Saturday 28 May 2022
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Knickerwala 2.0

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hich is the story to tell? Is it the external one, listed out and narrated sequentially, like a resume? In that format, the RSS, (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), is the umbrella organisation of a clutch of Hindu right-wing nationalist organisations, including the ruling BJP, with professed universal humanitarian and egalitarian values.

The RSS, established in 1925, has already thrown up 2 prime ministers from within its ranks, and one very significant deputy prime minister so far. Today the RSS counts some 6 million members through over 51,000 branches or shakhas. It is considered the largest NGO in the world.

The RSS has, over the years, spread its initially Brahmanical wings out of Nagpur, to embrace Dalits in its fold, including one to head the organisation for a spell. The RSS did, in fact, earn an early endorsement for its flat organisation, without any hint of casteism, from none other than BR Ambedkar, way back in 1939.

More recently, it has also affiliated a number of Muslim shakhas, so that they can motivate their co-religionists independently, via their madrassahs and community organisations. For the Republic Day just past, these Muslim RSS shakhas raised the national flag at a number of madrassahs. This outreach, more willingly received by Shi’ah groups, is a major new initiative, backstopped by the evidence of fair in Gujarat during the Modi years, and continued by protégé and successor Anandiben Patel.

However, given the negative propaganda and ridicule the RSS routinely attracts from the Nehruvian mainstream, in power for most of the time since independence, it remains at apparent loggerheads with the Indian National Congress. The Congress, paradoxically, tries to portray itself as Hindutva champions from time to time, probably in an attempt to eat into the RSS political support base.

It is useful to remember here that it was Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister, in such a fit of inspiration, who first permitted Hindu worship at the disputed Babri structure in Ayodhya back in the late 1980s. He ordered the locks opened, which had been in place at the ‘masjid’, from soon after independence. LK Advani’s Rath Yatra, the demolition of the mosque, and the rise of the BJP into national politics came some years later — perhaps as a direct, if unintended, consequence.

The Congress, established in 1885 by an Englishman, has been closely associated both with the British Raj and the independence struggle, led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. It has traditionally supported minority aspirations, particularly those of the largest amongst them, in an effort to prevent the majority Hindus from swamping them. That the Muslims have provided the Congress with its most durable vote bank is the singular benefit, particularly after the OBCs and Dalits melted away to their own outfits led by the Yadav chieftains of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and the BSP’s Mayawati.

The RSS has, from inception, been staunchly anti-colonial and anti-Raj, and refused to cooperate with Mahatma Gandhi’s call for Indians to volunteer and participate with the British war effort during WWII. Nearly two million Indians went to fight for the British, many to never come back. Their blood and sacrifice, however, might have been instrumental in securing independence for India, albeit under American pressure upon a much diminished Britain.

The RSS stance however has been both misunderstood and deliberately misrepresented by the Congress. The point for the RSS was nationalism, and the effort was to revive the Hindu spirit and pride in its hoary heritage. Getting mixed up with the imperial British was not seen to be productive in this endeavour.

So, going the other way for emphasis, the RSS openly professed admiration for Hitler and the Axis Powers instead. However, so did Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, possibly in an ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ manner, because neither Bose, nor the RSS, were ideologically anything but pan-Indian nationalists, without divisive emphasis on creed and caste, and certainly without elitist or fascist overtones- except perhaps in terms of its Brahmin leadership in the RSS.

But then, Bose, who wasn’t a Brahmin and was totally secular in his embrace, was nevertheless blocked and stymied in the Congress by none other than a threatened Mahatma, from the bania caste himself. MK Gandhi, however, was a confidant of the British, some say a collaborator. He more or less forced Bose, the two time president of Congress, to quit and leave. Gandhi preferred his malleable acolyte Jawaharlal Nehru even to fellow Gujarati Vallabhbhai Patel, though Patel’s greater age and state of health may have had something to do with it.

Even as the RSS stayed away from the independence movement as such — Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar and his followers participated in the Jungle Satyagraha and were incarcerated at the Akola Jail — except to try and restore Indian, particularly Hindu, dignity and pride, it has often worked in a complementary manner to the Congress’s nationalist initiatives, both before and after independence.

