When Mohan Bhagwat became sarsanghchalak or chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on March 21, 2009, there was a lot of buzz about his uncanny resemblance to the organisation’s first chief Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar — the moustache, the body language, the unflinching assertion of Hindutva.
And when the Bharatiya Janata Party, riding on the Narendra Modi wave, won a sweeping mandate in 2014, helped by the ground work by over one lakh RSS group leaders and about six lakh swayamsevaks from the 50,000-odd shakhas, there was talk again that Nagpur, where the RSS is headquartered, would be the actual seat of the government. Memories of the run-ins Bhagwat’s predecessor, K Sudarshan, had with prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee hadn’t faded yet.
Two years on, things have proved very different. Bhagwat and Modi go back a long way. Both were born in September 1950 and Modi was groomed in the Sangh by Bhagwat’s father — Madhukar — who was the prant pracharak of Gujarat. Bhagwat is known to have pushed Modi’s candidature as the BJP’s candidate for prime minister over LK Advani. His reasoning was that the old order had to change.
His preference for younger leaders was clear when he ensured that Nitin Gadkari became the BJP president in December 2009. At 52, he was the youngest-ever party chief.
Even as RSS number two, Bhagwat had felt it would be difficult to deal with senior functionaries. At an RSS meeting at Kolkata in 2004, he had suggested that Vajpayee, Advani and other senior leaders step aside and let the younger leadership take charge of the BJP. Ten years later, this plan had been accomplished.
And that could explain the smooth interface between the RSS and the government, whatever critics may read into the motives for Bhagwat’s call for a relook at the reservation issue before the Bihar assembly elections and his recent remarks in support of gau-rakshaks, which could read to be in direct opposition to what Modi had said about them.
Bhagwat is known to be a man of action — he was for years in charge of physical training in the RSS as its sharirik pramukh. Close associates speak of his controlled aggression and point to his taming of VHP firebrand Pravin Togadia, who had started a campaign against Modi. They say Bhagwat has in key organisational posts deployed people who would toe the Sangh line and at the same time be non-confrontationist.
His success in effectively mobilising the RSS ahead of the 2014 elections added to his stature. The RSS believed the BJP could win 272 Lok Sabha seats on its own and form a government. Led by Bhagwat, RSS strategists and key BJP leaders sifted through data and noticed that the BJP had won at least once from 278 seats across the country. There were 70-75 seats where the party was a close second. RSS chalked out a strategy to focus on these 350-odd seats. The results were unprecedented.
“The RSS’s intentions were clear when Bhagwat spoke openly on the issue in his customary Vijaya Dashami speech on October 15, 2013. He had made a strong and fervent appeal to the people, especially the youth, to fulfill their responsibility of being a part of the world’s largest democracy and pledge to bring about a desired change in a country riddled with many problems,” says Dilip Deodhar, a veteran RSS analyst, who was previously associated with the BJP’s ideological mentor.
The formation of the Modi cabinet and its expansion in November 2014 also had a visible RSS imprint with over a dozen ministers associated with the Sangh Parivar being inducted. Among them, Hansraj Ahir, a four-time MP from Chandrapur — Bhagwat’s native place — found a place in Modi’s team. Ahir, known for exposing the coal block allocation scam, is considered to be very close to Bhagwat. The inclusion of Manohar Parrikar in the Union cabinet and the promotion of Prakash Javadekar to the HRD ministry recently also show the rising clout of the RSS within the government. By elevating Javadekar as HRD minister, a close associate, he wanted to push the RSS agenda in the education system.
Though Bhagwat tries to avoid confrontation with Narendra Modi and his government, but on some issues the sangh seemed to be non-compromising, such as its opposition to genetically modified (GM) crop. This was reflected when the Swadeshi Jagaram Manch, the economic wing of the sangh, opposed the move in a national symposium held in New Delhi last month. The speakers, most of them RSS leaders, explained in detail how GM crop may affect entire ecosystem if companies are given access to Indian market.
There are bound to be differences between the sangh and the way Modi’s government functions. But both seem to be accommodative. While the government allowed the sangh’s views in education, culture and to a certain extent dealing with troubled neighbours, the sangh on its part has been supportive of the government’s economic policies that it may not subscribe to in entirety. Having a familiar government in Delhi was a necessity felt by the sangh after the poor show in assembly polls and now, there seems to be a clear understanding between the two – to let Modi govern the country and sangh pursue the Hindutva agenda.
Insiders say the RSS appreciates the Centre’s move for a uniform civil code. Besides, a proposal to set up a Ramayana museum at Ayodhya and Modi’s Vijay Dashami address in poll-bound UP’s capital Lucknow that began with a robust chant of “Jai Shri Ram” also has RSS observers believe that Modi was pushing the sangh agenda, albeit guardedly.
A veterinary doctor, Bhagwat left a post-graduation course in veterinary medicine from Akola half way and became a full-time pracharak in 1975. His family has been associated with the RSS for three generations. A senior RSS swayamsevak close to Bhagwat said that both Modi and Bhagwat would turn 75 when the saffron organisation celebrates its centenary in 2025 and could step down to set an example regarding their policy of a retirement age for Sangh Parivar leaders. Bhagwat is known to be ruthless in pursuing the Sangh’s goals. A no-nonsense man, he doesn’t even spare his close associates when the question of discipline arises.
Another senior swayamsevak recalls a simple, uncomplicated man with no airs. “In the 80s when he was among the top 10 leaders in the RSS hierarchy and held the post of sharirik pramukh, I saw him several times sleeping on the floor at the RSS headquarters,” he says. A voracious reader of detective books in his student days, Bhagwat, a Maharashtrian Brahmin, was a non-vegetarian till his elevation to the post of sarkaryavah in 2000. A good singer, he rarely misses his yoga and routine exercise, whether he is in Nagpur or elsewhere.
However, a section of RSS activists here also feel how a leader of Bhagwat’s stature failed to keep the flock together in the RSS Goa unit and failed to rein in Subhash Velingkar who decided to float a political party against the BJP.