Bhagwat eclipsed

DHIRENDRA K JHA is a contributing writer at The Caravan

Investigations into a series of bomb blasts that shook the country in the first decade of the twenty-first century during the UPA government led to allegations of involvement of several RSS members. There were surprising turnarounds in these investigations after the BJP came to national power. The new mood was made public in June 2015, when Rohini Salian, the special public prosecutor in one of the blast cases, claimed that the National Investigation Agency had asked her to “go soft” on the accused. In the following years, one case after another resulted in the acquittal of terror suspects with RSS links. The Modi government’s approach to Hindu terror cases would have brought some relief to Bhagwat. The problem, however, is far from over as many of the cases are still pending. The sword is still hanging over Bhagwat’s head.

IN THE MONTHS leading up to the 2014 general election, Ram Madhav, the national spokesperson of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, sought an appointment with the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Arun Shourie. Madhav had an intriguing request. He wanted Shourie to intervene with the BJP’s prime-ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, on behalf of Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS sarsanghchalak—supreme leader.

Bhagwat is the sixth sarsanghchalak of the RSS, a Hindu-nationalist organisation that emerged from within Nagpur’s Brahmin community, in 1925. Its network of affiliated outfits—known collectively as the Sangh Parivar—has penetrated almost every aspect of Indian society. As the head of the Hindutva family, the RSS provides ideological fuel for its roughly three dozen affiliate groups, which include the ruling party, one of the largest trade unions in the country, a student union active across various universities and a conglomeration of Hindu sadhus and monastic establishments. The sarsanghchalak reigns over this large amorphous system as its ultimate guide.

“You please talk to Narendrabhai about Mohanji,” Shourie recalled Madhav saying. There would have been good reason for Madhav to presume a closeness between Shourie and Modi. The two had met several times in 2013. On 18 October that year, Modi had released a book by Shourie. Because of all this, Shourie imagined, the word might have got around that he knew Modi well.

“I asked Ram Madhav what happened,” Shourie told me. Bhagwat had taken offense to Modi’s language and rude attitude, Madhav explained. “Modiji was asked to meet Mohanji at Nagpur and discuss with him how the RSS could contribute to his election campaign,” Shourie said. “But Modiji said that he won’t go to Nagpur and that [Bhagwat] should come to Ahmedabad for the meeting instead. Mohanji changed all his tour plans and reached Ahmedabad to meet him.”

Once in Ahmedabad, Bhagwat requested that the meeting be held in the RSS office, but Modi refused. He insisted that Bhagwat come to his residence. They finally met at an RSS patron’s house. “Modi was probably very abrupt with him,” Shourie said. “In the meeting, Bhagwat had started telling Modi about how to organise the election campaign, about what should be done and what should not be done.” But, according to Madhav’s account to Shourie, Modi said, “Mohanji, do remember one thing. Had I not obeyed the RSS order to shift to the BJP, I might have been sitting in the position where you are today.” Modi had spent several years as a pracharak—full-time worker—in the organisation.

Madhav told Shourie that Bhagwat was affronted. Modi appeared to be outright rejecting his—and, therefore, the RSS’s—advice on the election. But Bhagwat’s grievance appeared to be on a personal register than an institutional one. “Madhav wanted me to tell Modi that there was no need to insult him and that he could have said the same thing in a more polite manner,” Shourie said.

Shourie, it turned out, was actually in no position to help Madhav and, by extension, Bhagwat. “I told him that my proximity with Modi was not so much that I could advise him on anything about his personal conduct,” he said. I sent messages to Madhav asking him about this meeting, but he did not answer. I also sent multiple interview requests and a detailed set of questions to Bhagwat, but received no response.

The anecdote illuminates something striking about Bhagwat. An RSS chief engaged in a public-relations strategy to obtain respectability from a prime-ministerial candidate is a big departure from the way previous RSS chiefs have carried themselves in their bid to exert power and control over the Sangh Parivar. It reflects a weakness many other RSS functionaries have also perceived in Bhagwat: a failure to evoke reverence for the position of sarsanghchalak and a loss of trust in his own personal dealings. Since its founding, RSS hagiographies have accorded sarsanghchalaks, such as KB Hedgewar and MS Golwalkar, a larger-than-life place in the Hindutva pantheon for their ideological influence over the Parivar. Bhagwat’s legacy, in comparison, is likely to be more underwhelming. Shourie, for instance, did not find himself in any awe when he first encountered Bhagwat. “Perhaps it was just before or after he became the RSS chief,” Shourie said. “He did not make any great impression on me.”

