Inside the new RSS ; Mohan Bhagwat oversees RSS's transformation into a tech-savvy, youthful organisation Willing to mobilise itself as an electoral... [India Today]
(India Today Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Inside the new RSS ; Mohan Bhagwat oversees RSS's transformation into a tech-savvy, youthful organisation Willing to mobilise itself as an electoral force.
"Sau pratishat matdaan hona chahiye." Mohan Madhukar Bhagwat's fervent exhortation calling for "hundred per cent voting" rang out beyond the 5,000 rapt swayamsevaks he was addressing at the maidan outside Smriti Bhawan, RSS's imposing premises in Nagpur's Resham Bagh area.
Witnessed by RSS adherents across India and more than 50 countries via a live webcast, there was a distinct sense of urgency and determination to the 63-year-old sarsanghchalak's customary Vijayadashami (Dussehra) discourse on October 13, 2013. The appeal for votes came at the end of a derisive denouncement of the Congress- led UPA's decade-long governance 'misadventure'.
Bhagwat was unforgiving. Attired in the Sangh's traditional ganavesh (uniform)--khaki shorts, white shirt and the signature black serge side cap-he recounted every 'failure', from the flailing rupee and growth rate, the growing dependence on imports, the unmindful ingress of overseas investors, a whimpering China policy, unforgivable internal security lapses to women's security and the proposed Communal Violence Bill. "Neetiyon ka punarvichar hona chahiye (Policies must be reviewed)," he said, quoting from his conversation with an unnamed economist to declare: "It is time to replace this government."
There was no mistaking the message. The Sangh, pushed into wilderness since the end of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA coalition rule, was throwing its hat in the ring. And for the first time since the post-Emergency elections of 1977, thousands of happy- to-remain-behind-the-scenes cadres of RSS stepped out from their shakhas to directly administer Narendra Modi's campaign for Elections 2014. Besides BJP workers, the multitude of swayamsevaks had a significant force multiplier in scores of equally eager activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, Seva Bharati, Vidya Bharati and Vishva Hindu Parishad.
Six months after he publicly set the ball rolling, the diminutive man with the Lokmanya Tilak-like walrus moustache has taken a vow of silence. "Bhagwatji will meet you but he has decided not to make any public statement until the final vote is cast," a pracharak says, explaining that the sarsanghchalak fears his utterances could be "distorted" and "misused" electorally by rivals. There is an air of anticipation inside Hegdewar Bhawan, RSS's zealously protected headquarters on the grounds of Mohite-bada, a medieval palace in old Nagpur city. Ensconced in an inner chamber, Bhagwat, anxiety evident in his intermittently tapping feet, is clearly awaiting what he hopes will be a happy outcome to his biggest gamble.
Reinventing the behemoth
It was long in the works. Set in motion as soon as he became the sarsanghchalak in the wake of UPA's unexpected re-election despite losing its Left-wing allies in 2009, Sangh insiders say Bhagwat planned a gradual but certain revamp of RSS while he was still sarkaryavah (general secretary) under the late K.S. Sudarshan. Adept in both Sanskrit and English and the youngest (at 59 years in 2009) to head the organisation since its founding fathers K.B. Hegdewar and M.S. Golwalkar, experts say Bhagwat was just the man RSS needed to oversee a significant infusion of young blood. "He is modern in his approach and can hold his own whether interacting with scientists from NASA, IIT and IIM students or the older nationalists in the Sangh," a senior BJP leader from the RSS stable says. Bhagwat's advent altered the traditional and unyielding image of the organisation, drawing younger and professionally qualified members.
In 2012, the RSS chief handed down a hitherto unthinkable diktat- that no member aged above 75 would be given any organisational responsibility. The move evidently worked, given the current early- to-mid-60s age profile of the Sangh's top functionaries, including Bhagwat, sarkaryavah Suresh 'Bhaiyyaji' Joshi and sah sarkaryavahs (joint general secretaries) Suresh Soni and Dattatreya Hosable. But the real challenge was to attract new young members in the face of the rapidly dwindling numbers of shakhas. The winding up of an estimated 10,000 daily shakhas after 2004 gave Bhagwat and his friends an opportunity to initiate corrective action.
