How Modi and the RSS are banking on each other

Bhavdeep Kang
Grist Media

Make no mistake about it: this time, the BJP’s Lok Sabha election campaign is also going to be an RSS campaign.

Why? Because the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has taken charge of it. The Bharatiya Janata Party central and state leadership's role is to campaign, while the nuts and bolts, the nitty gritty of fighting an election – the mass contact programmes, ensuring voter turnout and managing the booths – falls to the RSS. At each booth in Delhi, for instance, there are 34 designated workers. Who are these people? They are swayamsevaks who may or may not attend shakhas in their area, but are nonetheless dedicated.

Did the RSS cadre feel motivated to work for the BJP in the last two elections? No. They did not visit voters beforehand or hustle them to booths on election day. Will they this time? Absolutely.

Senior RSS leader Krishna Gopal will supervise election preparations in Uttar Pradesh, Dattatreya Hosabale and V Satish will keep an eye on the southern states, and Saudan Singh will oversee the eastern belt. None of this is official, of course, since the RSS maintains that it has no links with any political party – it is simply an organisation committed to nation-building.

The RSS has not merely accepted Modi as the BJP's prime ministerial nominee, as it did LK Advani in 2009, but adopted and owned him. The atmospherics at the RSS shakhas are different this time around, with swayamsevaks displaying hope and enthusiasm for the first time since 1999.

The RSS accepted Advani as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2009 for want of an option. They wanted him to retire and take on the role of an elder rather than engage in active politics. The then-sarsanghchalak, KS Sudarshan, indicated as much in 2005. Advani’s famous statement on Jinnah during a visit to Pakistan also exacerbated tensions between him and the RSS.

The problem was that the RSS places inordinate value on hierarchy and seniority. (A swayamsevak who has only one year of OTC – officers' training camp – will automatically defer to a “teen saal OTC”. That, in fact, is how they introduce themselves to each other. One might be surprised at the number of bureaucrats and technocrats who pride themselves on their OTC.) So ditching Advani was not really possible, and the RSS went along with him. But its lack of enthusiasm and motivation manifested itself at the ground level, where RSS workers did not exert themselves to contact voters or prepare kits for the booth management staff.

In 2004, there was also a pervasive feeling that during the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) years, the BJP had abandoned ideology. Advani famously said ideology had no place in governance. Small wonder, then,  that in 2009 the cadre found him singularly uninspiring. Forget motivating others –  in the 2008 Delhi Assembly elections, many committed swayamsevaks did not even go out to vote themselves.

This time around, the RSS is already active in its area of specialisation – mass contact and booth management. For example, voters across Delhi have received election slips and visits from their friendly neighbourhood BJP workers (the BJP and the RSS have a common cadre) well in advance of the Assembly polls.

At the macro level for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, the RSS will influence policy decisions. At the ground level, it will deploy its vast network of organisations for the crucial business of booth management.

It is virtually impossible to assess the strength or spread of this network, as most organisations do not have a formal relationship with the sangh. The link is organic, in the shape of a pracharak. Beyond the inner ring of organisations are still more, run by swayamsevaks who may or may not be former pracharaks. Some could be professionals who've undergone one to three years of OTC at Nagpur (headquarters of the RSS), but stopped short of joining as full-timers.

Take ‘Anil-ji’, for instance, a young pracharak posted in Madhya Pradesh. He has been given charge of an organisation (sanstha) which works in education and rural development. The sanstha is apolitical, has vast lands at its disposal and relies on government sources of funding as well as donations from private parties. For the most part, it is devoted to social work, running a school, a hostel and a goshala.

But with elections coming up, Anil-ji has his work cut out for him. He must identify booth managers in his area, give them a couple of rounds of training, plan meals (very important), organise transport for them and, if necessary, for voters. He has gone to work with a will, caught up in the Modi-fever that has infected RSS workers across the country.

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Narendra Modi often parades his RSS credentials, even having authored a book on M S ‘Guruji’ Golwalker. But how does the RSS, the organisation that nurtured and mentored him, regard India's Prime Minister-in-waiting?