Perhaps Bhagwat felt blindsided. After all, Modi had not too long ago resorted to glowing public praise for him and his father Madhukarrao Bhagwat—who, as a pracharak, had laid the foundation of RSS activities in Gujarat. “Iron can turn into gold when it comes into touch with a philosopher’s stone, but it cannot become a philosopher’s stone,” Modi wrote in his book Jyotipunj, first published in Gujarati in 2008, with an English translation two years later. “Madhukarrao, the philosopher’s stone, moulded his son into another philosopher’s stone.”

At any rate, Bhagwat would have been mistaken to think Modi’s goodwill was a given or that his tenure as leader of the Sangh would automatically guarantee it. With Modi, the Sangh Parivar’s mood was shifting. The sarsanghchalak has traditionally enjoyed an exalted position in the Parivar, but Bhagwat became complacent. He forgot a cardinal rule of politics: there is no room for friendship at the top. He was dealing with no ordinary man. Modi has projected himself as the man who can deliver the Sangh’s long-cherished project of a Hindu Rashtra. The media has promoted his cult of personality and has set the terms of the debate in his favour. Moreover, his government is the first since Independence that believes in exactly what the RSS believes: that Hindus alone have the right to lay down rules of belonging in the country.

“SINCE 2014, RSS BRANCHES have multiplied, the working team of the Sangh has expanded, and its influence in society has increased,” a senior RSS leader who did not want to be named told me. “But along with all this, there has also emerged a big question: is it still the master of the ship?” He was upset by the way the organisation had allowed itself to be subjugated by the BJP. Although the relationship between the RSS and BJP has been a symbiotic one, the tussle for power has meant that the dynamic has been laced with tension.

Publicly, the RSS never accepts that it has anything to do with politics. In 1949, it pledged that it would act solely as a cultural organisation. At the time, soon after an RSS member assassinated MK Gandhi, the Sangh was desperate to wriggle out of a government ban. Its constitution, adopted before the ban was lifted, states that the organisation, “as such, has no politics and is devoted purely to cultural work.”

It is clear, however, that the RSS is driven by political motivations. In fact, there is much that is terrific about the political role the RSS plays, particularly the manner in which it is able to turn itself into a gigantic election machine—its disciplined and fanatic cadre playing sheet anchor for the BJP. The organisation exercises control over its electoral outfit through a network of senior RSS men who monitor, direct and guide the party’s approach to most major issues, as well as the elevation of leaders and the selection of election candidates. The organisation has historically drawn inspiration from the Nazis and the Italian Fascists, promoting a vision of Hindu supremacy akin to Aryan supremacy. “Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by,” Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak, wrote in We or Our Nationhood Defined.

The idea of a Hindu Rashtra did not have mainstream sanction in quite the way it has today. For the most part, political outfits connected to the RSS had tried to keep this affinity hidden. In the last few years, however, Indian politics has seen dramatic shifts, bringing the more subterranean ideas of the Sangh Parivar to the surface. The Modi government has acted swiftly on its Hindu-nationalist vision. Legislation such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the revocation of Article 370 have triggered deep constitutional crises. The takeover of democratic institutions, from the media to education bodies to the judiciary, has ensured that a great revision is being enacted on historical memory, and that public discourse is being radically changed. Figures such as Gandhi’s assassin are being rehabilitated, while the progenitor of Hindutva, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, is being openly revered as a nationalist hero.

Modi plays by his own rules, and it was unlikely that he was going to submit to the conventions of the Sangh Parivar. During his tenure as prime minister, the RSS has been carrying out instructions instead of issuing them. “Now the time has changed,” the senior RSS leader said. “The unusual groundswell among the Sangh’s cadres in favour of Modi has created a situation in which the traditional leverage that the Sangh enjoyed over the BJP has practically vanished. Instead of showing the political astuteness required to deal with the new situation, Mohanji seems to have simply left the ground vacant. Now the commands come from the BJP and are obeyed by the Sangh cadre. Mohanji has made himself redundant.”

