The RSS is upset about lynching incidents

Walter K. Anderson, Political analyst and writer

Walter K. Anderson | Courtesy: Penguin India

IT HAS BEEN three decades since US scholar Walter K. Anderson co-authored his definitive book on the RSS, The Brotherhood in Saffron. Now, he has revisited the Sangh, in his new book RSS—A View to the Inside. He says the Sangh has grown big in this changed era, and the most interesting thing about this growth is its affiliates which penetrate the whole Indian society.

Edited excerpts:

An academic, Walter K. Anderson was a political analyst in the US state department, and has specialised in India and Indian Ocean affairs. In 1987, he co-authored the authoritative book, The Brotherhood in Saffron, with Sridhar D. Damle. After three decades, the two authors have written a new book, RSS—A View to the Inside.

The RSS today is very different from the time you first published a scholarly work on that organisation, in 1987.

That is exactly why we decided to do the book. It has been almost three decades since The Brotherhood in Saffron appeared. Then, they were really a rather marginal group and there had been a lot of negative publicity about them. My former advisers who mentored us on the first book said, ‘You should do another book. Because, India has changed especially since the market reforms in the early 1990s. Certainly the RSS has changed.’ Several significant ways it has changed, we have noted in the book. We have nine case studies indicating how the RSS has met various challenges and the changes that have taken place. First change, it has grown hugely...

... with regard to the number of shakhas and volunteers. Does that coincide with political rise of the BJP?

I think it is somewhat separate. There is obviously a certain element of interchange. But, the RSS makes it a point to say that they are not the BJP and they do not want to be the BJP. In the last campaign [in 2014], Mohan Bhagwat, head of the RSS, had to issue some statements to say, ‘Do not get too attracted to politics. Remember your first loyalty is to the RSS.’ And, on several occasions he said, ‘Beware of the cult of personality. We should not look at office of prime minister or any senior political office as a cult.’

And, you are saying the RSS at its core disapproves that cult of personality around Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

Yes. So that was one change, the vast growth. But, the most interesting thing is the growth of its affiliates which now penetrate in virtually all parts of the Indian society. They have about a hundred such groups. In some ways the affiliates are the ones who shape the RSS’s views on political process.

The RSS has become a mediating institution among its various affiliates who now have a very diverse membership.

We have a situation where the prime minister is bigger than the party. Do you sense the RSS is uncomfortable with that?

The RSS is not comfortable [with that]. It is not that they do not want him to be prime minister. They have certain advantages with the BJP in power. But, they always have a certain problem with an individual who stands aside from the organisation. They have always been organisationally oriented.

Your book says that there were only two elections in which the RSS put all its might behind making a candidate win—for the Janata Party in 1977 and Narendra Modi in 2014. What do you anticipate in 2019?

I think they will do what they did in Bihar during the 2015 assembly elections. They will provide campaign workers. If requested they will probably use the membership in rural areas to know what people are thinking. But, a do-or-die tactics of 2014, I do not think the RSS will have.

Why not?

In 2014, and also the earlier case after the Emergency, they felt the organisation was perhaps in threat, with restrictions placed on it. And, there have been some talk in 2010 or 2011 of ‘saffron terrorism’. So, there was a real suspicion that if the Congress had won for a third term they would have restrictions placed.

What is the RSS sentiment about the lynchings of Muslims in the name of beef politics or cow protection? Often you find the accused are broadly affiliated to [RSS], or will claim that they belong to groups like Bajrang Dal.

The RSS leadership is upset with these. In fact, a very senior RSS person said to me that they have issued statements that this should be a law and order problem, and it should be handled that way. That is true. But, I think the RSS need to do more perhaps in coordination with the BJP to take steps to tackle this issue of lynching. You mentioned the Bajrang Dal, which is actually a branch of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. One has to remember that the VHP, among the various affiliates, is somewhat unique. It is the only one that actually deals only with the Hindu community. And, that is because it deals with the Hindu ecclesiastical establishment. All the others have Muslim members. And the VHP sometimes is close to being somewhat a sectarian organisation, which the RSS is not. It is, in fact, trying to place a distance between itself and organised religion, which is good politics for the RSS because Hinduism is so divided.

When the BJP and the PDP came together in Jammu and Kashmir, it was a very interesting political experiment. Now you say that you believe the withdrawal actually happened because there was a sense of a Hindu backlash.

Yes, there was, particularly in the Jammu area which was important to the BJP. But, Ram Madhav, who wrote the alliance agreement and also announced the decision to pull out of the alliance, made the statement that he felt the alliance did some good things, and that, in fact, maybe would have to consider a reconstruction of the alliance. The BJP on its own cannot come to power in Jammu and Kashmir. It has to have an alliance with one of the Muslim-oriented parties. I think they recognised that. So, I think it is just a matter of time before other efforts are made, perhaps after the election.

How do you see a figure like Yogi Adityanath? Where does he fit in the larger pariwar of affiliates?

He is not RSS.

I know he is not. And, everybody makes the mistake of calling him RSS.

He is not. Has never been. Never went through their training system. Had organised a group that in some sense is competitive to the group. Rumour is that the prime minister was not all that happy, given the baggage that he carries. But he has tried to emulate Modi’s economic orientation with soft hindutva.

Yogi Adityanath was once described by the BJP’s spokespersons as a fringe element.

Yes. There was a lot of surprise, I can tell you, within the RSS itself when they read he was appointed to be the chief minister. What he is trying to do is make himself useful to the larger organisation. He is probably the one senior figure at the state level of BJP people who travels the country. And, he is doing what usually the VHP does. He is making contact with various ecclesiastic establishments to get them on the side of the BJP and of course help the BJP, if he can do that.

How important is the Ayodhya Ram mandir issue?

Much less.... I think they are waiting for a circumstance in which all the political [conditions] are favourable. And, as one BJP person told me, ‘That includes having good support from the Muslim community. Otherwise it risks rioting and damage. And we don’t want to do that.’ This is particularly because the BJP would like to get the Muslim votes.