With hope and apprehension, to quote a middle-level RSS functionary. Hope, that he will succeed in his quest for power and give them the lion's share. Apprehension that he will, instead, use the power of the State against them.

“Modi is an opportunist,” says a senior RSS ideologue. “He has a dual personality. On the one hand, he says he is a dedicated RSS worker and spouts its ideology. On the other, niether his lifestyle nor his actions conform to the RSS ethic.”

“We don't know whether he can win,” adds another senior RSS official. “Assuming that he does, what will he accomplish? Will he function according to the RSS ideology? There are doubts.”

So what spooks the RSS about Modi? The Gujarat experience, his easy refusals to accommodate the RSS when inconvenient, and reprisals against RSS workers for opposing his government. These red flags remain intact.

Recently, when the RSS had made it clear that it wanted former BJP organising secretary Sanjay Joshi back in the BJP, the then president Nitin Gadkari attempted to bring him on board. But Modi was adamant and Gadkari – who was merely following Nagpur's orders – backed down. Joshi's vanvaas (exile) continues.

Understanding the RSS-Modi dynamic calls for a quick rewind through his eventful career. In the 1970s, the bright young RSS worker was discovered by the prant pracharak of Gujarat, Laxman Rao Inamdar. The senior RSS leader decided that the youth's talent for organisation and workaholism could be put to good use.

He was a find because in those days, Gujarati-speaking pracharaks were thin on the ground. Most of the RSS workers came on deputation from Maharashtra (one of them being Madhukar Rao Bhagwat, the father of the current RSS chief, Mohan Bagwat). In any event, the RSS adherents in Gujarat were more willing to part with money than with time.

In the mid-1980s, then RSS chief Balasaheb Deoras also took note of the young pracharak's abilities.  The BJP had suffered a terrible setback, winning just two Lok Sabha seats in 1984, one of them from Gujarat. Modi was sent to the BJP to work under organising secretary Nathalal Jaghda. Shankar Singh Vaghela was the party’s president. Modi soon overpowered the genial Nathabhai. The venerable pracharak figures in Modi's book, Jyotipunj, along with Inamdar and Rao – the men who had a hand in the making of Modi. The Gujarat chief minister, in a tribute to these unsung heroes, wrote “the RSS is a silent revolution, through the making of men”.

But by the mid-1990s, the RSS brass realized that their prized pracharak was highly ambitious, had a taste for good living and would not play by the rules.

Fast forward to 1997, when Modi’s nemesis Shankar Singh Vaghela was contesting a bye-election from Gujarat’s Radhanpur Assembly segment. Modi was recalled from Delhi to defeat him – a near-impossible task, given that Vaghela was the chief minister. That was my first meeting with Modi – in a dusty, remote village bordering Kutch, masterminding a David vs. Goliath battle between Vaghela and a 27-year-old political novice. His tactical moves were masterful. His confidence was overwhelming, but so were the odds. Did I think he had a future? Absolutely – one couldn't not. Apart from KN Govindacharya, I found him the most charismatic, fascinating and engaging sanghi ever.

Modi finally became Gujarat’s chief minister in 2001. But he resigned amid calls in 2002 after the Godhra riots, and then rode a wave of popularity to a decisive victory in the subsequent Assembly elections. Over the next decade, he then marginalised veteran RSS leaders in the state, aided by his intimate knowledge of the Sangh Parivar's grammar and dynamics.

He was aided in this by the rift in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) between Praveen Togadia and Ashok Singhal. Manmohan Vaidya, then prant pracharak of Gujarat, was sent off to Chennai and replaced by Praveenbhai Otia, who proved more trouble-free. When the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (the RSS farmers' wing) launched a protest against high power tariffs in 2003, they were evicted from their office in Ahmedabad. Senior pracharak Laljibhai Patel, once sah-prant paracharak of Gujarat and an all-India level functionary of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, sat on a fast in support of the farmers' demands and strongly criticised Modi. He eventually wound up in a goshala in Sidhpur in north Gujarat. Other RSS veterans who have criticised Modi, like Bhaskarrao Damle, have also got the sack.