The transformation has been smooth. Modi has put the entire Sangh Parivar in a perpetual election mode—by unceasing activity, by constant work aimed at the polarisation of votes, even sometimes by direct involvement in campaigning and booth management. With the aid of RSS cadre accustomed to strict subordination and devotion, Modi has succeeded in providing his regime with a firm inner structure. But the framework of the new system, which could satisfy the craving of the RSS rank and file for an authoritarian Hindu state, leaves Bhagwat and the office of sarsanghchalak in a peculiar position.

A certain awkwardness is evident in Bhagwat’s relationship with Modi. According to some senior RSS leaders I spoke to, the two have not had a personal meeting since 2014—except on a few public occasions such as on 5 August 2020, when Modi and Bhagwat sat side by side to lay the foundation of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Meanwhile, Dattatreya Hosabale, considered Modi’s man in the RSS, was elevated to the post of general secretary in 2021. The prospect of Hosabale’s elevation had earlier been resisted by a section of the RSS. Once Modi came to power again in 2019 with a much larger mandate, the opposition to Hosabale’s election died down. Hosabale is now positioned to enable Modi’s diktat with greater ease within the RSS.

“There is no question about who is in charge,” Ramesh Shiledar, a former pracharak and a contemporary of Bhagwat, told me. The RSS leadership used to have a major say in how its cadre would be used during elections, as well as on key organisational decisions of the BJP. This is no longer the case. “Sangh office-bearers rarely decide for themselves when it comes to political matters,” Shiledar said. “This change has happened because of the weak and short-sighted leadership of the Sangh under the present sarsanghchalak.” According to the senior RSS leader, “It’s not Narendra Modi or Amit Shah who is to be blamed. It is just that the regulating force that the Sangh had been has become non-operative. Mohanji should have resisted it. But he is so clueless that he has gleefully facilitated the shift.”

Bhagwat has used his public speeches to praise the BJP government and amplify its messages. The Vijayadashami event at Nagpur is a ceremony that has taken place annually ever since the RSS was formed. Every year, on this occasion, the RSS chief lays down the Sangh’s vision for the country. Typically, the sarsanghchalak is expected to deliver a critical assessment of the past year. Since 2014, however, Bhagwat has only applauded the prime minister, and this has only increased during Modi’s second term. “The move of the re-elected regime to nullify Article 370 has once again proved that it has the courage to fulfil those expectations and respect people’s sentiments and wishes in the interest of the country,” he declared in his speech in 2019.

A reason for Bhagwat’s acquiescence with the situation may have something to do with the greater access to material privileges pracharaks now have, the senior RSS leader suggested to me. Under Modi, the Sangh has much more resources than it ever did. “The language of Mohanji has changed after 2014,” he pointed out. “Now, he often says we don’t have to live in the same scarcity as we used to earlier. Sangh offices have been constructed, or are under construction, in every district, with air-conditioned rooms and hotel-like facilities. Pracharaks are now used to cars, branded clothes and costly mobile phones.” According to the RSS leader, Modi, having been an RSS worker himself, “understands both the strengths and the weaknesses of pracharaks and has utilised them to finish their capacity for resistance and placed himself over and above the Sangh.” But the RSS leader remains surprised at why Bhagwat himself seems so unperturbed by the shift in the power balance. “Mohanji seems to have no problem in letting the power in the Sangh go into the hands of Modi,” he said.

One reason for this might simply be that Bhagwat has bigger worries. Investigations into a series of bomb blasts that shook the country in the first decade of the twenty-first century during the United Progressive Alliance government led to allegations of involvement of several RSS members. There were surprising turnarounds in these investigations after the BJP came to national power. The new mood was made public in June 2015, when Rohini Salian, the special public prosecutor in one of the blast cases, claimed that the National Investigation Agency had asked her to “go soft” on the accused. In the following years, one case after another resulted in the acquittal of terror suspects with RSS links. The Modi government’s approach to Hindu terror cases would have brought some relief to Bhagwat. The problem, however, is far from over as many of the cases are still pending. The sword is still hanging over Bhagwat’s head.

