Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, Mohan Bhagwat's call for “harmonious conversation” between those in favour of reservations and those against, is indicative of long-standing unease within the sangh parivar on the policy and regulations governing reservations or positive affirmation. The sarsanghchalak's suo motu statement, is once again a polite nudge to the Narendra Modi government to alter the rules of the game.
The RSS is certainly of the view that given the BJP's brute majority in Lok Sabha and recently displayed capacity to take along sections of opposition in Rajya Sabha to secure passage of legislations, the time is ripe for the government to initiate action on altering the framework of reservations.
Do repeated assertions of RSS leaders on the issue of reservations underscore deep-seated discomfort with the policy?
Although Bhagwat's assertion is not completely the result of the savarna sentiment within the RSS prevailing on him, the viewpoint reflects a deep-seated discomfort with reservations policy being treated as Holy Cow.
If Article 370 Can Go, Why Can’t Reservations?
Leaders in the RSS, sarsanghchalak downward, appear to be of the view that if Article 370 could have been used so effortlessly to take away Jammu and Kashmi's separate constitution and its statehood, there was no reason for the Modi government not to initiate steps to rejig the framework of reservations.
Statements on reservations resonate more powerfully in political terms. Thus, to limit immediate damage from the Bhagwat assertion, the RSS has issued a clarification. Arun Kumar, Prachar Pramukh or publicity head of the organisation said that an “unnecessary controversy” was being stoked on Bhagwat's remarks and that his speech reflected the RSS consistent stance on “importance of resolving all issues in society through cordial dialogue” even on a “sensitive issue like reservation.”
To ensure that Bhagwat's statement was not utilised by pro-reservationists, inimical to the BJP, Kumar added that the RSS “completely stands for reservation to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, OBCs and economically backward.”
It must be recalled that in January this year, the government post-haste enacted the law giving 10 percent reservation in government jobs and educational institutions for the Economically Weaker Section in the General category. This initiative of the Modi regime when the BJP was faced with a huge electoral challenge had the unmistakable prodding of the RSS.
Mohan Bhagwat’s Tryst With Reservation Debates
Bhagwat's statement in the concluding session of Gyan Utsav, appropriately on competitive exams and an apt platform for articulating the sentiments of those who do not have benefits of reservations, is not the first time the sarsanghchalak stirred the hornets' nest.
In September 2015, on the eve of the Bihar assembly elections, Bhagwat had—in a course of an interview with Organiser and Panchjanya—called for a “committee of people genuinely concerned for the interest of the whole nation” to “decide which categories require reservation and for how long.”
Immediately after, and following eruption of a controversy around the statement, the RSS had officially issued an explanation. Like Arun Kumar's statement on August 19, it too was not a “denial” but just a “clarification”. This indicated that RSS disagreed only with the media's interpretation of the statement and its motivation, but not its contents.
In the wake of the BJP defeat, several leaders, attributed the extent of defeat to Bhagwat's ill-timed statement. They contended the RSS chief's uncalled for intervention was interpreted by agitated voters from backward castes and Dalits as anti-reservations and cost the party dearly.
In January 2017, Manmohan Vaidya stirred a similar controversy at the Jaipur Literature Festival by making a Bhagwat-like assertion. His comments that one should look into the impact of reservation as a state policy to end socio-economic discrimination was considered as evidence of RSS' discomfort with reservations. Vaidya, too, was forced to issue an urgent clarification that what he meant was that reservation was needed so long as social discrimination exists in the society.
“Until there is discrimination in society, reservation should be there. We should end discrimination in society as soon as possible. The weakest of the weak should get the benefits of reservation. But it should be looked into why they haven’t got the benefits of reservation even after so many years after Independence,” he said.
Even the BJP after its formation in 1980 was critical of Indira Gandhi expanding the base of reservations in Gujarat.
What Do These Repeated Assertions Mean?
Do repeated assertions of RSS leaders on the issue of reservations underscore deep-seated discomfort with the policy and desire for changing the rules of the game? Or, do these repeated episodes demonstrate that RSS top brass is still not adept at communicating with the world outside the fraternity like the Pracharaks deputed to BJP are?
Since 2014, the RSS leadership has come out of shadows and taken to the public proscenium more readily -- recall Bhagwat's highly publicised lecture series in 2017 at New Delhi's Vigyan Bhawan. They have certainly learnt the art of communicating with the world outside the sangh in a not so convoluted vocabulary.
It is thereby evident that these inventions are indicative of both opposition to current form of reservations as well as the desire to play the “jagadguru” having an advice on every sensitive matter, or as moral compass of the BJP and the government's leadership.
Attempts to Retain the ‘Influencer’ Role
With little actual power in their hands due to Modi’s charisma and sway that often precludes the need of the RSS cadre, the Nagpur-based leadership wishes to keep underlining its role as 'influencer'. Leaders like Bhagwat are also aware that their 'separation' from BJP currently enables the sangh to articulate sentiments for which there is support within its core support even though these opinions may be difficult to espouse from official platforms.
It cannot be forgotten that even the BJP after its formation in 1980 was critical of Indira Gandhi expanding the base of reservations in Gujarat. Atal Bihari Vajpayee as president of BJP, in his presidential address at a National Council meeting in Cochin in April 1981, said that reservation was a national issue and “must be sorted out with a long-term vision”.
Such riders have always been symptom of discomfort. At that time the RSS' Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha also called for a committee of “non-partisan social thinkers, which will study in depth all the problems arising out of reservations and suggest positive steps for the uplift of Harijans and Tribals.”
Bhagwat's words echo the same sentiment.
‘Savarna’ Concerns As National Agenda
Agitations by Patels in Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra and several other castes who do not get benefits of reservations have led to similar privileges for economically weaker sections of the 'upper castes'. But this is not seen as sufficient by them.
The time has come, these savarna supporters of the sangh parivar feel, to make reservations time-bound or available only for a certain number of generations and even by linking it to economic status of the SCs, STs and OBCs. By repeatedly calling for dialogue and “harmonious conversation” the RSS leadership is putting the item on national agenda.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. His most recent book is ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’. He can be reached at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)