those working among unorganised sector workers, others who try mobilising sections on the economic fringes of society, Swadeshi Jagran Manch and ABVP, — how do they retain their edge.
Constantly defending government policy and arguing that the regime has to be given allowances for the ‘national’ challenges it is meeting may not always enable them to retain the strength. Several frontal organisations also require significant organisational reforms. Besides, a need is felt is certain quarters within that a comprehensive audit of the parivar needs to be undertaken, to scrutinise if there is a certain overlap in programmes of these and if there is a need to merge different affiliates.
Unless there are unforeseen developments, Hosabale would remain in office for at least two three-year terms that would extent till 2027. Effectively, this means he will steer the RSS role when the BJP seeks another term in 2024 and mount a grand celebration of RSS’s centenary in 2025 for which the jubilations are certain to begin a year earlier. Unlike previous episodes of divergences between the RSS and the BJP, the task before Hosabale is to ensure greater synergy. With a visibly humbler Bhagwat remaining at the helm, this task may be easy.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin)
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