Modi has tilted the balance of power within the Sangh in the BJP’s favour, but has also brought about a Hindutva surge that RSS cadres have always dreamed of. And so, Bhagwat’s eagerness to please Modi may also be motivated by another reason: to be allowed to continue unhindered and preside over the RSS’s centenary celebrations in 2025.

MOHAN BHAGWAT COMES FROM a lineage of prominent RSS workers. His father, Madhukarrao, was a pracharak who worked extensively in the Gujarati-speaking districts of the Bombay province throughout the 1940s. He was among the first batch of pracharaks, in 1942, who vowed to remain celibate and dedicate their lives to the expansion of the organisation. Golwalkar was the sarsanghchalak at the time. This was at the height of India’s struggle for independence, a movement the RSS decidedly kept itself away from and, therefore, had no role in. “Hindus, don’t waste your energy fighting the British,” Golwalkar said at the time. “Save your energy to fight our internal enemies that are Muslims, Christians, and Communists.” This virulent philosophy came to a head on 30 January 1948, when Nathuram Godse, an RSS leader, assassinated Gandhi over his philosophy of non-violence and communal harmony.

A police intelligence report, dated 27 March 1948, on RSS workers who had gone underground in the wake of Gandhi’s assassination describes Madhukarrao as:

a Deccani Brahmin, aged 35, broad forehead, sunken cheeks, height 5’ 5’’, originally belongs to Nagpur. He has studied up to B.Sc. and is the Chief Organiser of the R.S.S. Sangh. He has a good hold over R.S.S.S. members and has a good organising capacity. He arrived in Ahmedabad City in the year 1941. He is the Chief Organiser of the R.S.S.S. activities in Gujerat and Kathiawar.

The RSS was banned, and thousands of its leaders and workers were arrested. Madhukarrao got married, enrolled in a law college and settled down at his parental home in Chandrapur, a small town about a hundred and fifty kilometres south of Nagpur. He did not leave the RSS, though. In later years, even while practising law, he continued to work as the organisation’s Chandrapur district chief, a position that his father, Narayanrao Bhagwat—also known as Nanasaheb and an accomplice of the RSS founder, KB Hedgewar—had held before him.

A letter dated 8 February 1940 that Golwalkar—who was the general secretary of the RSS at the time and a few months shy from becoming the sarsanghchalak—wrote to Hedgewar indicates how Narayanrao and Madhukarrao both formed part of the organisation’s elite club. At the time, Hedgewar was staying at Rajgir, in Bihar. “Honourable Babasaheb Apte and Shri Madhu Bhagwat will leave for Chanda tomorrow on Friday 9 February by Grand Trunk Express,” Golwalkar wrote, informing Hedgewar about an RSS camp that was to be held in Chandrapur. “Day before yesterday, I received a letter from Honourable Shri Nanasaheb Bhagwat who has written that a bumper preparation has already begun.”

Mohan was, therefore, born as a creature of the RSS, and his life trajectory made it seem as though he was destined to be sarsanghchalak. He was the first child born to his mother, Malatibai, on 11 September 1950, in Sangli in Maharashtra. He had two younger brothers and one sister. Ordinary though his family was, Mohan was given a chance that majority did not get in those days: he would be properly educated. He completed his schooling in Chandrapur and finished his matriculation in 1964.

Shiledar, who also belongs to an old RSS family of Nagpur and has long been in contact with the Bhagwats, told me that he first met Mohan in 1965. “He had perhaps completed his matriculation and had come to Nagpur to attend the first year of the OTC,” he said, referring to the three-year officers’ training camp for senior RSS cadre. “I was part of a team of young swayamsevaks who had been asked to do volunteers’ job for the OTC.”

Shiledar said that “Bhagwat’s parents wanted him to become a medical doctor. In those days, students used to get admission in medical colleges on the basis of marks obtained in the BSc Part I examination. Bhagwat could not secure enough marks to get a seat in a medical college. So he took admission in Nagpur’s veterinary college and started living in its hostel. At the same time, as a dedicated swayamsevak, he began to take part in a local shakha of the Sangh.” Shakha, meaning a branch, refers to the basic unit of the RSS.

Bhagwat completed the four-year veterinary sciences programme in 1971. He oscillated between considering a career as a veterinarian and a life in the RSS. After spending less than a year working as a veterinarian in the state government’s animal husbandry department, he joined the RSS as a vistarak—short-term worker.

