RSS' grand saffron plan for education hits a stumbling block: A reluctant Modi sarkar

The RSS played a big part in being the wind beneath Narendra Modi’s wings in his rise to the top. But once he became PM, pundits wondered whether he would clip the RSS’ wings. Modi is not known to be a man who likes to share power or be dictated to. The popular wisdom was Modi would be fine giving the RSS free rein in areas such as education and culture as long as it kept its nose out of areas like economy and foreign policy and defence.

And that’s exactly what it seems to have done according to an in-depth feature story by Shyamlal Yadav in the Indian Express - Sangham: How the RSS is charting out changes in education.

On 30th October delegates from 11 RSS-affiliated outfits spent six hours with Union HRD minister Smriti Irani, her sixth meeting with RSS leaders in six months.

Narendra Modi. PTI.

Narendra Modi. PTI.

Now she has as Minister of State, former RSS pracharak Ram Shankar Katheria.

Watch for more “recommendations” coming out of the RSS-affiliated meet in Ujjain on December 13-14. Education will be a big part of the three-day RSS meeting in Ahmedabad.

But if you read between the lines, the story seems to more about sound and fury, signifying as of yet, not so much.

The much-ballyhooed Sansnkrit vs German controversy is being pushed not by RSS but the Sanskrit Shikshak Sangh which is affiliated to a former Congress MP. In fact Irani actually went out of her way to establish she was no puppet on an RSS string. “Those who accuse me of being an RSS mascot or RSS representative possibly want to deflect the attention from the good work that we have done,” she told media according to the Times of India.

Despite the headline, Yadav’s story is really about how it’s not quite smooth sailing for the RSS when it comes to changing the face of Indian education. In fact, it quotes RSS functionaries as being peeved about Irani’s “indecisiveness” and upset about how she does “not show enthusiasm” for the names the RSS has proposed for key posts. As a result many IITs, IIMs and central universities like BHU are without vice-chancellors. The NCERT has not yet replaced its UPA-appointed chair. While the Haryana chief minister, an RSS man, has announced a consultative committee headed by Dinanath Batra to plan a new curriculum, Yadav says in nearby Rajasthan Vasundhara Raje Scindia “refuses to give the RSS a free run in the state.” (Read the full report here.)

The problem for the RSS is that even if it finally has a government sympathetic to its mission firmly in the saddle, Modi has run on a platform of development in a country that is far more impatient about seizing the future than reliving a golden past. That’s why Sanskrit in Kendriya Vidyalaya became such a hot potato even though there have been little by way of data to show how useful German has been in the long run for Kendriya Vidyalaya students. Just the idea that anything, however laudable, could make our children less competitive gives parents the shivers.

That’s where the RSS has a branding problem. The Congress tries to pin it down by playing up the period when it was banned, by linking it to the Gandhi assassination. But the RSS larger problem is that people worry it might drag India back towards its idea of a golden past instead of a bright high-salaried future. While many do not really care one way or the other whether Dinanath Batra can win pulping battles against Wendy Doniger (and many might in fact cheer him on) they are far more leery about Dinanath Batra determining what their children learn or do not learn. They might be indifferent to whether or not the new chair of Indian Council of Historical Research wants to make the historicity of the Ramayana and Mahabharata his pet projects but they know that daydreams about a glorious past do not automatically translate into guarantees for a competitive future.

As the BJP expands its clout from state to state these are the voters it wants and needs. The Hindutva supporters are already in its kitty anyway. Modi has been careful to keep his public profile firmly development-oriented. When Angela Merkel raised the Sanskrit issue with Narendra Modi, the Indian PM was diplomatic, reassuring and ultimately vague.

"Our Prime Minister assured her that he himself is a votary of young Indian children learning other languages. How it is best done within the confines of the Indian system, we will work it out," Syed Akbaruddin, India's foreign ministry spokesperson, told reporters.

Meanwhile the government’s opponents have sensed that the public image of the RSS, especially as it holds conferences to loudly declare its plans to leave its stamp on Indian education, could actually prove to be the government’s weak spot at least from a PR perspective. So in Bengal, battered by stories about Burdwan bombs and Saradha scams, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool is hitting out not at Modi as much as the RSS. Trinamool is complaining “The NSA is a known RSS sympathiser. These devious plans are all conceived, drafted and approved at RSS HQ.” It does not address the substance of the charges made against the Mamata Banerjee government but it tries to make an issue out of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s background and his involvement with the Vivekananda International Foundation thinktank.

No one can blame the RSS for assuming that Modi’s rise means its achhey din are here as well. Its great complaint about NDA1 was there was as RSS sahsarkaryawah Suresh Soni put it a “lot of propaganda” but little work done. But chances are as it gears up to take on the unfinished work of NDA1 it might find the brakes being applied not by political opponents but by many within the BJP itself. The RSS should be able to leave its mark on India's education but it will be a longer haul than it expects.

Education might be part of soft power but to an aspirational middle class it matters a great deal more than debates about FDI in defence.

Updated Date: Nov 25, 2014 07:22 AM

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