The social network
Meet the new swayamsevaks now doubling up as Narendra Modi's foot soldiers with their sarsanghchalak's blessings. Casually attired in faded indigo jeans and a crumpled T-shirt, 24-year-old Prabhat Kumar's most prized possessions are his Nokia smartphone and his laptop. The engineering student from Jharkhand is part of more than a dozen Facebook and WhatsApp groups, all dedicated to disseminating the 'Modi magic'. He divides his hectic schedule between classes, a daily evening shakha at Resham Bagh, and until April 10, in cajoling Hindu families in Nagpur to come out and vote. Studying law at Govindrao Wanjari College in the city's Nandanwan area, Sujit Kumbharkar, 22, is equally committed to seeing Modi in the prime minister's office. "Modi has inspired an unprecedented confidence amid India's young people," he says.
A far cry from the time when the Sangh leadership collectively frowned upon the use of computers, Kumar and Kumbharkar represent the younger, new RSS which exploits the emerging possibilities of IT. Today more than 90 per cent of the roughly 2,500 pracharaks (full-time workers), including Bhagwat, routinely communicate via email and many are on Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and other online platforms, a dramatic change from just a handful using electronic mail less than ten years ago. "We no longer need to rely on TV news reports which were anyway a problem because they invariably edited footage to project RSS as they saw it," says Abhijit Harkare, 46, responsible for RSS's prachar or communication department in Vidarbha. Harkare says Bhagwat's call for "hundred per cent voting" spread like a forest fire and was the top worldwide trend on Twitter for an hour-and-a-half on the evening of October 13, 2013. Social networking, he says, "is a great tool for the Sangh, disseminating the core ideology more swiftly than ever while engaging even people with a peripheral interest in active debate and discussions."
The new swayamsevaks are also keenly aware of the possibilities of employing social networks to steer public discourse. An indignant blitzkrieg of comments on Facebook and Twitter coordinated centrally by a team of RSS men in Delhi literally forced the Andhra Pradesh government to take notice of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen leader Akbaruddin Owaisi's December 2012 hate speech at Adilabad. Earlier, in November 2010, RSS activists claimed credit for forcing the Niira Radia tapes out into the open by ensuring the topic trended continuously on Twitter for 10 days. "We do not let anyone or anything get past us," says Shreyash Balpande, 20, a student at Nagpur's St Vincent Pallotti College of Engineering, citing the online backlash against Union minister Sharad Pawar's recent "half chaddi wallah" jibe questioning BJP and RSS's capacity to govern India. There has been an equally relentless online campaign against Rahul Gandhi, Mulayam Singh Yadav and other detractors of the Sangh.
Expanding the horizon
Under Bhagwat, for the first time since its inception in 1925, RSS began looking beyond the shakha to draw fresh volunteers. Some 30,000 youth have signed up simply by clicking the 'Join RSS' link on rss.org, the Sangh's official web portal since March 2013. Online membership requests rose from under 1,000 a month in 2012 to 2,500 last year to 3,760 this April. More recently, nearly 20,000 youngsters, solicited by members and invitations via social networks, gathered to celebrate the birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda at Resham Bagh on January 12.
It is no longer mandatory for members to join a daily shakha. "Education has become rigorous now, leaving young people with little time," says Kshitij Gupta, 24. A chemical engineer from IIT-Powai's Class of 2011, Gupta became a full-time pracharak in charge of overseeing the new saptahik milans-weekly congregations designed to accommodate students in the Nagpur area. Fellow Powai postgraduate Kedar Joshi, 25, quit his job to work as a pracharak in Arunachal Pradesh.
In June 2013, a group of 70 youngsters participated in the first of an ongoing series of 'information technology milans' in Bangalore. Much of RSS's current online strategies are a result of the brainstorming at such sessions. Amit Malviya, 35, and Vikas Pande, 32, among those who helped organise the Bangalore event, say taking RSS and its ideology online was the natural way forward. Malviya and Pande are key members behind the Parivar's IT campaigns. While Malviya is the co-founder of the NGO, Friends of BJP, Pande and his colleagues have been running an informal YouTube channel, Rashtriya Yoddha, that focuses on nationalist issues.