Within a year or two, he abandoned the life of a vistarak at Nagpur and shifted to Akola to complete his postgraduation in veterinary sciences. But he kept up his connection with the RSS. In early 1975, Shiledar had just completed the final exams for an engineering course he was enrolled in and visited Bhagwat. “I told him that the decision that I would be a pracharak had been taken, although it was yet to be finalised as to which part of the country I would work,” Shiledar recounted. “As far as I remember, I also asked him about his own future plans, but he did not say anything.”

On 25 June that year, national events took a tumultuous turn with the imposition of the Emergency. The RSS was banned once again, nine days later. As police started picking up pracharaks and prominent workers, Bhagwat gave up his studies and went into hiding. RSS leaders told me that, during the Emergency, which lasted until 1977, Bhagwat lived in fear of arrest, taking shelter in obscure places, staying only a few days in each place before moving on to the next. In late 1975, the Lok Sangharsh Samiti, an umbrella platform led by the socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan, launched a satyagraha movement against the Emergency. The RSS was part of it, and swayamsevaks who were outside jail courted arrest in large numbers. Bhagwat was not among them.

“The nationwide satyagraha movement began on 14 November 1975,” Shyam Pandharipande, a contemporary of Bhagwat and the son of an old RSS hand, told me. “I led the second batch of satyagrahis in Nagpur and was taken into custody along with other satyagrahis.” Two days later, he said, he was charged under the controversial Maintenance of Internal Security Act and jailed, along with other detainees, in a barrack of the Nagpur jail. “In another barrack, my father, along with Madhukarrao Bhagwat and twenty-five to thirty other senior RSS men who had been arrested under MISA, were kept. Almost every day I used to visit my father in his barrack, where I regularly met Madhukarrao Bhagwat and other senior RSS men.”

Pandharipande said that the junior Bhagwat was nowhere in sight. “Had Mohan Bhagwat taken part in any satyagraha, he, too, would have been arrested,” he told me. “And had he been taken into custody anywhere in Maharashtra, he, too, would have ultimately landed in Nagpur jail. That is because all the MISA detenues from Nagpur and Vidarbha region were kept in this jail. Even those who belonged to this region but were kept in the beginning in Nasik, Yerawada or some other jails were eventually—on their plea, of course—shifted to Nagpur jail, where new barracks had been constructed for such detenues. Had he been in jail, I would definitely have known about it.”

ACCORDING TO KINGSHUK NAG, who has written a sympathetic biography of the sarsanghchalak, Bhagwat rose through the ranks of the RSS after the Emergency. “When the Emergency was lifted and the ban on the RSS was rescinded, Bhagwat was appointed pracharak in Akola,” Nag writes in Mohan Bhagwat: Influencer-in-Chief. “A few years later, he was at Nagpur as pracharak and soon became the zonal in-charge for Vidarbha. He had a brief stint in Bihar as prant pracharak (regional organizer) and then he was back to Nagpur. This was around 1987. After that, he joined the central executive of the RSS.”

The progress that he now made in the organisation, within a decade, was astounding. Nag writes that Bhagwat joined the ranks of all-India office-bearers of the RSS in 1991, when he was appointed the all-India in-charge of physical training. His stature grew.

Bhagwat was then over forty years old. His persona exuded confidence and an irrepressible charm. “Young swayamsevaks treated him with unquestioning respect,” Lalit Vachani, a Germany-based academic and filmmaker who interviewed Bhagwat for his 1993 documentary on the RSS, told me. “It was almost like hero worship.” In Vachani’s film, Bhagwat comes across as enterprising and extroverted, with a ready smile on his face. His grey hair had started thinning, but his moustache was thick. His round, protuberant eyes were bright and communicative, but his manner was reserved.

Vachani and his production team completed their shooting in Nagpur by October 1992, spending most of their time at Asha Sadan, a rented building that functioned as a sort of hostel for swayamsevaks. “For the entire shoot, Mohan Bhagwat literally, though not formally, operated as a point person at Asha Sadan,” he told me. “He was sort of not mentioned but he was just there—like, when we were shooting the boys in Asha Sadan, he would show up to see the shoot.” Vachani recalled being “struck by Mohan Bhagwat’s presence even when I didn’t expect him at all.”