Modi is by no means a disciplined swayamsevak who subscribes to the “ekchalkaanuvrat” dictum, which means conforming to the rules. Or as some RSS workers cheekily put it, “Soochna ke baad, sochna band (After the order, stop thinking and just do it).” Besides, he is relentless and has formidable strength of purpose. To cite one instance, he threatened to quit as chief minister if the BJP central leadership insisted on giving his detractor, Haren Pandya, a ticket to contest the 2002 assembly elections. Pandya, a Cabinet minister, was denied a ticket and murdered shortly thereafter. The murder remains unsolved to this day.

The RSS is wholly committed to Modi's victory in the 2014 general elections. But it's clear that it retains many doubts and fears about him, and has a visceral distrust of the personality cult around him.

He’s supposed to have met Niira Radia in the late 1990s and is said to have used her services in 2007-08; she was rumoured to be his image consultant and the brain behind his western wear. She is also credited with having helped forge a relationship between Modi and corporate czars like Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata.

The RSS’s aversion to personality cults goes back to the Emergency and Indira Gandhi. This was reinforced by the Vajpayee experience. Given his secular ideology and colourful lifestyle, he was not the prime minister of choice. He was foisted on them – without consultation – by Advani. During the NDA years, Vajpayee and Advani did not toe the RSS line.

There was much bitterness, particularly with regard to the VHP, which felt Vajpayee had let them down on the Ayodhya issue. Nor did they agree with his economic reforms – to the extent that the Swadeshi Jagran Manch described his policies as anti-national and senior RSS leader Dattopant Thengde (credited with building India's largest trade union, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh) declined the Padma Bhushan.

It was the NDA that mooted foreign direct investment in retail, a policy initiative strongly opposed by the RSS. Disinvestment of public sector undertakings was another area of conflict. They were dissatisfied, too, with the NDA's Pakistan policy.

But the RSS found itself helpless because Vajpayee was by then bigger than the BJP. And they are chary of Modi for precisely that reason – he is bigger than the party and inclined to follow his own agenda.

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For his part, Modi needs the RSS not merely for logistical support on the ground, but to back him against his own party colleagues in a series of strategic decisions leading up to the national crown in 2014. Modi needs to take six critical strategic decisions – in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Assam, Jharkhand and Haryana – and he will have to fight many of his seniormost BJP colleagues in each. He can only hope to be able to do this with RSS backing.

1.    In Karnataka, unless the former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa merges his party – the Karnataka Janata Paksha – with the BJP, it cannot hope to retain its tally, especially given the popularity of the present incumbent. But Advani, Ananth Kumar and Sushma Swaraj are all opposed to Yeddyurappa, while the RSS is said to be in favour.

2.    In Andhra Pradesh, opinion is divided over the proposed alliance with the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). A section of the party feels that Chandrababu Naidu will be more of a liability than an asset. The state BJP is not in favour of a pre-electoral tie-up. But Modi appears to have decided that Seemandhra offers better electoral prospects than Telangana and hence, would prefer an alliance with Jagan Mohan Reddy's YSR Congress. The RSS, on the other hand, is said to be suspicious of Reddy, who is a Christian with close ties to the protestant Church. Reddy, for his part, appears to be in favour of a post- rather than a pre-electoral tie-up.

3.    Likewise, in Jharkhand, Babu Lal Marandi enjoys tremendous popularity but is opposed by Rajanth Singh, Venkaiah Naidu and former CM Arjun Munda. The RSS would like to see Marandi return, but knows he will not do so unless he is promised chief ministership – a commitment the BJP is not inclined to make.

4.    In Haryana, while logic dictates a tie-up with Om Prakash Chautala's Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), Sushma Swaraj is not in favour.

5.    In Assam, Modi must take a call on an alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). Given fears in the regional party that the BJP will swallow it up, the BJP may have to be over-generous in seat adjustment and resource allocation.

6.    In Maharashtra, the challenge is to get both the Shiv Sena and MNS on board. Modi has a good equation with both Raj and Uddhav Thackeray, but an electoral understanding has thus far proved elusive. 

