Lessons for the BJP: How Modi tamed the Sangh Parivar

by S Muralidharan

Ahmedabad: Can the BJP survive and grow without the Sangh Parivar? For a party which continues to grapple with the existential dilemma despite being in national politics for over three decades, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi provides the answer.

There’s a growing realisation in the BJP that the Sangh Parivar — the RSS, its loose affiliates and Hindutva groups of several shades, from the rabid to the restrained, to which the party traces its ideological roots — has been an impediment to the political and organisational growth of the BJP. That the party has still not managed to have an independent, universally acceptable presence in Indian polity because of the overwhelming presence of the RSS is not lost on many of its leaders. With the umbilical ties so strong and so deep, how does the party assert its freedom from the mother outfit? This question has been troubling the party for some time now.

Modi seems to have worked out the solution. When he hits the campaign trail in December this year, it would be a complete BJP show again in Gujarat with no presence of the Sangh Parivar in the picture. In 2007, Modi’s emphatic victory had revealed that Brand Modi has clearly overtaken Brand Saffron; this time the degrees of separation appear to be even bigger.

In the last assembly elections, it was Modi rather than the Sangh Parivar's clout that worked with the electorate. If Modi is able to repeat the feat this time, it could mean a clear separation of the BJP's political platform from the Sangh's agenda. Despite Modi's image as a mascot of Hindutva, in practice he has curtailed the Sangh's influence over the government and the party.

There’s a growing realisation in the BJP that the Sangh Parivar has been an impediment to the political and organisational growth of the BJP. AP

Of course, this is more about Modi's personality than the BJP's own party clout. In Gujarat, the BJP is effectively Modi.

The transformation of the party started almost immediately after the post-Godhra riots when Modi earned the epithet of 'Hindu Hriday Samrat'. He established himself as a force separate from the Sangh. He consolidated his position as a 'brand’ further during his Gaurav Yatra in the run-up to the 2002 Assembly elections. This is the time the state BJP started freeing itself from Sangh outfits, including the Bajrang Dal and the VHP.

The process was aided by the loss of credibility and strength of the once powerful VHP. It lost prominence in the post-Godhra scenario as thousands of its supporters were put behind bars by the government in cases linked to the 2002 riots. Local leaders of the outfit who were critical of Modi's policies also fell foul of the government and faced arrest. It sometimes required the intervention of VHP leader Ashok Singhal to ensure that the local leaders did not invite the wrath of the government.

Pravin Togadia, the once powerful VHP international general secretary, has moved into oblivion. The list of other leaders with RSS lineage to have receded into insignificance are Keshubhai Patel, Suresh Mehta, Gordhan Zadafiya, Kashiram Rana, Rajendrasinh Rana (BJP MP from Bhavnagar) and Dr Vallabh Kathiria (Union Minister in NDA regime). Modi's latest big target was Sanjay Joshi, the RSS grassroots organiser who helped build the BJP in the state.

Next, it was the turn of the Bharitya Kisan Sangh, the farmers' wing of the RSS, to face the Modi-led government’s ire. The outfit was thrown unceremoniously out of the premises it occupied for eight years at the MLA quarters in Gandhinagar. Its fault: it tried to take up the issue of steep hike in power tariffs for farmers. Modi also acted tough on the Hindutva outfits, including the RSS, for their public support to hundreds of illegally erected temples in Gujarat’s cities. Modi wanted these removed as they were an obstruction to efficient urban town planning and road widening programmes.

In the space of five years, Modi had shown the Sangh that he is the boss and will brook no nonsense. He has not hesitated to show them the iron fist when required. In the process, an assertive Modi has ensured that the Sangh has almost no say in governance and policy matters. Earlier, the RSS framed policies and the government just implemented them — it is more or less the practice in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh.

The RSS Gujarat region recently relieved Bhaskarrao Damle from membership of working committee citing old age but insiders say the decision has been taken at the behest of Modi. Damle was occasionally seen at Mahagujarat Janata Party leader Gordhan Zadafiya's functions. Both of them were on the stage when the party arranged Govindacharya's public speech in Ahmedabad. Damle was also a regular participant in meetings held at Keshubhai Patel's bungalow to discuss the formation of a third political front in Gujarat.

The question is whether the separation of party from Sangh is merely the Modi effect or can be replicated elsewhere. Modi, however, seems to have done a balancing act by marginalising the local Sangh outfits even while building a good rapport with the RSS top bosses in Nagpur.