Bhagwat became one of the RSS leaders Vachani decided to interview. “What I wanted to do was to film the boys in the branch, the rank and file,” Vachani said. “Bhagwat became a person of choice because he was very articulate and quite affable.” He stood out as somebody different. “He seemed to be more accessible and friendlier. He was more approachable and always appeared to be in the vicinity.”

Bhagwat was inquisitive about what Vachani was trying to elicit from the swayamsevaks. “At times, boys would tell us how after the previous shoot Bhagwat would ask them what our questions were and what replies they gave,” Vachani told me. “He would also tutor them on what to say and what not to say during interviews. We learnt all this from the boys themselves.” The cadre’s adoration of Bhagwat was clear. They would ask him to play the flute, Vachani added, praising him even though he was terrible at it. “Bhagwat was unlike other leaders of the RSS. He had a strong relation with ordinary swayamsevaks. He was a young leader, who spent a lot of time with these boys. The easy familiarity he had with young RSS volunteers was remarkable.”

In the interview, Bhagwat denounces attempts to brand the RSS a communal fascist organisation. “An organisation that has no power or money, only love, can never be fascist,” he says confidently. “Fascism is enforced with sticks. We have nothing. We have no law forcing volunteers to come to the shakha. We cannot be fascists because fascism survives on the basis of a powerful sanction, and we only have affection for one another and empathy with nation’s problems.” Bhagwat added that “a Hindu can never be communal.”

Less than two months later, members and supporters of the RSS and its affiliates demolished the Babri Masjid in broad daylight.

THE RAM JANMABHOOMI MOVEMENT was the Sangh’s most pivotal campaign. The movement to construct a Ram temple on the site of the Babri Masjid, a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya, has given fuel to the gathering forces of majoritarianism for decades. The issue had been a subject of a localised legal battle since 1949, when a band of Hindu fundamentalists, claiming that the site was the deity’s birthplace, surreptitiously planted an idol of Ram in the mosque.

The initial groundwork for the movement was done by the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the RSS affiliate that mobilised the support of sadhus and Hindu religious groups. LK Advani, the BJP president at the time, rode a rath—a Toyota truck modified to resemble a chariot—around the country to rally Hindus to the cause. The journey began on 25 September 1990 at Somnath in Gujarat, where a temple had been destroyed by Mahmud Ghazni, a Central Asian invader, in the eleventh century.

The yatra was planned to go through hundreds of villages and cities in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh before reaching Ayodhya. Advani was arrested before he could enter Uttar Pradesh, on 23 October 1992. But, by then, his yatra had brought forth militant sentiments in Hindutva supporters and cadre, provoking communal riots along its route. A series of subsequent events carried out by the Sangh affiliates culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December. It shook the soul of the nation and set the ground for the BJP’s rise.

All the while, the RSS remained cautious not to make its central pool of leaders and pracharaks visible anywhere near Ayodhya. “Pracharaks were instructed not to go to Ayodhya,” Shiledar, who was a Nagpur-based pracharak at the time, told me. “They were asked to stay put at their assigned locations and be ready to deal with the fallout. The Sangh had also given pracharaks the task to remain in constant touch with families of those who had gone for karseva to Ayodhya. It was a thought-out strategy, and it worked well.”

At the time, Bhagwat was in charge of training in shakhas and, therefore, of the swayamsevaks running them. It is difficult to believe that he was unaware—or did not take part—in the behind-the-scenes activities in Nagpur that preceded the demolition of Babri Masjid. “Asha Sadan was housing ten to twelve swayamsevaks,” Vachani told me. “I am sure all of them participated in the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement in different capacities, like raising funds, getting volunteers for karseva and even leading them to Ayodhya.”

In The Men in the Tree, Vachani’s 2002 follow-up documentary, the three main characters—Sandeep Pathey, Shripad Borikar and Purushottam—openly boast about playing a critical role on behalf of the RSS in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. “Pracharaks and vistaraks had the responsibility of implementing the strategy,” Pathey says. “An ordinary swayamsevak who we thought was responsible was made in-charge of a group of karsevaks from his locality. We formed such groups and sent them to Ayodhya.”

