Few people know the RSS like Walter K. Andersen, who has studied the right-wing organisation for over five decades and co-authored The RSS: A View to the Inside with Shridhar D. Damle. In a freewheeling interview to Bhavna Vij-Aurora, the professor of South Asia studies at the School of Advanced International Studies in Johns Hopkins University speaks about the workings of the RSS, its past and its growing influence on Indian society and politics. Excerpts:
During a recent European trip, Congress president Rahul Gandhi compared the RSS to the Muslim Brotherhood, and also alluded that the Sangh agenda threatened to create an ISIS-like situation in the country. Do you think it is fair to make the comparison?
Though I am not sure of the context in which the comparison was made, but with the elections coming up, such charges may happen to make a point and create a political narrative. Such things are potentially incendiary. These are exaggerated claims to make a political statement—claims not backed by facts. You will have more such exaggerated claims closer to the elections. This has become a part of the democratic process and is a growing phenomenon. In a diverse country like India, such claims can have a destabilising effect. Even the politics in the US has become like this. It is the most polarised political situation ever.
Do you think the Congress will gain by repeatedly attacking the RSS?
I don’t think attacking the RSS is good politics. It will only make the RSS more enthusiastic about supporting the BJP during the election campaign. Though the RSS has always supported the BJP’s efforts, the level of involvement can vary. It has been seen in the past that the RSS is more enthusiastic about backing the BJP when the party’s functioning is threatened like it was before the 2014 elections and post-Emergency in 1977, when they fought as the Janata Party. The RSS was fully engaged in the elections on both the occasions. A strident anti-RSS campaign may push them to throw their full weight behind the BJP in the election campaign. Earlier, the Congress had been very careful—almost standoffish—on the issue of RSS. I wonder if it is a strategic decision to change that. I personally don’t see any strategic value in it.
Do you think the Congress will alienate the majority Hindu population by this strategy?
I can’t say if it will alienate Hindus, but, I repeat, it will nudge the RSS to take on a more proactive role. According to information based on my interaction with RSS leaders, they are not in favour of supporting the BJP’s campaign to the same degree and level as in 2014. But the constant Congress attack can change the strategy.
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Rahul also accused the RSS of coming up with the idea of GST and demonetisation, bypassing the finance ministry, and getting it done directly by the prime minister. Do you think the Sangh exercises that kind of influence on the government?
Affiliates of the RSS may try to influence policy, but I don’t believe they had anything to do with GST or demonetisation. For this, you should go back to (RSS sarsanghchalak) Mohan Bhagwat’s Vijaya Dashami speech. Every year, the RSS chief makes a Vijaya Dashami speech that outlines the goals and priorities of the Sangh for the following year. It is usually delivered in the most general of terms. However, Bhagwat’s address in September 2017 was different. It was a policy-specific one. It was both a critique of the Narendra Modi government’s policies and a statement about India’s developmental priorities. Bhagwat was critical of the GST as he talked about the hardships it created for small industries, traders and the self-employed. Bhagwat also spoke about the plight of farmers and suggested the adoption of minimum support price and better implementation of existing schemes like crop insurance, soil testing and e-marketing.
I showed Bhagwat’s speech to a colleague (in Johns Hopkins University) without telling him whose speech it was, and asked him for his opinion. Going by the criticism and attack on the Modi government, he actually thought it was made by an opponent of the prime minister. When I told him, he found it interesting that the RSS could be this critical of the BJP government. That is why Rahul’s charge on GST doesn’t make sense.
You mentioned the RSS affiliates getting involved in policy issues.
There are as many as 36 recognised affiliates of the Sangh. You have the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh espousing the interests of farmers, and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) talking about increasing consumerism and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. When the PM was in Davos, talking about India taking the lead in globalisation, the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM) raised a red flag. In another speech to the business community in Mumbai, on April 16, 2018, Bhagwat almost suggested a mediatory role for affiliates like BMS and SJM, claiming that the GST and demonetisation were hampering economic growth and harming vulnerable sections.
Do you think the Sangh raising issues like this is a good thing or does it hamper governance?
There are questions raised in most democracies. They have inner debates and discussions. They always help in the long run. Also, the information network of the RSS is much stronger than the BJP’s, or even some of the agencies. They are working on the ground and know the issues that are making people unhappy. They are in a position to tell the government about what is working and what is not. The RSS is better than any polling agency. Before the 2014 elections, the RSS held an internal poll to decide whether to support Modi as PM candidate or not. It is only after the swayamsevaks voted overwhelmingly for Modi that the RSS decided to support him.
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Do you think Rahul is barking up the wrong tree when he accuses RSS of interfering in governance and polarising?
What I can say with conviction is that jobs and the economy are the biggest issues. Congress should be focusing on them rather than targeting the RSS as a strategy. An anti-RSS strategy is not going to work. Lack of jobs has to be the biggest issue. In the US too, there are by-elections coming and the economy is going to be the big issue along with Donald Trump’s negative personality. Here, instead of Trump, you have the RSS at the receiving end. Even though the Indian economy is doing fine with a 7.5 per cent growth rate, it is not good enough. PM Modi should have been more aggressive. He hasn’t tried to shake up the system enough.
The focus of the government is on social schemes, aimed at the poor…
It is necessary in the Indian context. The huge health scheme (Ayushman Bharat) and the gas cylinder scheme (Ujjwala Yojana) are all necessary. There is a strong strain of equality, of providing, in the Indian system. I can’t see any government moving without that. It has to take care of the poor.
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There has always been this perception that the RSS works in the shadows. Do you think with people like former President Pranab Mukherjee and industrialist Ratan Tata engaging with it publicly, the perception will change?
Historically, the RSS has been somewhat reluctant to advertise what they do, including the good they do in terms of relief in times of disasters like Kerala now and Andhra Pradesh earlier, where they helped move the dead when nobody came forward. It is the consequence of what happened after Independence, when the organisation was banned, that it became more inward-looking and withdrew from public.
However, now it is beginning to engage and open up, which is a good thing. About Pranab Mukherjee sharing the stage with Bhagwat, it is a very healthy thing in a democracy. Drawing political ghettos is not good. People have to talk to each other or democracies can become fractious. The demonstration of civility, like by the former president, should be encouraged in Indian politics. The PM said in his speech that we need to be tolerant of each other. Even the BJP needs to imbibe the message.
In addition to being more tolerant, what are the challenges that you see before the RSS and the BJP in the years to come?
The first challenge is how to handle the tensions between pervasive Hindu caste identities and the non-caste orientation of Hindutva. The second is tackling vigilantism, and lastly, dealing with the urban-rural divide in India’s political economy.