In Uttar Pradesh, Yadav youth are believed to be inclined towards Modi, who reflects their aspirations far more than Akhilesh Yadav. Recent clashes between Yadavs and minorities have created fissures in the Samajwadi Party's long-standing Muslim-Yadav (MY) votebank. The upper castes and backwards, too, are tilting BJPwards. The fabled “Modi effect” may have an impact in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but it is not clear how it will pan out in the rest of the country.

And the RSS realizes that, for all the UPA's many errors and lack of a credible face, 2014 is going to be an uphill job and it had better pitch in.

* * *

How did all this come to pass?

Just before the BJP's Goa conclave in June 2013, the RSS finally evolved a consensus on Narendra Modi, which resulted in his being declared the face of the BJP's 2014 campaign.

It was not a decision arrived at lightly, given trenchant criticism of Modi's style of functioning by an influential section of the RSS. Ultimately, it was the top three – sarsanghchalak Mohan Rao Bhagwat, sarkaryavaha Suresh ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi and sah-sarkaryavaha Suresh Soni - who took a call, realising that he was the BJP's best bet and the hero of the aam swayamsevak (the ordinary RSS worker).

The discussion, which involved the elders Madhubhai Kulkarni and MG Vaidya, apart from the top brass, centred around three things: (a) sentiment among the cadre (b) the desirability of a Hindu-friendly government and (c) doubts about whether Modi as PM would toe the RSS line. What carried the day in Modi's favour was pressure from the cadre and the potential benefits of attaining power.

Having experienced Vajpayee, they are prepared for differences on economic policy but hope that these can be resolved. They also realise that with a coalition, their favourite agenda – uniform civil code and Article 370 – cannot be pushed but hope a move in that direction can be made.

Modi obligingly took a step in the ‘right’ direction in questioning the efficacy of Article 370 on a recent visit to Jammu. His stand was carefully nuanced – he asked for a debate on whether the special constitutional provision had benefited the aam aadmi in J&K - so as not to scare off any “secular” allies. 
Suresh Soni, who was until recently in charge of the BJP (but proved very controversial) and continues to be influential in BJP affairs, pushed Modi. The two did not get along earlier but Modi consciously reached out to him last year.

Influential RSS leaders who had reservations about Modi, such MG Vaidya, his son Manmohan Vaidya and Madhubhai Kulkarni who had once worked with him in Gujarat, bowed to this reasoning. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible. And the RSS is accustomed to compromise. Atal Behari Vajpayee was no less a loose cannon and they tolerated him for 30 years, setting aside ideological differences.

No sooner had the RSS’s annual Deepavali baithak in Kochi concluded than the top brass congregated at Muradnagar from November 1–5 near Ghaziabad for another meeting. The five-day session featured all five of the top RSS leaders and some 350 office-bearers of sangh frontal organisations. The not-so-hidden agenda: to strive for a BJP victory in 2014.

At these RSS baithaks, the BJP is never, ever mentioned. Technically, it is true that the RSS is independent of the BJP. If we look at the organisation itself, there are lakhs of small and big organisations across the country which fall under the umbrella of the Sangh Parivar, and yet have no discernible link with it. Some of these may have a pracharak as the organising secretary – he has been deputed by the RSS as an observer or supervisor. Funding for these outfits will also come separately – from businessmen, at the behest of some senior pracharak, or state government agencies, at the behest of a saffron bureaucrat or minister.

So at Muradnagar – the ‘Akhil Bharatiya Vividh Karya Pracharak Abhyas Varg’ – pracharaks and non-pracharak full-timers had been sent to different organisations, to be able to then report back to the top brass on their activities during the year. This was once part of the Diwali baithak but is now a separate meeting, held post-Diwali.

During the Kochi meeting, the RSS took a decision to conduct a voter recruitment drive in January to ensure that all eligible Hindu voters are included when electoral rolls are revised before the Lok Sabha elections. The Indian Express reported a senior RSS pracharak as saying, “Hindus are not as concerned about their votes as other religious groups. We've decided this considering that.”

