The transcendence of Narendra Modi over the BJP leadership and organisation has been the most dramatic phenomenon of these elections. Not since Indira Gandhi in the 1971 general elections, has a campaign and its slogans been so emphatically and conclusively framed around a prime ministerial candidate. Equally striking has been the overt involvement of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the “Modi for PM” campaign. With the Modi campaign almost resembling a juggernaut, the RSS, an avowed apolitical entity, at least for public consumption, has surprisingly not retreated to its shakhas and let the politicians mobilise supporters, handle logistics and canvass votes. The studied distance from the day-to-day operations of the BJP, except for decisive interventions during moments of crisis, is now changing.
The involvement of RSS shakhas in electioneering is by no means a novelty. But in their enthusiastic chanting of the NaMo slogan, the campaign portends a remarkable departure from the past. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s diktat against RSS workers mouthing the NaMo chant and his advice to cadre to stay detached from party politics, especially personality-driven campaigns, signifies the growing unease over the trumping of ideology by personality cult. Since its inception, the RSS has incubated associate outfits to mobilise political activists, workers, students, women, tribals and religious fundamentalists. It has moved carefully, steadily, and inconspicuously towards its goal of fostering the Hindutva ideology on India. In leadership struggles, ideological crises, or flailing support, the RSS has worked — almost imperceptibly — in steadying these outfits, offering counsel, loaning manpower and shaping long-term strategies.
The BJP’s inability to advance the Hindutva project or dispel corruption allegations have hardly affected the RSS’ credibility. Its fanatical adherence to political renunciation has endured in public perception. It is this reputation for taciturnity and indifference to political power that is at stake for the RSS when its cadre turn overtly political. But the compulsions of ousting the Congress-led UPA seem to temper other considerations. The unprecedented growth of RSS shakhas since 2010 — after registering a national decline in the preceding six years — and Modi’s energetic campaign over the past year, is helping the Hindutva agenda buck the depoliticising effects of consumerism, technological changes, and the opening up of economy and society. The favours are being repaid too. Modi has heavily relied on the formidable RSS shakha network to market him to the farthest corners without depending on regional satraps and local politicians whose loyalties and crusading zeal remain uncertain.
For the RSS, the acid test will be the fate of senior leaders consumed by the Modi mania that now holds the BJP in thrall. Frontline leaders of the stature of LK Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Murli Manohar Joshi are staring at political eclipse should Modi decide to sideline them. Post-elections, the RSS and Modi will get down to negotiating their stakes in the government and party. The RSS will have a tough call on protecting the interests of dissident leaders if factional tendencies emerge post-elections. It was the RSS that emphatically quelled their objections to Modi’s anointment as the BJP’s PM candidate. Modi’s ability to surmount caste and regional interests may last only until anti-incumbency sets in. That is when a strong organisation and effective collective leadership can act as a counterweight, as an imperilled, dynasty-reliant Congress realises now. In the long run, Modi’s and the RSS’ interests need not converge. But for the moment, the RSS can rest content; the unprecedented consolidation of Hindu votes without diluting the Hindutva agenda, is no mean achievement.