India's PM Narendra Modi (R) and Mohan Bhagwat (L), chief of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), attend the cremation of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in New Delhi, India, August 17 Image Credit: Reuters

Mohan Bhagwat, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) supremo quoted the Indian Constitution, saying he and his controversial Parivar (family) fully embrace the ideals of the Indian republic. He stressed:  “No Hindu rashtra (nation) would be possible without Muslims.”

He categorically said he was for a “yukt” (inclusive India), publicly showcasing his opposition to the duo of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah – the former being the Indian Prime Minister and the latter president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)

This was the second serial snub to Amit Shah, whose war cry “Congress mukt Bharat” (India free of the Congress), the head of the saffron family disowned publicly. Worse Modi drew censure for his communal rants to rake in the votes – the talk of “kabristan versus shamshan” (graveyard versus crematorium).

This master class of what the RSS stands for was delivered by Bhagwat in the tony Vigyan Bhavan in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi. The message to Modi and Shah was a sharp warning as Bhagwat said the RSS has never asked its cadres to support a particular political party. This message, not to mess with the RSS and not take its support for granted in general election season, must have sent a code red message to the BJP whose real strength and boots on the ground are the committed RSS cadre.

Bhagwat’s message to India was that the Sangh Parivar was not one united Hindu family and to not conflate the electoral extremes of Modi and Shah with the RSS. The RSS had a trial run in Nagpur by inviting former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee to an event.

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah

Bhagwat debuted the RSS as the centerstage ideology holding sway in India and the Sangh as the dominant heavy hitter in politics today.

The lecture series on “The future of Bharat: an RSS perspective” had multiple agenda for the Sangh. The RSS has shed its traditional shyness, say Sangh insiders. The most notable message it wants to send is that that it has occupied the centerstage of ideology. It also wants to send a clear message about its hold over the BJP’s politics and polices.

Those who have always opposed the Sangh, calling it “exclusivist”, have been sent a strong signal by the invitations to Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, and other notable opposition leaders. 

Akhilesh Yadav

By inviting those against whom the RSS has filed defamation cases such as Gandhi, the Sangh has played smart politics and outwitted them. Gandhi keeps talking about how he is fighting hatred with love. And in his embrace of his love guru avatar, he even went on to give a stealth hug to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The RSS has practically challenged the Congress president to practise what he preaches and come and hear Bhagwat. The congress party is mum on the invitation and says feebly that Gandhi would have gone if he had been asked to speak but why would he go and listen to an ideology he opposes. Somewhat of a lame excuse.

Rahul Gandhi

Yadav was cleverer, saying he knew very little about the RSS and whatever he knew, he had learnt from Sardar Patel, who banned the organisation. Hence, he would prefer to keep away.

The Sangh is happy with the way it has captured headlines if not opposition hearts. Even the invitation to Pranab Mukherjee to come to Nagpur and his acceptance set the cat among the pigeons. A ruffled Congress fielded Sharmistha Mukherjee to take on her father publicly for accepting the RSS invitation.

The Vigyan Bhavan lecture is the second in the planned outreach series. The first one was held in Mumbai and also addressed by Bhagwat. The genesis of the RSS anger with the Modi and Shah duo lies in their arrogance ever since they assumed power in 2014. Modi destroyed the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a Sangh affiliate during his term as Gujarat Chief Minister after a tiff with its then chief Praveen Togadia. 

This, despite the fact that Modi had used the VHP to the hilt in his capture of power. The RSS even ensured the removal of Togadia from his VHP post to ensure that no lines were crossed with Modi.

Modi then tried to ensure that his confidant Dattatreya Hosabale replaced the effective CEO of the RSS Bhaiyaji Joshi. This would have upset the delicate power balance between the RSS and Modi overwhelmingly in Modi’s favour. It would have made the RSS subordinate to Modi’s plans in an election year. This power grab was stopped by the RSS and Joshi got another term earlier this year.

The RSS was upset with Modi when he chose to ignore Bhagwat’s considered recommendation of Dr Murli Manohar Joshi as President of India. Modi’s choice of Ramnath Kovind, who had never even been a pracharak upset Sangh seniors  -- they wanted to make a political point about acceptability by getting a true believer as the occupant of the house on top of Raisina Hill.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) and Mohan Bhagwat (L), chief of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), attend the cremation of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in New Delhi, India. Reuters

The CD plant against Sanjay Joshi, a pracharak highly estimated in the Sangh and who was a check on Modi earlier when he was Gujarat Chief Minister, also rankled the Sangh. This, especially since the CD was found to be doctored. Says a top Sangh functionary: “We are totally against this low politics of framing rivals with CDs. We have also believed that we are a family and this duo has violated the maryada (dignity). The violent imagery and the language they use is uncouth and not part of the Sangh culture. They lack shistachar (courtesy).”

This is illustrated by the veto used against Nitin Gadkari by Modi. Gadkari was to accompany Bhagwat and speak at the World Hindu Congress in Chicago this month. Modi red flagged the trip and caused a huge loss of face for Gadkari, who also had to cancel several high profile investment road shows planned months before in Canada and Israel.

Union ministers Nitin Gadkari and M Venkaiah pinning a badge on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's jacket during the launch of nationwide cleanliness campaign, the 'Swachh Bharat Mission' at Rajpath in New Delhi. PTI

The snub to Gadkari, who is seen as an able minister and the Sangh favourite for Prime Minister did not go down well with the RSS. The RSS feels that Modi is petty and vindictive with his Cabinet and does not display any generosity with colleagues. Another example repeatedly given by the Sangh is Rajnath Singh, Home Minister, who Modi has treated shabbily.

The RSS has recently had a complete makeover. It switched from wearing its famous khaki shorts to trousers. 

File photo of RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat (C) during the RSS function. PTI

Says a top functionary of the Sangh: “Bhagwat repeatedly says those who accept India as their motherland are all our people. We are categorically against violence.” People must be made aware of our message.

But is the RSS true in its message? As part of the same outreach programme, Bhagwat made a trip to Chicago for a VHP function where his comments about “wild dogs attacking a lion” again made headlines for the wrong reasons. A cosmetic makeover has certainly happened, but the deep suspicion and assiduously nurtured persecution complex about the travails of Hindus and the need for unity in what the RSS describes as “Hindu Samaj” will certainly not allay fears.

Mohan Bhagwat

The RSS is the mothership and its political arm, the BJP is now at power at the centre and 22 states. The Sangh’s careful nurturing of majoritarian grievances has paid off.

Says a top BJP leader, who has always been associated with the RSS: “Our real achievement is that all political parties will now have to ensure that the Hindus don’t feel that any politics of minority appeasement is being practised. We have managed to change India. It is a Hindu Pradhan desh (dominated country).”

So how will the clash between Modi and Shah versus the RSS pan out? Sangh functionaries say that in light of the elections, they expect conciliatory gestures from the duo. But, the warning has been delivered.

This then is the clash of the future – will India be the Constitutional Republic of Ambedkar’s dream or a Hindu Pradhan desh?  2019 will decide if the RSS has occupied centerstage ideology replacing what they call disparagingly the “leftist Nehruvian consensus”.

Swati Chaturvedi’s book “I am a Troll - Inside the BJP’s secret digital army” has received international acclaim. Her twitter handle is @Bainjal.