So how was the decision about this voter recruitment drive communicated to the subsequent Muradnagar gathering? Through the baudhiks (sermons) given during the course of the meeting: “The nation is facing a new political situation. In the circumstances, it will be good if a pro-Hindutva party is in power. The government should have nationalist values and we should strive towards such a government. A lot of young people from the Hindu community are now eligible to vote. It must be ensured that they are all enrolled as voters. No one should fail to exercise the right to vote.”

Not once was Modi mentioned, but those who attended the meeting say the Sangh Parivar will undertake a mass contact programme to recruit voters in January, the rationale being that many of the unregistered voters are new and therefore pro-Modi, given his appeal among the youth.

The message is now clear – go forth and enroll voters and make sure they vote BJP. The workers communicate the message down the line – at shakhas and at small gatherings of five or six people. The RSS excels at such mass contact and booth management.

All the parties are aware that this time the upcoming Lok Sabha elections will be won or lost at the booth level – as is always the case in tight contests.

It is widely rumoured that the RSS – or to be specific, RSS number three Suresh Soni – would prefer to install Rajnath Singh as prime minister rather than Modi. “[But] the mood of the workers is such that if Modi brings in the numbers and is then shoved aside, they will not accept it. The mood is similar to Goa – if he had not been announced as the face of the 2014 campaign, the protests outside Advani's house may have become a riot,” says a former prachark now attached to a senior BJP leader.

The practical approach was mirrored by the BJP. Party presidents Rajnath Singh and his predecessor Nitin Gadkari have never liked Modi and in the past, criticised him in off-the-record interactions with journalists, but lobbied to have him declared prime ministerial nominee. Gadkari parleyed his proximity to Nagpur-based RSS leaders into support for Modi. The eternal yatri Advani, openly opposed to Modi, was silenced. Not even his protégée Sushma Swaraj backed his anti-Modi stand.

Today, taking their cue from Rajnath Singh, all BJP central leaders back Modi-for-PM. Their tune has changed. In Gadkari's case, it is because he is close to the corporate world, which loves Modi. Rajnath and Sushma naturally still hope a coalition will opt for them rather than Modi. Sushma's uncharacteristically low profile and watching what she says, apparently because it has been suggested that she will be relegated to Speaker of the lok sabha if the BJP comes to power.

Have things changed after the ‘stalker’ tapes, in which Modi's most trusted aide Amit Shah is heard misusing government machinery for a private agenda?

The episode has certainly reignited and intensified existing doubts about Modi among RSS leaders. Will Modi the autocrat run riot? Will the CBI become his pet rottweiler? Will media freedoms be curbed? Will the corporate world find itself dominated by Ambani-Adani? And will the RSS finally get its uniform civil code?

These ‘stalker’ tapes have certainly not come as a surprise to those familiar with the PM nominee's bullheaded style of functioning.

Why, then, does the RSS still back Modi? Why are its top brass personally overseeing election preparations?

Because he is simply the BJP's best bet in 2014. The RSS experienced the benefits of being in government during the NDA years. After decades of left domination, they were able to place their idealogues in existing institutions and set up new ones. Even the media began to boast of right-wingers.

Off the record, RSS folk indulgently shake their heads about Modi’s apparent obsession with a young woman. After all, many senior pracharaks who went on to occupy elevated positions in the party and government are said to have had liaisons. But the illegal surveillance remains disturbing. “He can bug any place. Who knows, there might be a camera inside [the RSS Delhi headquarters at] Keshav Kunj,” jokes a former pracharak.

Modi's RSS mentors hope that once his desire for power is satiated, he will settle down and prove a pliable swayamsevak who will further their agenda. To quote the science fiction author Frank Herbert: “Hope clouds observation.”

Bhavdeep Kang has been a journalist for 27 years. She has worked with The Times of India, The Sunday Observer, The Indian Express, The Pioneer, The Telegraph, India Today and Outlook. Today, she writes on politics, agriculture and food policy. Follow her at