This did not stop various Congress governments after independence, taking on from the British, who banned it first, from banning the RSS for 3 short spells. The first was in 1948, after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse, a former RSS (and Hindu Mahasabha) man — the Justice Jivanlal Kapur Commission of Inquiry ruled out an RSS hand in the Mahatma’s assassination — during the Emergency in the 1970s when most broad civil liberties were abrogated, and after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, in 1992.

This may be the snapshot of the external facts, but should one actually be focussing on the interiorscape for a better understanding of the organisation? Is the true character of the tale to be found therein, the inspirational, motivational, largely personal, and even secret animus?

rss 2.0.1
A 14 September 2015 report

That there is an extraordinary patriotism and commitment felt by the swayamsevaks is undeniable. This makes the RSS a formidable cadre based organisation that can be mobilised to great effect, certainly for operations at riot and flood, but also at election time. The need is now being felt internally, is to broaden its appeal. Current president, properly titled a sarsanghchalak in RSS’s trademark Sankritised language, the anachronistic looking, Gokhale-mustachioed Mohan Bhagwat has been trying to promote a more scientific spirit of enquiry, going so far as to say redundant old traditions needed to be thrown over.

The paradox that lies in the centre of this initiative, as any atheist or agnostic might point out, is that science stops at the border of faith. And faith is the very basis of any religion, particularly one so mixed up with philosophy and legend as is. Still, Bhagwat speaks of adopting ‘eternal life values’ from any culture from anywhere in the world, to stress on the RSS creed of humanism first.

In the question of the sexes, he skirts the largely fraught issue of equality, by stating that, in Hinduism, there is a concept of unity and merger of interests between the sexes. Neat, no doubt, but the ardhanari argument is not very 21st century! Still, much better than what the Shari’ah prescribes certainly.

The problem with any and much of this newthink is that the senior leadership of the RSS comes from a much more orthodox tradition, and even though Bhagwat is pointing in certain new directions, even his pronouncements, such as his unfortunate and mistimed comments on reservation just before the Bihar Assembly elections, are not always helpful to the cause of a liberal makeover.

The RSS is not alone in this; most of its affiliates and loose cannons in the ruling party are expert at embarrassing the Narendra Modi government without a by-your-leave and with oodles of prejudicial, if righteous, indignation. It makes the whole caboodle obscurantist in public perception. The desired scientific spirit of enquiry and broad-mindedness is going to take discipline and professionalism.

The makeover in substantive terms for the RSS to be taken seriously in intellectual circles will, therefore, have to dig deep and be extremely brave to break away from many orthodoxies and dogmas. If beef bans and promotion of gaumata/gaumutra etc. are to stay, for example, they will need much better PR than heretofore. Because, increasingly, in these days of extensive visual media, perception is everything — speaking sometimes much louder than deeds and substance. And sloppy messaging can be easily twisted and represented out of context. All it takes is some malicious editing of what comes out of the horse’s mouth.

It is therefore, not only in how one looks, but also how one speaks, and the precision and appeal of what one says. Old ideological and historical positions need to be reworked, based, not on vague good intentions, but on analysis of public opinion, objectives, current aspirations. Messaging needs to be rehearsed and precise, and every attempt must be made for spokespersons to stay firmly on topic. Off-the-cuff remarks and sound-bytes can never afford to be truly spontaneous.

Before the age of television, there were movies made to push a line, internationally too, in the days of the Cold War, and of course, eagerly listened to radio broadcasts. There were lavish productions of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace from Soviet Russia, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake — all to showcase the glories of the USSR. Later, the other side took them on too, as timeless classics that belong to the world of grace and class. In counterpoint, there were the seemingly endless procession of John Wayne Westerns from Hollywood, to highlight the popular frontier virtues of a young, resurgent America. Some are still being remade these days with new and current stars, again often drawn internationally.

