An Unnoticed ‘Election’ Will Define Role of RSS in India’s Future
RSS will elect its new general secretary in March to replace veteran Bhaiyyaji Joshi and set the agenda for future.
In a nation of serial polls that India is, while considerable attention has been cast on the assembly elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam, and the union territory of Puducherry, another crucial ‘election’ that will shape the political orientation of the nation's most influential non-state influencer, remains completely unnoticed so far.
This is the ‘election’ in March at Nagpur, of the next sarkaryavah (general secretary) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to replace the ageing incumbent, Suresh ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi—who has held the position for a record twelve years from 2009.
The post of sarkaryavah is the highest executive post in the RSS and he manages day-to-day activities of the organisation. In contrast, the sarsanghchalak remains unconnected with daily functioning and acts solely as the political, moral, and ethical philosopher and guide.
Two Crucial Events for the RSS
Joshi was due to step down in 2018 and there was widespread speculation that Dattatreya Hosabale, one of the sah-sarkaryavahs (joint general secretary) would succeed him.
At the last minute, however, Joshi, despite not being in the pink of health, was retained. The RSS top brass was reportedly of the view that continuing with him would deter the Sangh from taking a BJP-centric characteristic without causing disquiet in the ties between the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The RSS has eyes set on two crucial events in coming years; the first being general elections in 2024 which will summon all energies of the sangh parivar to ensure another victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party.
However, of greater import for the RSS is the impending centenary of the formation of Nagpur-based organisation: it was established on the day of Dusshera in 1925 by KB Hedgewar. Although plans are not yet drawn, the RSS is likely to kick off celebrations throughout the country in 2024 and it would have to prepare for these within a year or so.
It needs be recalled that the RSS celebrated Hedgewar’s birth centenary year in 1988-89 and the campaign significantly increased the organisation’s popularity and appeal.
The scale of the centenary celebrations is certain to be more grandiose because it is now a major influencer unlike in late 1980s when the sangh parivar was a peripheral political force; the BJP too had just two members in Lok Sabha.
This makes the choice of the next sarkaryavah extremely crucial because he would be expected to stay at the helm of the organisation at least for two terms till 2027.
Importance of the New RSS Sarkaryavah
The ‘election’ for the post of sarkaryavah, due during the scheduled annual meeting of Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha (ABPS) will herald reworking of priorities, recalibration of short and mid-term goals, and formation of new equations among the top brass of the sangh parivar.
Most importantly, the ‘successful candidate’ and the team of office bearers he ‘appoints’ thereafter, will provide indication of the balance of power the two most important constituents of the Hindu nationalistic fraternity—the RSS and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The ABPS, with almost 1400 members, is the highest collective decision-making body of the RSS and is mandated to meet at least once every year. Every third year, when the ‘election’ takes place, the assembly is held in Nagpur while on other years, it is held in other cities. It was last held in Nagpur in March 2018.
Although the meeting will be a restricted affair this year due to the continuing Covid-19 protocols, the decisions taken by the truncated body—likely to be attended by less than 500 members—will carry equal import. The RSS leadership has exercised caution since early March last year and cancelled its ABPS meeting scheduled in Bengaluru on March 14-15 last year.
Why This Nagpur Meet is Crucial for the RSS
Since then, the first ‘large’ meeting was the three-day samanvay baithak (coordination session) for representatives from more than 30 RSS affiliates which concluded on 7 January in Ahmedabad. While this was attended by more than 150 sangh parivar leaders, previous meetings were smaller affairs with the top leadership, including Mohan Bhagwat, Bhaiyyaji Joshi and others travelling to different venues.
It discussed activities of various affiliates and focussed on making the impending fund-raising campaign for the Ram temple a grand success.
The programme, which begins from 15 January, is being billed as the most ambitious mass contact programme of the sangh parivar since the shila pujan yatras in 1989.
At the ABPS meeting in Nagpur in March, the attendees, besides expressing their personal viewpoints, will ‘convey’ the matt (opinion) of pratinidhis unable to attend the conclave.
Despite little talk in public so far, the issue of who is to be 'elected' as the next sarkaryavah (general secretary) of the RSS is one of the issues weighing heavily on minds of the top echelons of not just the RSS, but the entire saffron clan.
While the sarsanghchalak is traditionally nominated by the outgoing chief (after due consultation with other veterans) and remains in office till he desires (or attains 75 years of age as per current convention he is expected to relinquish office), the sarkaryavah is ostensibly 'elected' by the ABPS for three years. But effectively, he is 'selected' by the top brass of the sangh parivar in mutual consultation.
How the RSS Elects Its Highest Executive Official
RSS insiders say that discussions on the crucial appointment are mostly conducted in a roundabout manner in small groups or even in ones and twos. A person puts a viewpoint forward but does not insist in the event of unfavourable response of others.
RSS observers for decades, either from within the system or from outside, point out that the Nagpur-based leadership has been keen to ensure the most crucial positions are held by leaders who emerged from and remained within the ‘shakha system’. This follows the conservative belief within organisation that holds those who remain within the rigid organisational frame are on a higher moral plane.
This often puts, for traditionalists within RSS, those liaising with other ‘open’ affiliates like the BJP or the students' body, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad or similar organisations in different sectors, on the ‘unsure’ list. Despite remaining 'trusted' members of the top brass, misgivings abound about those who were deputed outside the sangh system, the worry being if they can be ‘influenced’ by people ‘outside’.
Who is Likely to Become the 2nd Most Important Man in the RSS?
Since 2014, the RSS has grappled with the unprecedented rise of the BJP that has somewhat eroded the status of the Nagpur-based leadership as the 'elder' brother. The BJP is now on an even keel and there have been numerous instances since 2018 when the RSS leadership has followed up on initiatives of the BJP leaders.
The latest instance being, since May after Modi floated his idea of prioritising atmanirbharta (self-reliance), Bhagwat or RSS leaders have not completed a public address without referring to it and attributing it to the prime minister. Insiders point out that this is a significant alteration from a time when the RSS was often the one to ‘set’ the agenda during the Vajpayee regime.
The choice for the next sarkaryavah is likely to be made from a handful of appartchiks drawn from the existing sah-sarkaryavahs and other members of the top brass.
Hosabale certainly will once again figure as among the top contenders but he will have to vie with those who carry greater confidence of those within the ‘shakha’ system, someone like Manmohan Vaidya, who is one of the six joint general secretaries. Then, there are others like Krishna Gopal who has also worked with the organisation and with the BJP (he was the RSS pointsman in 2014 for crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in 2014). He, at 65, has a decade on his side.
Will Farmers’ Protests Cause a Rift Between RSS and BJP?
The choice of the sarkaryavah shall not impact the ideological position. But on crucial policy issues, opinions vary. Indicative of the changed equation between the RSS and the BJP is the ongoing farmers’ stir.
In 2018, Joshi was asked after his re-election (there were divergent views between the government on one hand and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh and Swadeshi Jagran Manch on the other), about his view of farmers’ demands. He accepted genuineness and gravity of India's agrarian crisis and declared that no government could remain insensitive to farmers’ woes.
While the RSS has publicly backed the government so far, some leaders within reportedly hold a contrarian viewpoint, albeit nuanced. This makes it clear that the next sarkaryavah's ‘election’ will require several rounds of deliberation before any consensus evolves.
(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.)
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