RSS Caution on Economy: A Criticism Modi Can’t Afford to Ignore

In Modi’s defence of his economic policies, there were many hidden messages for the RSS.

4 min read
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat used his annual Dussehra address to caution the government on the economy.

On the face of it, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ripped into the Opposition, particularly the Congress, and in-house critics like Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie, when he defended his economic policies at the golden jubilee celebrations of the Institute of Company Secretaries.

But between the lines, there were many hidden messages for the RSS that suggest all is not well between Modi and the BJP’s parent body. Mounting concerns over the economic slowdown seem to have introduced a degree of tension in an otherwise mutually supportive relationship that has weathered many ups and downs ever since the RSS chose Modi over his seniors and peers to lead the BJP into the 2014 general election.

The first indication that the RSS has issues with the government’s management of the economy came in Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat’s annual Dussehra address. Although he tempered criticism with praise for demonetisation and GST, Bhagwat made no bones about his concern over the impact of these policies on the Sangh’s core support base of small traders, small businessmen and small farmers.

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More worryingly for the Modi government, he expressed open disapproval of its economic advisors, including members of NITI Aayog, who he said were trapped in “old economic isms’’ (read: neo-liberal economics), and were out of touch with the country’s ground reality.

No BJP PM dare ignore the RSS chief, or badmouth him the way Arun Jaitley and the government’s cheerleaders did to Yashwant Sinha. What is significant is that Modi chose to respond to Bhagwat’s comments from a public platform, instead of seeking a private meeting which is how the two of them have discussed and resolved issues in the past.

It’s not that Bhagwat and senior RSS leaders have not flagged demonetisation worries before, but conversations with the government were always kept under wraps. This time, surprisingly, both sides have gone public. This could well alter the dynamics between them if Modi does not come good on his promise of reversing the current decline.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat.
(Photo: PTI)

Modi Swings to Damage Control

While Modi’s attack on critics like Sinha grabbed the headlines, his response to Bhagwat seems to have gone unnoticed in the din. Interestingly, Modi blew both hot and cold. He extended an olive branch to Bhagwat by trotting out assurances to small traders and the middle classes. He also rolled out a dhobi list of statistics to prove that the middle classes are better off today than ever before.

In fact, unlike his demonetisation narrative which was all about the poor, this time the PM concentrated on addressing the middle classes, who are the main supporters of the RSS and the BJP.

At the same time, he stonewalled the criticism of his economic advisors by reiterating his commitment to the reforms process which is the backbone of neo-liberal economics. He talked of holding the line on fiscal deficit, of ushering in 87 reforms in 21 sectors, of attracting more FDI in his three years in office than all previous governments put together. This sounded like a man who brooks no interference in his choice of personnel or decisions he considers important.
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. 
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. 
(Photo: Reuters)

Harking Back to Friction in the Vajpayee Years

The sarsanghchalak’s traditional Vijayadashmi speech is the most significant rollout of the Sangh’s views on issues of national importance, and lays down a roadmap for the coming year. It is intriguing that Bhagwat used this forum to target people around the PM.

This is a first since Modi became PM and revives memories of the friction that marked the Vajpayee years when the then RSS chief K Sudershan, and his lieutenants, would take regular pot shots at those considered close to the PM, including his principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra.

There is no doubt that Bhagwat has put Modi in a bind. The PM appointed a new head for NITI Aayog, Rajiv Kumar, only last month. And last week, he reconstituted the PM’s Economic Advisory Council, ironically with NITI Aayog Member Bibek Debroy as chairman and the organisation’s principal advisor, Ratan Watal, as member secretary.

Now, out of the blue, Bhagwat has rapped all of them as unsuitable candidates to advise the PM in the current economic climate. Is this a wrinkle that can be ironed out easily? Or is this an early warning of stormy days ahead?

Much depends on the steps the government takes to ease the pain of those hit by demonetisation and GST. Modi described his government as a sensitive one, ready to accept criticism and capable of taking hard decisions. He desperately needs good news on the economic front to ward off pressure that seems to be coming at him from a boss whose remarks he dare not take lightly.


(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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