There has been the usual lament from expected quarters about the discussions which have just taken place between ministers in the Union Cabinet and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). There has even been an effort to equate the role of the RSS in the NDA government with that of Congress president Sonia Gandhi during the ten years of the UPA regime. Such a comparison is incorrect, and not only because an organisation with so many views and voices as the RSS cannot reasonably be compared with a single individual.
The most important individual in the government is the Prime Minister, and in the case of Manmohan Singh, it was no secret that he owed his ascent to the nation's highest executive office to Sonia Gandhi. Within the Congress Parliamentary Party, it is unclear whether the mild-mannered economics professor with a British education would have secured more than his own vote, but for the backing given by the Congress president, who was equally responsible for the decision to grant him a second term after the UPA once again prevailed over the NDA in 2009. In contrast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was made the BJP's face for the 2014 elections despite open opposition from L.K. Advani and Sushma Swaraj. More than the RSS, it was the strong public support for Modi which led his party to anoint him as the leader. Within the RSS as well, the support within the lower rungs of the organisation for a Modi-led government played a keystone role in persuading the senior leadership of the organisation to suggest that the then Chief Minister of Gujarat be nominated the PM candidate of the BJP. Those tracking elections say that the reason for the party's majority in the Lok Sabha was public support for Modi as PM.
That Narendra Modi, in common with several other leading lights of the BJP, has been close to the RSS is scarcely a secret. Indeed, so was Atal Behari Vajpayee, who is known to be a liberal in several ways, and who refused to allow his government to lead any crusade designed to convert the people of India into saints through moral policing laws and enforcement of the kind being witnessed in Maharashtra, a state with a city (Mumbai) which aims to be the next Shanghai. What chance there is of such an outcome has been reduced drastically by the Moral — sorry, Mumbai — police, as well as by medieval laws such as a ban on beef. Such edicts bring India closer to Somalia, Saudi Arabia and other countries that have restrictions on diet, dress and other lifestyle choices, when in fact the government needs to move in the direction of greater freedoms. Those refusing to engage the RSS because of differing views on a multiplicity of issues should accept that in a democracy, it is precisely those holding differing views who need to meet in an effort to understand, if not reconcile. Hopefully, the Modi government will ensure that it engages with different sections of civil society so that these give input in the formulation of policy, which for too long has followed the colonial practice of leaving it to the civil service. Dialogue and discussion promote a healthy democracy, and in such a context, the intensive discussions between some ministers in the NDA government and the RSS are welcome except to those believing in untouchability in different spheres.