Marching for Modi
Though the RSS leadership handheld Narendra Modi from the moment of his elevation as the BJP's campaign committee chief last summer, insiders say the RSS leadership remains somewhat diffident. But the real political momentum is being orchestrated by swayamsevaks. The best illustration of the level of RSS's involvement in the polls is this: Its core team compiled critical area-specific data for 450 of the 542 Lok Sabha seats and provided it to activists of RSS and its affiliates working on the ground-an average of 10 youths per polling booth-on their cell phones.
Senior Sangh functionaries such as Krishna Gopal and Sunil Bansal in Uttar Pradesh, Saudan Singh and Kaptan Solanki in Rajasthan, and Ramdutt Chakradhar in Madhya Pradesh, are spearheading local campaigns to keep the "Hindu flock" intact.
In Delhi's Chandni Chowk constituency, where Union minister Kapil Sibal, BJP's Harsh Vardhan and Aam Aadmi Party's Ashutosh are locked in a three-way contest, 48-year-old Rakesh Yadav, who is general secretary of the Karol Bagh unit of Seva Bharati, an RSS affiliate, recounts how he and other Sangh volunteers used a mobile phone- based election data feedback system to ensure higher-than-average turnout. Harsh Vardhan polled "at least 3,000 of the 5,000 votes cast" in the seven polling stations assigned to him, he claims.
Back in Nagpur, Kshitij Gupta and designated groups of Sangh volunteers toiled hard, going door-to-door and texting repeated reminders to draw voters from their homes. The pay-off was evident: In just one locality-Vardhman Nagar-voter turnout more than doubled from 30 per cent in 2009 to 75 per cent. "Most of these people are traders and businessmen who normally remain aloof from the poll process," Gupta says with a sense of accomplishment.
Hindutva vs Moditva
The RSS leadership is keen to find a resonance between its core agenda and Modi's model of development while it contends with the Gujarat strongman's hold over its own cadres. His consistent refusal to formally apologise for the pogrom of 2002 has only enhanced his currency amid younger swayamsevaks. Modi's assertion on April 17 that rather than being constantly prodded to apologise, he should be "hanged" if found guilty for the post-Godhra massacre of Muslims, found immediate applause from Sangh activists on social networks.
If he reaches the PMO, Modi will be expected to deliver on RSS's core commitments. The wish list encompasses the entire gamut of Hindutva from the withdrawal of the special status to Jammu & Kashmir under Article 370, implementation of a uniform civil code and a Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
"The cadres that are backing Modi also have expectations he will have to meet," says a Sangh insider. And already, there are reminders that the very men so eagerly propelling him to Delhi could cause Modi trouble in the future. On April 19, VHP leader Pravin Togadia caused a storm by inciting people in Bhavnagar, Gujarat, to force Muslim owners from their home in a Hindu-dominated area. That same morning, another firebrand candidate from Bihar, Giriraj Singh, insisted during a poll speech in Jharkhand's Godda that Modi's critics would only find a place in Pakistan after the elections. Though Modi was prompt in articulating his "disapproval" and dubbed both statements as "deviant", they must have set him thinking of the months ahead.
If elected as prime minister, Modi will have to contend with the resurrected Swadeshi Jagran Manch and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, RSS affiliates opposed to foreign investment, supported by the Sangh chief. In January, SJM's national co-convenor Ashwini Mahajan didn't name names but, in a succinct statement, warned "against such policies" in future.
M.G. Vaidya, 91, a well-preserved Hindu patriarch who edited the RSS daily Tarun Bharat for over 15 years and has served the organisation in various capacities, sees no significant grounds for disagreement with Modi as prime minister. "Swadeshi," he says, "is among the Sangh's core beliefs but rather than an inflexible position, it simply means that RSS will not support anything against India's national interests."
An exceptionally vocal Rajya Sabha member on 'deputation' to BJP from deep inside the RSS fold, Tarun Vijay also asserts that there is no conflict between Hindutva and the 'Gujarat model' of economic development. "The Sangh has given him a line as a swayamsevak and he will follow that line," Vijay says, adding that Narendra Modi and RSS are committed to the same things. For now, but will it last?
Follow the writers on Twitter @UdayMahurkar and @Asitjolly
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