Washington DC: A war was averted involving two nuclear-armed neighbours in the sub-continent and with them, the world, eventually. However, the heat of the growing hostilities between India and Pakistan has not subsided entirely. More so, it is being merged with politics amidst the “coincidental” poll-pot churning for the upcoming general elections. At the Capitol in Washington DC, there is a sudden interest both in Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his administration—in the media and the academia—and that interest revolves around what Modi’s next steps will be in the approach to Pakistan and the fallout of the current tensions on India’s elections.
The Sunday Guardian caught up with Professor Walter Andersen, an expert on Indian politics at the Johns Hopkins University. Prof Andersen, who heads the South Asia Program of the School of Advanced International Studies at the university, is a keen watcher of India’s saffron politics. An author who has spent nearly 30 springs into analysing Hindutva, RSS and BJP governance, he feels that “Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the current situation (post-IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman’s return), holds the edge, provided he also keeps the radicals within his party under control. He has reacted with a steady calm to the situation in the wake of the return of the Indian pilot.”
Says Andersen: “Modi’s power at home and his standing abroad will depend significantly on the electoral outcome. If the BJP matches current performance, it is almost certainly the case that he (and India) can speak more authoritatively on the international stage and in its delicate relations with China and Pakistan. It might also give him the room to push for a set of economic reforms that might bring the economy to a higher level. As to the BJP image, much depends on his government’s ability to keep the radicals on the right side of the RSS family under control.”
However, the former State Department official-turned-academic, whose last book, RSS: A View to the Inside, came out in August 2018, does not miss a vital point linked to Modi and BJP’s future rise—BJP relations with the RSS and within the larger RSS family. He shared some ideas that he gathered from his recent exchanges with top RSS functionaries and the BJP top brass.
“There are differences within the RSS family and some relate to differences between some of the RSS affiliates and the BJP. However, what preserves the links between them is a common RSS training by most leaders of the BJP and the other affiliates as well.” Modi has worked hard to appear to be above the infighting within the Sangh Parivar. He has also worked to come across as a statesman, but one determined to protect Indian interests. The airstrikes he ordered conveyed the message not to strike at Indian interests, but also that he would work for peace if the other side did so.
Perhaps Andersen was hinting at something the BJP has realised in the post-Abhinandan period—mend fences immediately within and do damage control to avoid further inner wrangling, with the general elections not even a month away. The results of the 2019 general elections are not only crucial for the PM Modi-led BJP, but for the entire Sangh Parivar.
Andersen, who has seen many RSS chiefs and their ties to BJP leaders, including the two Prime Ministers, Atal Bihari Vajapayee and now Narendra Modi, feels that Modi’s personal ties with the current RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat are important as the RSS supplies the BJP with many of its campaign personnel. After 1977, it was only in 2014 that the RSS came out full scale for the BJP. However, there is also a certain scepticism within “the RSS regarding politics, though much less than in the past”.
“Partly, this is due to the RSS being a much more complex organisation than it was before; it has, like the Congress at its height, a left, centre and right. Vajpayee had a somewhat more contentious relationship with the RSS (in part due to an RSS head, Sudarshan, who was opposed to some of Vajpayee’s central projects) than is the relationship of Modi and Mohan Bhagwat. Bhagwat is very much the diplomat, who works hard to mediate disputes and gets along with Modi to the extent possible,” says Andersen.
He elaborates: “They both (Modi and Bhagwat) recognise that each has a certain function to play. Modi recognises the importance of the RSS in the campaigns. The RSS and the BJP work in a deliberative way where issues are discussed. The RSS is going to ask for information about how the policy has worked and will let BJP know about the shortcomings and what needs to be done…If one remembers Bhagwat’s 2017 Vijaya Dashami speech, he was critical of the government’s economic policies as being anti-poor. There are several areas of differences between the RSS and the BJP-led government under PM Modi. Serious concerns were raised by the RSS on FDI, rural poverty, lack of effective rural education and the growing wealth among a certain section of people, among others. However, having said that, the RSS will continue to advice the government. The RSS is not going to say that I am not going to support. This is not to RSS’ advantage, particularly when the Opposition takes an anti-RSS stand.”
Andersen cautions, “The role played by the RSS will still be suggestive, but their support in 2019 though might not be as whole-hearted as in the past. However, on the other side, the people calling for no support are very few within the RSS. My book too mentions the situation in 1984, many RSS functionaries were not happy with the way BJP was functioning then and the RSS leadership remained relatively neutral. However, I don’t see that happening significantly this time, particularly because the BJP may be facing a clear challenge and the RSS clearly wants the BJP to lead the next government.”
Interestingly, the South Asia and India expert at Johns Hopkins quickly adds that what binds Modi and the RSS together is the former’s assimilative political ideology and the pro-poor policies by making the lower strata core to his governance.
Modi’s political ideology of “sabka saath, sabka vikas” lays thrust on a special development package for the Dalits, marginalised, women, minorities and the handicapped and opening the access of the lower strata to essentials such as bijli (power), sadak (road) and paani (water). This has found a common chord with the RSS’ current pro-poor assimilative ideology for expanding beyond the cities and beyond its upper caste urban base.
“Both (Modi and RSS) have expanded the base beyond the usual urban middle class to the rural heartlands, remote areas, up to the northeast region and gone beyond to seek support of Christians and Muslims. Bhagwat spent much of his September 2018 ‘seminar’ in Delhi laying out the case that Muslims are an integral part of the Indian community of peoples. These are common convergence points,” says Prof Andersen. “The kind of nationalism the RSS seeks, involves a certain degree of cultural assimilation—–but not only cultural, but also economic assimilation as it affects a large section of people. In the American election, Bill Clinton said that it’s all about the economy and there is a certain truth about it. How do you assimilate more and more people has become a concern for Sangh Parivar and to achieve that, both Modi and RSS have gone in an assimilative mode.”
So Modi’s ties with RSS will be crucial factors to decide how well he does in the elections now only weeks away. His prospects were bolstered with his careful handling of Pakistan. He sent a message to Pakistan to put constraints on the anti-Indian groups based there, but was careful to target terrorist facilities and avoid civilian casualties and thus signalled he wanted to avoid the tension from sliding into a full scale war. It will be seen as to how the Modi-Bhagwat duet will work this time for BJP and for the Parivar. Perhaps Modi’s personal trait of dealing with RSS leadership carefully, his political stature and his current popularity, riding high on a nationalist wave, will ensure that the Sangh leadership remains supportive of him.