But it is generally acknowledged that the first televised Nixon-Kennedy debates in the Black & White TV sixties, was the first presidential race narrowly won by JFK; largely on the basis of his superior image and photogeneity. Rival Richard Nixon’s 5 o’ clock shadow and the slurs about him looking like a used-car salesman versus John Kennedy’s patrician smile and tanned, relaxed air, was a total study in contrast. Nixon saw to it that he never neglected his image the next time around, irrespective of the content of his campaign — with slick custom-made suits in TV suitable colours and coordinated ties, modulated voice, gestures, body-language, photo opportunities, and definitely no sweating in public.

There were a series of best-selling books on this very deliberate political packaging — The Making Of The President by journalist Theodore White, (first in 1960,and again in 1964, ’68 and ’72), and a film by David Wolper on the 1960 campaign that was released, poignantly, just before the Kennedy assassination in 1963. These books and the power of television transformed the subsequent reporting on US presidential elections into a much more personalised vision of the proceedings.

Perhaps here in India too, the 2014 general elections, were, by far, the most presidential and highly televised campaign ever. Narendra Modi’s presence and oratory, combined with very attractive and precise messaging, helped him to win a landslide for the BJP and the NDA. There was a lot of professional PR and advertising help, in addition to high-tech data analysis, andtraditional election back office teams supporting his campaign.

The fact that a life-long, old school RSS pracharak/swayamsevak could transform himself, in stages, into a suave three-term state chief minister, and then a prime minister cum globe girdling statesman, with the negative aspects of his back story melting away, is partially based on NaMo’s own gift for projection. It also gives him high marks for his considerable appreciation of the multiplier effect of modern mediums of communication. These include, TV, radio, social media, including twitter, facebook, youtube, instagram, holographic campaigning, selfies, etc. Combined with appropriate dressing, grooming, frequent costume changes, and massive, choreographed events!

How an RSS man can transform: (clockwise from top left corner) Narendra Modi as a young swayamsevak, as an ascetic, as a pracharak, in disguise during Emergency, at a congregation of the Sangh after swearing in as India's 15th Prime Minister, as a new user of Instagram, taking a selfie with children during his China visit
How an RSS man can transform: (clockwise from top left corner) Narendra Modi as a young swayamsevak, as an ascetic, as a pracharak, in disguise during Emergency, at a congregation of the Sangh after swearing in as India’s 15th Prime Minister, as a new user of Instagram, taking a selfie with children during his China visit

But, the professional inputs that accompanied the natural gifts of the prime minister at every step cannot be discounted. The mentor organisation, the RSS too, is trying to update itself, both in terms of how they intend to look, what they espouse going forward (less Hindutva, more inclusiveness, and modernity), and the manner in which future messaging will be handled.

It certainly makes sense to catch up to the 21st century for this formidable organisation that is nevertheless anachronistic. A big problem is its facile denial that it is, in fact, a political organisation. This conceit won’t work, and needs to be dropped.

The RSS people, with their confused pronouncements and costumed looks at their shakhas, resemble a neighbourhood watch from the 19th century, crossed with Dad’s Army, a long gone BBC comedy serial from the seventies, on veterans playing at Home Guards, during, what else, WWII.

The deportment, comportment, language skills and messaging of the RSS has been crude and provincial so far, inviting derision from the urban cognoscenti, and conversely, unfavourable comparison with conservative and fundamentalist Muslim organisations. These too tend to hark back to the 15th century, in terms of their misogyny, rigidity, their kohl-rimmed looks, and Astrakhan styling.

The world is taking note of the new stirrings in the RSS however, and Mohan Bhagwat has been recently addressing foreign journalists too. Reports in the Wall Street Journal speak of the revamped website. Another report elsewhere highlights that the notorious and commodious khaki ‘knickers’ (shorts), worn with a belt, and calf-high socks and shoes/sandals, white shirts and semi-police style caps, will soon be replaced by elegant designer outfits.

Bhagwat, for himself, emphasises the RSS is not anti-Muslim.

Meanwhile, the RSS has spent Rs 7 crore of its donation money recently, on providing to the drought hit. Truth is, that its work has always stood up for itself, and the test of time. The RSS has often been admired by other relief agencies working alongside. But now that the RSS is beginning to address the big picture, much greater progress cannot be ruled out.

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Gautam Mukherjee
Gautam Mukherjee
Commentator on political and economic affairs

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