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RSS Could be Using Ram Mandir as a Counter-pressure Against BJP: Shridhar Damle

File photo of  RSS patron Mohan Bhagwat with BJP chief Amit Shah. (PTI)

File photo of RSS patron Mohan Bhagwat with BJP chief Amit Shah. (PTI)

Shridhar Damle, who has closely observed the Sangh, says that RSS is pushing the idea of Narendra Modi as a Rajrishi (a saintly king), who works 18 hours a day and hasn’t taken a single day's vacation.

New Delhi: One of the foremost scholars of the RSS, Shridhar Damle, has closely observed the Sangh for the past several decades, in the course of which he has spent time with several sarsanghchalaks (RSS chiefs) as well as pracharaks across the country. All this fieldwork, coupled with extensive research, gives Damle an authority on Sangh that very few scholars possess.

He recently co-authored a book with American scholar Walter Anderson, called ‘RSS: A view to the inside’. In this interview to News18, Damle analyses the role of the Sangh in BJP’s historic victory and puts the present and future of the Sangh, which is soon going to complete its 100 years, in perspective.

How involved was the Sangh in these Lok Sabha elections?

For these elections Sangh’s structure, including the plan and trained karyakartas, was ready in January. As soon as the Election Commission made the formal announcement, the Sangh sprang into action.

Its thrust was on negating the NOTA vote, given the adverse consequences for the BJP because of high polling of NOTA option in assembly elections like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. All this was discussed in great detail in informal meetings that RSS held with their core group, its kshetriya and prant pracharaks in February.

The Sangh had been given feedback about simmering discontent in the middle classes. However, after the Pulwama attack and Balakot strikes, they got the feedback that the mood in the middle classes had changed decisively.

The RSS ground workers approached people over the last two years to build a consensus on the BJP. Sangh primarily used its workers above between 30 to 35 years of age. They conducted training classes in which they taught their workers to avoid political debates. If people had opinions, Sangh workers were told, ‘just to listen to them’.

They started by saying don’t vote for NOTA and then subtly pushed the idea that not one allegation of corruption has stuck to this government.

There were also a lot of ancillary organisations whose groundwork paid dividends to the BJP. The impact of outfits like Sewa Bharati or Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, the respectability and recognition it built independently in the society, had a big impact on the outcome of elections.
The BJP’s good showing in states like Assam and Tripura is a direct result of such efforts. Even in Odisha’s panchayat elections conducted last year, the party won handsomely because of decades of work put together by the RSS workers.

Though there was an informal arrangement between the RSS and the BJP for these elections, I feel BJP did not really need the RSS this time around. The sort of trained manpower that Amit Shah was able to put on ground was unprecedented for the party and perhaps sufficient.

What was Sangh’s estimation of the BJP’s victory? Were there apprehensions that BJP could lose?

A very senior functionary I had contacted before the elections gave me numbers on May 18 itself. He said the BJP was getting 299 seats and the NDA would get 340.

The sort of confidence that Sangh had about BJP’s performance in Lok Sabha polls can be gauged from the fact that its third year training camp was going on in Nagpur on May 23. But none of the 850 students, 300 teachers and organisers as much as switched on television or checked results on their phones. They were sure of the BJP’s victory.

But what if a Congress-led government were to take power at the Centre, given the anti-RSS stand of many Congress leaders? Would it have been a cause of worry for the Sangh?

If you’re referring to the possibility of a ban on the RSS, they were not afraid of it. The last time such a ban was enforced was in December 1992 (following the demolition of Babri Masjid). But the ban was enforced only in files and anyway was later lifted by the courts.

Even if such a ban were to be enforced, the thought in RSS was that such prohibitions would only be restricted to state capitals like Jaipur and Bhopal.

In my interactions with RSS functionaries, I got the impression that they were sure a crackdown would not happen; that they had enough goodwill even among Congress leaders.

How involved has the Sangh been in creating this aura around PM-elect Narendra Modi? How does the Sangh see him?

The RSS is pushing the idea of Modi as a Rajrishi (a saintly king), as a Janak raja. Modi is somebody who renounced his family. His mother lives in a two-room house. His brothers did not benefit from Modi’s holding high office. Plus, he works for 18 hours a day and hasn’t taken a single day's vacation.

The last leader that Sangh so wholeheartedly admired and showered with words like Rajrishi was Lal Bahadur Shastri, who died with an outstanding car loan. So that’s the parallel they see in Modi.

Given the massive mandate BJP has got again, which agendas – such as article 370, 35A, Ram Mandir –are Sangh’s top priorities now?

On article 370, the understanding is that it is very difficult legally and constitutionally.

On the issue of Ram Mandir, the RSS is not happy with the repeated delays in the Supreme Court but they respect the court’s verdict and are keenly waiting for it. The RSS could be using Ram Mandir as a counter-pressure against the BJP. But it is hopeful for the abrogation of article 35A, which really is the soul of article 370. They want abrogation of article 35A to become a public debating point in order to build pressure.

Finally, the term of 17th Lok Sabha will end just before RSS completes its 100 years. What future goals has the RSS set for itself?

The immediate goal of the RSS will be to have 100,000 shakhas by 2021. Right now they’re running around 78,000 to 80,000 shakhas. The idea is to set roots in all five lakh villages, and to focus on Dalits and OBCs that they haven't reached yet. Also, they want to engage young people in colleges and those who have just started their careers.

Environment is also a big concern in the Sangh, towards which they really want to work big time. It is also laying emphasis on the incorporation of women karyakartis. They have been working to ensure 30 per cent representation for women. There is a feeling that women should not only be promoted in numbers but also be given a fair share in decision-making.