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RSS Has Mixed Take on Modi Govt, Feels PM Hasn’t Done Enough on Job Creation: Walter Anderson

In an interview to News18, Walter Anderson, who has co-authored the book ‘RSS: A View to the Inside’ with Shridhar Damle, talks about the RSS dependence on the BJP, its mixed view of the Modi government’s performance so far and whether the Sangh will throw its full weight behind the saffron party in 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Suhas Munshi | News18.com

Updated:August 4, 2018, 9:19 AM IST
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RSS Has Mixed Take on Modi Govt, Feels PM Hasn’t Done Enough on Job Creation: Walter Anderson
File photo of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. (PTI)
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Back with another book on the RSS with his colleague Shridhar Damle, Walter Anderson is likely to be the focus of a lot of attention within and outside the Sangh. Considered an authority on the subject, Anderson, along with his co-author, discusses several subjects like Kashmir, cow slaughter, Ram Mandir and Bihar elections, in riveting detail.

Anderson serves as senior adjunct professor of South Asia Studies at Johns Hopkins University and has earlier served as chief of the US State Department’s South Asia Division in the Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia. He has also been a special assistant to the ambassador at the US embassy in New Delhi.

In an interview to News18, Anderson, who has co-authored the book RSS: A View to the Inside with Damle, talks about the RSS dependence on the BJP, its mixed view of the Modi government’s performance so far and whether the Sangh will throw its full weight behind the saffron party in 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Edited excerpts:

In your book, you say that the senior RSS figures you spoke to talked about “a growing sense of self-confidence, which in turn stems from their perception that they are now part of India’s political and cultural mainstream”. How much of it is to do with the rise of BJP, given the fact that the RSS claims to be an apolitical organisation that works independently of the government in power? In other words, how dependent is today’s RSS on BJP?

Yes, the RSS does make a point of referring to itself as apolitical; that they have goals and objectives that don’t depend on the current government. That said, it obviously wants the BJP to be in power, in part because the affiliated organisations often have to deal with issues where the government has a big role to play. For example, in the agriculture sector. The concerned wing of the RSS has to deal with the price of water, farm products, electricity, transportation of crops to market etc and therefore they want the present day government to be on their side.

But it is also true that dozens of RSS affiliates, most of which have some kind of interaction with the government, are involved in policy process more strongly now than they were earlier. And these RSS affiliates are now getting somewhat accustomed to this comfortable relationship.

That being said, the RSS also has suspicion about the ‘deep state’ or the bureaucracy. The ‘deep state’ has in many ways been a danger to it. I met someone from the RSS yesterday, whom I have known for a long time. He was deeply suspicious of all governments, including this one. There is in the RSS a strain of scepticism of any government, including this one.

So RSS is ‘sceptically committed’ to this government?

That question is interesting. Even within the RSS, there it is an ongoing debate — about how much should they rely on the BJP. For instance, on the issue of FDI. The government wants it because foreign money can create jobs and more jobs is going to help the party. But there are strong elements within the RSS family who are dead against the idea of FDI because they feel it undermines the Indian culture, values, morality, consumerism, and the indigenous economy.

How does the RSS see four years of Modi?

With mixed views. And the best source of that are Mohan Bhagwat’s Vijayadashami speeches. The last one in particular was quite critical. The criticism was basically around economic issues. And I think the RSS feels that the government has not done what it should have done in terms of job creation and instead became too allied with various ‘isms’ that are unsuitable to the present Indian situations, as Mohan Bhagwat said in his recent speech.

With which ‘isms’ of the government is RSS more dissatisfied?

Replacement of the Planning Commission with Niti Aayog is one. There is a feeling in the Sangh that the economists are talking about various theories that have been developed and are applicable only to the West, that they’re throwing up theories that are not necessarily applicable to the Indian condition.

You have written about the fact that the RSS has put its full might behind the BJP only twice, once right after Emergency and the other in 2014. And that it is unlikely to repeat this in near future. So that means the RSS won’t back the BJP fully next year?

