A perfect blend of idealism and pragmatism, the new RSS chief marks a generational as well as cultural shift in the organisation.
The man with a walrus moustache, framed and garlanded, is a customary backdrop to any stage show by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Now that Mohanrao Bhagwat has taken centrestage as the new boss (sarsanghchalak) of RSS, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the founding patriarch of the Sangh Parivar, seems to have got a true inheritor.
They may be two Brahmins from Maharashtra, united by the shape of their moustache and the sweep of their vision about a Hindu Rashtra, but Bhagwat refuses to be a throwback to history. The 58-year-old bachelor from Chandrapur, born 10 years after the death of Hedgewar, is the 21st Century face of an organisation that has often been accused of being steeped in a mythological make-believe.
His new role as a moderniser (a word that doesn’t sit well with the image his organisation has acquired in urban India) is daunting, for he has to strike a fine balance between the challenges of future and the burden of heritage. When the generational shift took place in Nagpur on March 21, it was pretty evident that Bhagwat wanted to be different. The meeting began with Bhagwat’s request that, after nine years as general secretary, he would like to pass the baton to someone else.
But before the veteran pracharak M.G. Vaidya could start the election process, K.S. Sudarshan, the outgoing sarsanghchalak, intervened. He said: “My memory is failing. Recently I was unable to recognise the photograph of Mangal Singh who died after serving as our cook at the RSS headquarters for over 50 years.
Recently, I met Swami Vishwesh Tirth and he advised me to speak less. My responsibility requires me to study more and more but I can’t do that due to my poor health. I want to transfer my responsibilities as sarsanghchalak to Mohanrao Bhagwatji.” Then he vacated his seat and Bhagwat, after touching the feet of Sudarshan and other elders, took over. His first appointment itself spoke a lot about the man. Many expected Suresh Soni, who works as a coordinator between RSS and BJP, would succeed him as general secretary. Bhagwat’s choice for the second-incommand and general secretary was Suresh (Bhaiyaji) Joshi.
It was a smooth transition at Nagpur where the old and the interventionist gave way to a new generation that puts culture above politics. Was it that the new boss didn’t want too much “coordination” between the Sangh and the party? Not surprising as he is the highest apostle of non-intervention.
Bhagwat thinks the BJP— or for that matter any other front organisation— should be left to its own devices. (His predecessor, though, was fond of giving sagely advice to leaders like L.K. Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.) Still, he wanted the pracharaks to be familiar with other family members like the BJP, VHP, ABVP and BMS. Under his initiative, some pracharaks were given six-month internships in these organisations. The RSS for him is essentially a cultural organisation with a social responsibility.
Bhagwat’s life so far has been a perfect blend of idealism and pragmatism. Born on September 11, 1950, in a Karhade Brahmin family in Chandrapur, Maharashtra, he began his career as a veterinary officer. His father, Madhukar Rao Bhagwat, was a close associate of Hedgewar and M.S. Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak.
After spending five years as a pracharak in Gujarat, Bhagwat pére did something rarely heard of in the upper echelons of RSS: he got married and began a new life as an advocate. The son, though, would not be deviated from his path by such temptations. Bhagwat became a pracharak during the Emergency in 1975 and he has remained a strict disciplinarian ever since. At a meeting of state pracharaks, he said, “Our focus must be on quality, not on quantity.”
Quantity matters in the RSS, and Bhagwat is entitled to take credit for making the Parivar bigger. Look at the numbers: 43,905 shakhas (drills) are held daily at 30,015 venues; weekly shakhas at 4,964 and monthly shakhas at 4,507 places. The RSS has over 2,800 full-time pracharaks. And it has 58 front groups representing sections as varied as youth, teachers, Dalits, women, labour, students, and even overseas Indians.
There is one for Muslims as well: The Muslim Rashtriya Manch, which wants to send out the message that “every Muslim is not a fanatic”. Presiding over such an extended Parivar, Bhagwat has the mandate to be the final arbiter of “family values”. Will those values be in harmony with the spirit of the modern times? Or, will they make the existing cultural fault-lines more glaring? He has to kill so many stereotypes before he can play out the script of modernisation within the organisation.
He will have to disown and neutralise the army of rabble-rousers and demonisers who continue to manufacture enemies of the socalled Hindu Rashtra. The lathi-wielding cultural Gestapos running amok or the trident-waving demolishers atop a mosque are not images compatible with Bhagwat’s message of change. He has to redeem Hindutva from the politics of hate. He has to make it culturally and socially acceptable. And it has to be a time of introspection as well. RSS is an organisation which has produced leaders like Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, Vajpayee, Advani and Nanaji Deshmukh. Today it is only capable of offering us an atrocity like a Pravin Togadia or others who can only divide the mind of India.
He may not consider the pub-going girls of Mangalore particularly modern, but he doesn’t endorse the violent enforcement of culture either. Though he says that the socalled Hindu terrorism is an “illusionary and self-contradictory lie” created by “Hindu-hating political forces” desperate for votes, he is believed to be unhappy about some fringe Hindu groups taking the terror route. And some of his reforms are even sartorial.
Till 10 years ago, it was mandatory for the swayamsevaks to wear a uniform of khaki shorts and white shirts while attending the daily shakha. No longer. The uniform is compulsory only on special occasions. The new dress code is called “supravesh” (all white); it could be anything, even kurta-pyjama or dhoti and shirt. He was very much instrumental in recognising the importance of caste leaders in expanding the RSS’ base.
He doesn’t make a virtue out of rigidity masquerading as consistency. Following Advani’s controversial statement on “secular”Jinnah, Bhagwat was the first to tell the RSS top brass that they should take on the BJP leader. Three years later, the same Bhagwat realised that there was no better alternative than Advani to lead the BJP. So he himself went to meet Advani to announce that he was once again acceptable to the RSS.
A great admirer of Gandhi, he was the one who took the initiative in bringing Scheduled Castes and Tribes into the RSS fold. In one of the speeches he delivered after becoming the general secretary, he didn’t mention the name of Hindutva icon Veer Savarkar even once but Gandhi was a recurring hero. An agitated Savarkar supporter went to Bhagwat and complained. Bhagwat, always polite, apologised first and then took on the challenger: “But tell me whether you appreciate Gandhi’s contribution to society despite his mistakes.” The challenger just walked away in silence, most likely as a wiser man. And his soon-tobe-launched programme called Gau-Gram Sankarshan Yatra (a cow-protection journey across the villages) too is inspired by Gandhi.
Bhagwat, a Reader’s Digest junkie and a regular watcher of History and National Geographic channels, ended his speech in Nagpur with a call for facing up to new challenges: “Let all of us strive to expand and consolidate still further our already existing nationwide network to enable our society to effectively respond to all the challenges it is facing, by adopting appropriate strategies and techniques”.
What are Bhagwat’s strategies and techniques to keep RSS relevant as a cultural organisation? He certainly requires techniques other than powerpoint presentations (of which he is a new convert) and the emphasis on youth power (of which he is a tireless promoter). He needs a message that is in tune with the ideas and aspirations of 21st Century India where a brotherhood based on religion still evokes fear, no matter what the religion is called. “You can change everything , except our core belief in a Hindu Rashtra”, he says.
If such a civilisational definition of India makes some Indians the excluded others, the challenges of the man who aspires to be the moderniser become all the more daunting. It also provides Mohanrao Bhagwat an opportunity to become the Great Reconciler.
—with Shyamlal Yadav and Uday Mahurkar