Unqualified Praise to Criticism: COVID Strain on RSS-BJP Equation?

Modi and his supporters can no longer take RSS’ unqualified support and praise for COVID management for granted.

6 min read
Changing ties between the Modi regime and the Mohan Bhagwat-led RSS.

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat's online lecture on 15 May as a part of the 'Positivity Unlimited' series of lectures, organised by a RSS affiliate, marks an inflection point in the relationship between the ideological fountainhead and the Narendra Modi regime.

Bhagwat's decision to call out 'unmindfulness' (gaflat) of the shasan and prashasan (government and administration) after the first wave of COVID is the first instance of public criticism by the RSS during the pandemic. Rumbles heard in private so far, has now breached the hush-hush world of the Sangh Parivar.

Although this will not please Prime Minister Modi and his close aides, and they can no longer take the RSS' unqualified support and lavish praise for COVID-19 management for granted.


Praisers Turned Cautious Critics?

The equation between the RSS top brass and the government altered dramatically in less than two months. In its annual Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha meeting in March, the RSS lavished praise on the government for its pandemic management.

The ABPS also specifically appreciated "the role played by every section of the society." It, in particular, praised initiatives such as the Vande Bharat Mission, Vaccine Maitri campaign, Shramik special trains, and the COVID vaccination drive.

Last year, the current RSS sarkaryavah (general secretary), Dattatreya Hosabale, praised Modi for his “timely intervention in containing COVID-19.”

As late as 24 April, in a statement, he flagged the oft-repeated threat of “destructive and anti-Bharat forces in the society” taking advantage of the current adverse situation to “create an atmosphere of negativity and mistrust in the country.”

This statement acted as an immediate catalyst for organising the four-day 'Positivity Unlimited' online lecture series although the positivity mantra has been used by Modi-BJP-RSS for several years, mainly to mute criticism.

But although the bulk of speakers, a motley lot of self-proclaimed spiritual leaders and eminent personalities from diverse fields, stuck to the brief provided, Bhagwat and Azim Premji stood out with their presentations.

The latter's unambiguous emphasis on truth and 'good' science would not have been music for most within the government for it promoted several obscurantist beliefs and practices since last March. It has also not been adequately transparent in pursuit of COVID-19 related programs.

The industrialist and philanthropist said on 12 May: “At the core of the idea of good science is the willingness to accept and confront the truth” and that “science and truth are the foundations on which we can tackle this crisis.”

Likewise, Bhagwat's decision to implicitly call out the government's claims of having 'vanquished' the coronavirus, would not be a settling thought for the leaders of the government and the party.

He echoed Premji by referring to his address and said that the “truth has to be accepted” and responses formed accordingly.

Bhagwat however, balanced criticism of the government somewhat, by also accusing the people too of becoming careless despite the persistence of the threat from the virus.

Yet, the accusative finger directed at the government is a sign of tremendous pressure from within his ranks. To retain his moral authority within the fraternity, he has to be responsive to their sense.


Resentment Within the Ranks

For several weeks now, it has been evident that hundreds of thousands of swayamsevaks and family members were dismayed at the government acting like deer under headlights.

Many conveyed to mid-level leaders that multiple official inadequacies had made their position among masses untenable and this would eventually reflect on electoral support for the BJP.

Although the Nagpur-based organisational chief has not exactly served a notice on the government, the sarsanghchalak sent an unambiguous message of a huge deficit in its tackling of the catastrophic second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The nuanced position that Bhagwat adopted mirrors the need to balance between rising rage within its ranks with the continuing satisfaction at the government’s consistent pursuit and implementation of issues on the Sangh Parivar’s to-do list.

This is not the first time that Bhagwat was forced to heed the mood within the RSS ranks. In 2013 too, Bhagwat acceded to pressure from below and cleared Modi's nomination as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate because he feared a potential revolt from within the ranks.

Just as Modi's rising popularity forced Bhagwat's hand in 2013, the rising disenchantment with COVID-19 management has pressured the sarsanghchalak into being critical of the government and administration.

Within the Sangh Parivar, the inability of even those with 'connections' being able to secure oxygen cylinders and hospital beds for family and friends, and dead bodies that either floated past in the Ganga river, or were hurriedly shallow-buried, or even strewn on its banks, acted as the proverbial tipping point within the saffron fraternity.

The Ganga river is a compelling symbol in Hindu consciousness and was consciously weaponised by the BJP, principally by Modi. In 2014, after deciding to contest Varanasi's Lok Sabha constituency, Modi claimed to thunderous cheers: “Na mujhe kisi ne bheja hai… na main yahan aaya hoon… mujhe to Maa Ganga ne bulaya hai (Neither anyone sent me here, nor have I been called. I feel Mother Ganga has called me to Varanasi).”

From Gangotri to Gangasagar, this same holy river became the carrier of the deceased, underscoring the levels of degradation to which people had fallen due to incapacity to bid adieu to the dead in families.


In the Gangetic plain, few would be unaware of the iconic Hindi poet Suryakant Tripathi 'Nirala'. His wife died in the Spanish Flu pandemic a century ago and he wrote tellingly of swollen dead bodies drifting past in the Ganga because of financial inability or shortage of wood.

The same tragedy has come back to haunt those who shouted themselves hoarse in past elections: Modi hai to mumkin hai (If Modi’s there, everything is possible).

Yet, Modi may be down, but he is certainly not out. Bhagwat may have expressed disapproval to retain the moral authority of his position but Modi still remains the Sangh Parivar's best bet to stage political recovery, regain the initiative and lead them to victory again.

Consequently, Bhagwat simultaneously articulated criticism of the media for showing chaos, grief, suffering, and tragedy across the country.

The sarsanghchalak also gave wind to the Indian belief in fatalism, that events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them also. 

There is a strong possibility, in future elections, that this could be BJP’s subterranean campaign strategy to deflect blame from the government and the prime minister – that this was in people’s destiny.

Bhagwat also emphasised on the need for everyone to come together and fight the battle jointly. This was little but a veiled attack on the government's critics. That he did not put the onus of inviting adversaries for united action on the government, shows that the RSS is yet unwilling to go beyond general criticism of shasan and prashasan.

But, significantly, Bhagwat's statement was made a day after recently politically rehabilitated Ram Madhav writing in The Indian Express that government's COVID management would gain appreciably if there was a “little more transparency, a little more engagement with the public by the political leadership and a little more openness to constructive criticism and enlightened expert opinion from outside the government.”

When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister, the regime's ties with the RSS were hostile. This was one of the factors leading to the NDA's surprise defeat in 2004. Bhagwat ensured that more harmonious relations between the sangathan and sarkar was built by yielding on several policy matters to Modi.


Besides the advantage of absolute majority enabling the prime minister to remain ideologically unswerving, Modi has benefited the Sangh Parivar by way of placement in key positions for the faithful. Consequently, this regime has greatly co-opted the saffron brotherhood in the regime.

But Bhagwat's criticism of the government marks the beginning of a new phase in the relationship between RSS and government. In this, we can expect to see a more assertive RSS, the degree of increase or decrease depending on the government's ability to get out of this catastrophic situation and the corresponding value of Modi on the popularity index.

(The writer is an 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. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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