Why Rajnath Singh is the go-to person for BJP and RSS

Singh represents the solemn face of BJP

41-Rajnath-preparing Flying high: Rajnath preparing to take off on the Tejas fighter, at the HAL airport in Bengaluru | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

IT IS HARD not to like Rajnath Singh. He is affable while dealing with colleagues, bureaucrats, aides and political opponents. At a time when relations between the Union government and the opposition are frayed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a colleague in Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, who can still extend his hand across the aisle and win concessions. So, it is hardly surprising that Modi has entrusted Rajnath with the responsibility of heading the cabinet committee on parliamentary affairs which decides the government’s legislative agenda and formulates strategy to counter the opposition in Parliament.

Rajnath Is leading a major transformative effort focused on ‘atmanirbharta’ or self-reliance in military production.

Always quick to acknowledge his team leader and team work, Rajnath heaped praise on Modi, when asked about making friends across the political spectrum. “Modi ji has good friendship with everyone and talks to everyone. There is not a single person in the opposition with whom Modi ji has not spoken to,” he told THE WEEK.

But if you ask Rajnath about his most treasured moments as defence minister, he would say those were in the company of soldiers. “The confidence and bravery of the armed forces is a matter of pride. I think their confidence levels have risen manifold,” he said. Life came full circle for Rajnath on March 24, when he celebrated Holi with soldiers in Ladakh. On June 3, 2019, he was just four days old as the new defence minister when he enjoyed hot jalebis with jawans on the icy heights of Siachen. It was his first visit to the world’s highest battlefield at around 20,000 feet. In his earlier stint as Union home minister, Rajnath used to proudly narrate how paramilitary men would welcome him whenever he went to their camps in Naxal hotbeds or on the borders with Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Rajnath represents the solemn face of the BJP, something even his colleagues would not disagree with. A farmer’s son, he cut his teeth in student politics as an active member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. As the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP, joined hands with anti-corruption crusader Jayaprakash Narayan against the Indira Gandhi regime, Rajnath was arrested along with lakhs of other JP movement activists. At the time of his arrest on July 12, 1975, he was teaching physics at a college in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh.

Insiders say Rajnath’s mother, Gujarati Devi, played an important role in shaping his values. She came to see him when he was being transferred from Mirzapur jail to Naini central jail near Allahabad (now Prayagraj). “Never beg for forgiveness, my son, even if you have to spend your entire life in prison,” she told him. That was the last time Rajnath saw his mother. She passed away in June 1976, while he was still in custody. By the time he was freed, Rajnath had turned into a battle-hardened politician.

Rajnath served as a member of the Uttar Pradesh assembly, a minister in the state cabinet and a Union minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. He went back to Uttar Pradesh as chief minister, only to return to Delhi as BJP president and then join the Modi cabinet handling the key portfolios of home and defence.

Always dressed impeccably in a white kurta―often overlaid with a cut half jacket―Rajnath is easily a man for all seasons. What makes him the go-to person for the BJP and the RSS is his ability to connect with the masses, cadres, colleagues, competitors and opponents with his measured approach.

Mission possible: Rajnath with Prime Minister Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP president J.P. Nadda | PTI Mission possible: Rajnath with Prime Minister Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP president J.P. Nadda | PTI

Hailing from the core of the Hindi heartland―his parliamentary constituency is Lucknow―Rajnath is a Rajput, a politically significant community that has good presence across Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and, to some extent, Gujarat. Within the sangh parivar, Rajnath’s rise has been quite organic. He started holding local ‘shakha’ positions in the RSS, before joining the ABVP and the BJP. Most observers credit his stolid confidence and perpetual calm to his staunch RSS ties, having joined the organisation at the age of 13.

From his younger days, Rajnath has had ties to the Gorakhnath math and Mahant Digvijaynath―aided no doubt by his student days at Gorakhpur University. It is to his credit that his sway among his community and state remains undiminished, despite the rise of fellow Rajput, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Their interactions have always been cordial.

As defence minister, Rajnath leads the process of making India a major military power. It is during his term that India has seen a major transformative effort that is focused on ‘atmanirbharta’ or self-reliance in military production. India’s defence exports have reached an all-time high, surging from Rs1,143 crore in 2013-14 (financial year) to nearly Rs16,000 crore in 2022-23. “We are exporting state-of-the-art platforms and systems to more than 100 countries now,” said Rajnath.

While the Tejas light combat aircraft and light combat helicopters are garnering global attention, India’s range of exports also include BrahMos missiles, Dornier aircraft, 155mm advanced towed artillery guns, Akash missile system, Pinaka rockets and launchers, thermal imagers, body armour and components of avionics and small arms. Rajnath has ensured that there is a fine balance between maintaining battle readiness with state-of-the-art equipment imported from across the world and maintaining the tempo for indigenisation.

The defence ministry has accorded approval for various capital acquisition proposals amounting to Rs2.23 lakh crore, of which acquisition worth Rs2.20 lakh crore is to be sourced from domestic industries. Another policy is to diversify the sourcing for weapons systems, technology and platforms. Meanwhile, Rajnath has not allowed the much-debated Agnipath system of recruitment to take political centre-stage in an election year. The new mode of recruitment is among the most radical military reforms along with the move towards setting up theatre commands and integration efforts.

Rajnath may well turn out to be the most travelled defence minister, especially to the remote parts of the country, including Siachen, Tawang and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. He is also the only defence minister with sorties on the Rafale fighter, the Tejas LCA and India’s first indigenous helicopter Prachand. Rajnath has dived deep underwater in a submarine, besides having sailed in both the aircraft carriers, INS Vikrant and INS Vikramaditya.

Rajnath is leading the defence ministry at a time when the twin wars (Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas) are keeping militaries around the world busy with preparations for a hybrid war. New Delhi has taken a leap forward by using military diplomacy to counter the short-term and long-term challenges. “The Indian Navy has become very strong as we have seen in recent times [in the Red Sea], safeguarding India’s maritime interests. India has opened a new naval base at Minicoy. We are addressing all issues successfully,” said Rajnath.

If the BJP gets a third term, military czars hope that India will be able to resolve long-term border disputes with belligerent neighbours. “Talks are on between India and China. It is the longest dialogue between the two countries so far, but we have to be patient. People, however, will be happily surprised with India’s capabilities if I could disclose any details,” said Rajnath.

On Pakistan, he said the peace process could restart if Islamabad stopped promoting terrorism. Security officials are expecting that if Jammu & Kashmir remains peaceful, Central forces may slowly be withdrawn from the Union territory and the J&K Police will be given more responsibility in maintaining internal security. This is a plan which is in the works under Rajnath, who has been talking of winning hearts and minds.

As Modi continues to ride a wave of popularity, he has found a veritable pillar in Rajnath who does not shy away from supporting him and his vision of making India a developed nation.