They are not going to be involved the same way they were in 2014. It does not mean that the RSS won’t get involved. It will help the BJP in campaigning, but not to the extent it did in 2014. We have a chapter on Bihar elections where we discuss how the RSS was important for the BJP in Bihar and in many other places, where it has a very weak organisation. Wherever the party has a weak organisation, and it is mostly in rural areas, the BJP has had to rely on the RSS to tell them what issues the people were concerned about, who were the candidates that were likely to win.

Now, Amit Shah has been emulating the RSS model and creating booth-level cells. He claims he’s gotten tens of millions of volunteers for that. I’m not sure how accurate that figure is. I have mixed opinions from people within the Sangh on how effective he is. I’m hoping to meet him and ask him this question myself.

But despite all this, won’t RSS, in some measure, still back the BJP next year?

I met an RSS person earlier who was quite adamant that politics is a dirty business, that it makes you have to engage in immoral activity. This is a strain that runs through the RSS. Not just at the leadership level, but down on the ground as well. Various members of the organisation have said several times that it is not the BJP, that it doesn’t want to be the BJP.

The Sangh tries to assert the differences. It says the BJP has a rather short range of objectives between election to election, while the RSS has a long-term view of the things and isn’t running for office.

The RSS is also somewhat anxious about its members trying to step over to the BJP. Mohan Bhagwat in a speech recently warned RSS members that campaign workers of the Sangh report to the Sangh not to the BJP. He's said it a couple of times. That’s an indication of how things could pan out.

Also, the RSS has moulded itself as bottom-up and not top-down organisation and I think that is a crucial reason why they would never support an authoritarian top-down system.

They have suffered during previous periods when there was political high-handedness, like during the Emergency. They have typically been suspicious of single-personality cults. Mohan Bhagwat himself has on several occasions hinted that there is a growing cult for Narendra Modi and it’s not a good thing. It’s not that he’s against Modi but he’s against the idea of a cult. These are things one could keep in mind.

Apart from describing the ‘self-confidence’ among senior RSS members you also talk about how it has recently flourished, about how it now presides over 36 different affiliates. This is a very different state from pre-2014 when the RSS, fearing ‘Hindu terror’ cases, put itself fully behind the BJP. In your view, could the explosive growth of the Sangh, in sharpening its internal contradictions, one day become its very nemesis?

Oh yes. Compared to what it was during early 1990s, the Sangh has expanded enormously. With that expansion has come diversity of membership and difference of interests. The FDI is a classic case.

The RSS has increasingly become a mediating institution. I think they’ve done a good job considering the fact that it hasn’t split so far. It is incredible.

In India, organisations split all the time. I think one of the reasons for this is that it relies on full-time RSS workers, pracharaks to manage most of the larger and influential issues of administration of affiliates. And these men are trained to think that the unity of the Sangh Parivar is more important for Indian development and for the stability of India. They are also not shy of acting against elements that threaten this unity. They reacted in case of VHP, when the RSS not so subtly removed Pravin Togadia.

You also mention in your book that the RSS sent the man leading the ‘Ghar Wapsi’ campaign on an “indefinite sick leave”. Seen with similar events around Togadia, it begs another question on how effectively has the RSS taken measures to ensure that no outfit or voice ‘Righter’ than its own Right-of-centre position takes roots in India.

That’s really a good point. Yes, the RSS has always been very cautious of this and not letting such voices come out of late has been one of the strengths of the RSS. The Sangh would have liked such a program to go on slowly, behind the scenes. They wouldn’t tolerate someone making a show of this publicly and tom-tom about it. They never support an action that leads to a massive, sudden change. For them, it’s about evolution not revolution.

Do you think that the RSS is having its best run ever? They are running more shakhas than ever, more affiliates than ever. Is the present spell the golden period for RSS?

It certainly seems so from the outside but I can tell you that it is not a widely held view within the RSS. Politics is still seen as a dirty, compromising vocation though not as severely as it was 15 years ago, but there is still a strong strain of anti-political emotion throughout the RSS.

It is true that the Sangh is running the highest number of shakhas ever, around 70,000. All of their affiliated organisations have also grown. The largest private school system in India is affiliated to the RSS. In fact, it is a curious system because I have heard that between 40,000 and 50,000 Muslim students study there. It’s an interesting question on how training in RSS-affiliated schools is affecting them, their view of India and their view of themselves.

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