RSS retains Bhaiyyaji Joshi as Gen Secy: Move prevents Sangh from becoming BJP-centric without upsetting Modi-Bhagwat ties

For the second time in three years, the expected 'generational change' in the top echelon of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been pushed back. When it was announced on Saturday, midway through the annual meeting of the three-day Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha – the highest collective decision-making body of RSS – that sarkaryavah or general secretary Bhaiyyaji Joshi would continue in office for an unprecedented fourth term of three years, it brought curtains to speculations over him making way for Dattatreya Hosabale, one of the joint-general secretaries or sah-sarkaryavah.

In 2015, too, presumptions were made over Hosabale – stated 'close' to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for being 'more political' than the puritanical old-guard of the Sangh machinery – taking over from Joshi to herald a subtle change in the equation between 'Big Brother' and the affiliate, BJP.

 RSS retains Bhaiyyaji Joshi as Gen Secy: Move prevents Sangh from becoming BJP-centric without upsetting Modi-Bhagwat ties

File image of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

This is also the second time that someone from outside the 'shakha system' was expected to become executive head of the RSS – Hosabale rose within RSS hierarchy after being drafted in laterally from Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). Previously, in 2000, Madan Das Devi, then sah-sarkaryavah was briefly in the running after KS Sudarshan took over from Rajju Bhaiyya as sar-sanghchalak (RSS chief).

Devi, too, earned his spurs in the 1980s when deputed to the ABVP. He lost out to the eventual chief Mohan Bhagwat because the Sangh apparatchik in Nagpur frowned on the idea of two posts being held by non-Maharashtrians. Bhaiyyaji Joshi is rooted in the shakha system and spent a major part of his career in Sewa Bharati. Having become sarkaryavah in 2009, he is 'senior' to BJP leaders who matter, most importantly, Modi and party president Amit Shah.

An unspoken factor behind the 'no-change' decision is the growing sense in the Sangh leadership that Nagpur's moral authority over BJP must be maintained in the crucial run-up to the 2019 General Elections. A comment apocryphally made by Bhagwat in 2004 after the defeat of the Vajpayee regime has haunted RSS leadership in recent months.

The chief was reported to have stated sardonically that if Vajpayee was re-elected, RSS leaders would have been rendered 'sarvodayees'. This reference to the relegation of notable Gandhians like Acharya Vinoba Bhave into the background after Jawaharlal Nehru established hegemony in independent India underscored the fear of being rendered irrelevant by the BJP.

Although relations between RSS and BJP are at their best-ever, the anxiety of being eclipsed by BJP lurks as Modi's political stranglehold grows.

Moreover, RSS leadership is guided by Bhagwat's statement after the 2014 verdict: The Sangh Parivar's brief is not to sing paeans to Modi – that job is the BJP cadre's and this separation must be maintained. The fear was that if Hosabale or another sah-sarkaryavah was elevated at this stage, the domineering presence of the Modi-Shah duo could possibly consume the new executive head.

This sentiment has to be kept as a backdrop when scrutinising Joshi's response to questions at a press conference after the three-day meeting on Sunday. He was asked about two important questions plaguing BJP and the Modi government: Farmers' distress and differing views of affiliates like Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, Swadeshi Jagran Manch and even Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Joshi stressed on genuineness and gravity of India's agrarian crisis declaring no government could remain insensitive to farmers' woes. "It is their job to find a solution," he declared. On the question of affiliates being on tracks different from BJP or government, he – clearly exuding greater confidence than in recent months – reiterated the autonomous character of the Parivar organisations.

"Uchit bhasha mein virodh karne ka adhikar sabko hai (everyone has the right to voice disagreement in the right manner)," Joshi said indicating affiliates' autonomy shall remain a leveraging tool in hands of the Sangh leadership, to ensure BJP does not either 'stray' or become hegemonic.

A 'lakshman-rekha' on the extent of divergence, however, was drawn for the BJP's comfort: "There can be mat-bhed but no mano-bhed (difference of opinion is allowed but no ideological departure)."

Continuity of leadership while expanding the high-command showed it was decided not to disturb the arrangement when increasing RSS capacity for managing its enhanced presence. Leadership changes within RSS are preceded by months of shadowy consultations, details of which are never made public but there is little doubt that consultations were made at the top-levels including the 'Big Four' in the Parivar: Bhagwat, Modi, Joshi, Shah. The process was mainly triggered by Joshi's dodgy knees which made movement painful and hampered tours, essential in the sarkaryavah's job profile.

However, with improvement in his health after knee-replacement surgery, the pressing necessity for change receded. Thereafter, it was a matter of suitability and on this yardstick, change at the top at this juncture could be divisive because a new general secretary was sure to put together a new team of office bearers and this could ruffle feathers. Significantly, two new sah-sarkaryavahs have been added, making it a total of six joint-general secretaries.

At one plane, this is indicative of self-realisation that tasks have increased. On the other hand, the effort is to make the high command more representative in indisputably the most significant year for the Parivar in terms of establishing ideological dominance and marking nationwide political presence. The foremost message emerging from Joshi's re-election is although warring affiliates are expected to bury the hatchet, mutual respect and concern for targets and challenges of the others are indispensable.

This considerably explains Manmohan Vaidya's promotion: in the early years of Modi's chief ministership, Vaidya was prant pradhan (provincial chief) of Gujarat and the two were not on the same plane on numerous issues including personality matters. Variance in outlook was evident during the 2014 campaign, but thereafter, the two appear to have shed animosity, more openly from Vaidya's side. Yet, the former Akhil Bharatiya Prachar Pramukh's presence in the top-brass strengthens the Nagpur group.

A change in leadership at this stage, possibly making it more 'pliable' for BJP would have made the Parivar completely BJP-centric. Joshi's continuance prevents this while not upsetting personal harmony between Bhagwat and Modi. Additionally, the behemoth that is the RSS makes it difficult for a new person to take charge immediately.

The RSS has a massive superstructure built over its 93-year-old organisational history. While it is important to ensure each retains its distinctive identity, energies of these have to be funnelled to secure BJP victories during elections. This often did not happen before 2014 and even after that. Joshi's re-election kick starts this process.

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Updated Date: Mar 12, 2018 13:53:01 IST