Mohan Bhagwat's Dussehra Speech: Is RSS Now in Complete Sync with Govt & BJP?
There is now either complete endorsement of steps taken by the BJP leadership, or these are glossed over by the RSS.
There was considerable interest in the tonality of this year's Vijaya Dashami speech of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Sarsanghchalak, Mohan Bhagwat, because it was being delivered amid divergent narratives.
As chief of the RSS, Bhagwat has shed the reticence of his office and regularly expresses opinions that grab news headlines. Given that, the 'wait' for the annual sermon has diminished considerably.
Yet, the importance of the foundation-day speech cannot be denied because it holds the possibility of critical assessment of the past one year, besides providing direction to two-score and more affiliates on the path they are to follow over the next year and issues they require to prioritise.
In that context, the past year assumes criticality given the highs and lows, failures and achievements in this period.
Mohan Bhagwat's Growing Comfort With Modi's Style
Bhagwat has of late been comfortable with the visible personality cult within BJP and government although this is in opposition to the previous standpoint of the RSS against vyakti-puja, (deification of an individual) and giving greater space to the individual than the organisation.
The moot question was over sarsanghchalak's assessment of last year's performance of the government. Multiple challenges that beset the nation last year—be it pandemic management, crises in national and personal economies, rise in prices of essential commodities (fuel most importantly), the conflict with China—are not yet in the past.
Furthermore, India grapples with fresh trials resulting from political changes in Afghanistan. For the BJP, too, the past year has been a trying one and with a crucial round of state elections due early next year, the regime has little time on its hand to sort matters.
Would Bhagwat acknowledge the trials and tribulations over the past year, or would he gloss over survival as well as day-to-day problems of people, by emphasising only on lofty civilisational matters?
In the event, the latter was the course that the sarsanghchalak chose and followed the Modi template for his independence day speeches where the 'all-is-well' theme, is alternated with announcement of schemes already under implementation or which are yet to fructify.
Complete Endorsement of Modi's Leadership
Bhagwat's speech was characterised by satisfaction at overcoming crises—"during the second wave of Covid, society once again through its collective efforts exemplified resilience."
The sarsanghchalak, in a vein similar to that of a government functionary also added, "despite the threat posed by the Covid pandemic, our Bharatiya economy is showing the potential and confidence to bounce back. There is even news of quick stabilisation and restoration of trade from many quarters..."
It is a different matter that Bhagwat's speech was preceded by news of India slipping to 101st rank on Global Hunger Index behind Pakistan and Bangladesh.
While no one expects in the Modi-era a repeat of the sangh-government hostility as was frequently witnessed during Vajpayee's tenure, Bhagwat's speeches in the initial years after 2014 were marked by polite suggestions for effective corrective measures.
In contrast, there is now either complete endorsement of steps taken by the political leadership, or these are glossed over and Bhagwat limits himself to means to achieve distant political objectives.
Same Old Attack on Ideological Adversaries
The tone was set by the sarsanghchalak by raking up the oft-repeated divisive lines on partition and history. Bhagwat made mention of the "indelible scar of partition in the hearts of each Bharatvasi."
He did not point fingers at anyone, in fact clarified that he is not calling for harbouring "feeling of animosity" against anyone, but added, that people "must remember this past."
Importantly, the past must be kept in mind to enable people to counter "those who wish to deepen the differences and unleash the horrors of the past." Speaking in fragments enable those listening to him draw their own inferences and point fingers at the standard 'other'.
Bhagwat was emphatic in his claim that "the intellectual landscape of the country is far outnumbered by those who are acting contrary to the ones building bridges to promote dialogue and intimacy among people."
This assertion is little but rephrasing the line of attack on ideological and programmatic adversaries in recent years. He did not use the acerbic vocabulary of internet Bhakts, but it was understood what Bhagwat meant.
Widening Canvas of Bhagwat's Opinions
The sarsanghchalak broadcast opinions on a wide variety of subjects, several of them articulated repeatedly by him previously. This included flagging issues as varied as Bitcoin (potential to destabilise the economy) and OTT content (to what extent anti-national forces wish to use these means is well-known....make efforts to regulate these).
Despite medical professionals' scepticism regarding efficacy of traditional medical systems for treatment during the pandemic, Bhagwat reiterated usefulness of traditional knowledge systems and vision emanating from ‘selfhood’.
He called for "rising above the conflict for supremacy of one method of medicine over another" was an affirmation of support for Ayurveda. Traditional medical system may have a limited role in raising immunity, but by referring to these while talking of the COVID-19 threat, Bhagwat once again lost an opportunity to raise scientific temper in society.
From the beginning of his address till the end, the sarsanghchalak did not miss out on emphasising political content. He called for an effective population control policy to check "vast differences in growth rates of different religious groups, infiltration and conversion resulting in religious imbalance of the population ratio, especially in border areas."
Coming close on the heels of the legislative steps on population undertaken in Uttar Pradesh and Assam by the BJP governments, the reminder to the 2015 Akhil Bharatiya Karyakari Mandal resolution was a virtual pointer to the next likely campaign thrust of the sangh parivar affiliates.
Taliban, Temples and, Sanatan Dharma
Bhagwat articulated the sangh parivar's Hindu supremacist viewpoint with the assertion that "sanatan Hindu culture and its magnanimous Hindu society" can accept all, and can "alone be the saviour of the world from the catastrophic grip of radicalism, intolerance, terrorism, conflict, animosity and exploitation."
While asking for Hindu temples to handed over to the community for operational purposes and its wealth be "utilised for the worship of the deities and the welfare of the Hindu community only," Bhagwat gave a clarion call to again make "temples the epicentre of our social-cultural life."
Not limiting himself to national issues, the RSS chief also had an opinion on the Taliban and the national approach towards political developments in Afghanistan. But in a speech that did not lose its majoritarian refrain, he blew the dog whistle once again by alluding to Ahmed Shah Abdadi: "Since Abdali, our north-western borders are once again a matter of serious concern."
Insinuating linkages between the medieval warlord and Taliban is uncalled for politically and questionable diplomatically. For a considerable part of his speech, Bhagwat emphasised the need to bolster and strengthen Hindu society so also to reinforce the nation. His speech was conspicuous by being in complete sync with the government and the BJP.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)
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