According to Sandeep, the RSS had planned every detail of the karseva. “The preparations were so meticulous that everything was recorded: the age of each boy, details of his train reservation, the leader of the group he was made part of,” he says. “Each group consisted of five boys and a leader. Even those who ventured to Ayodhya independently had to register with RSS workers. It was not possible for just anyone to go there as a karsevak.”

Purushottam said he was the group leader of his area, and that he participated in breaking the mosque and later clearing the debris. “I was on the dome,” Shripad said, calling it a “lifetime achievement.” He expressed pride in being chosen by the RSS for the mission. “We were selected to take on anything or anyone,” he says. “We worked on the dome with whatever we could lay our hands on—rods, sticks, sometimes just rocks. We had only one thing on our minds: demolish the structure.”

The RSS was again banned for a short while after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. But, once its shaky balance was restored, the Sangh and its affiliates started to rise to the centre stage of Indian politics. It was slow at first but began to grow faster and faster.

By the late 1990s, the BJP was leading a coalition government at the centre, while Bhagwat was being looked upon as the most promising rising star in the RSS. In 1999, he was put in charge of the all-India network of pracharaks. A few months later, in March 2000, he was named sarkaryavah—general secretary, the second-highest post in the RSS. The mercurial K Sudarshan became sarsanghchalak.

BHAGWAT ASSUMED THE POST of sarkaryavah at a time of tensions between the BJP leadership and the RSS top brass. For generations, RSS leaders had dreamt of capturing absolute power, but its electoral outfit had never come to the point of leading a union government. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance came to power in 1998. (The BJP had formed a government in 1996, too, but it was short-lived.) The inner contradictions of the Sangh Parivar were emerging with increasing sharpness.

With Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister, the question of who would be the real boss became a fraught one. In the past, this had never been an issue: the RSS took decisions, and the BJP responded with obedience. But now, the BJP would have to depend heavily on its coalition partners, who were not obliged to submit to the RSS diktat. This meant that the Hindutva organisation would no longer be the mothership leading the way. The RSS began to grumble that Vajpayee was ignoring its wishes and advice.

Many in the media suggested that Bhagwat was appointed as sarkaryavah not because of his own merit but because Vajpayee enjoyed some clout inside the RSS. Bhagwat’s consistent effort to restrain RSS hardliners was a relief for Vajpayee, since he never let the differences reach the point of a showdown—a fear that haunted many in the Sangh Parivar ever since Sudarshan became sarsanghchalak. “Sudarshanji used to oppose Vajpayee in everything, whether it was economic policy or disinvestment or any other thing,” Shourie, who was the minister in charge of disinvestment at the time, told me.

On 13 March 2000, the Times of India reported that Bhagwat’s appointment was “good news” for the Vajpayee government, “which is said to be jittery over the appointment of Swadeshi hardliner K.S. Sudarshan as the new RSS chief.” Bhagwat, it added, “is believed to be a moderate who could restrain the hawks in the RSS.” The report noted that many in the RSS found in Bhagwat’s view of politics a glimpse of the pragmatic approach that defined the former sarsanghchalak MD Deoras. “Though relatively less experienced,” it said, “Bhagwat’s elevation to the post, earlier held by veteran H.V. Seshadri, augurs well for the Vajpayee faction in the RSS.”

Bhagwat’s moderate political stance gave him an upper hand with the BJP. About a month after becoming sarkaryavah, he visited Mumbai, where, during an interaction with RSS workers and activists of its various affiliates, he dismissed any “serious differences” between Vajpayee and the Sangh leadership, calling all such talk a mere difference in perception. “Bhagwat has given enough indications to suggest the Sangh Parivar would not embarrass Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on various important national issues even if minor differences crop up between the NDA government and the RSS leadership,” the Times of India reported on 15 April 2000.

In March 2003, the hardliner HV Seshadri, owing to his failing health, stepped down as sah-sarkaryavah—joint general secretary—and was replaced by another moderate, Suresh Soni. “Bhagwat being close to the BJP became a balancing factor against the hardliners who constantly attack the Vajpayee government,” the Times of India reported. According to Sudheendra Kulkarni, a close associate of Advani, the rank and file of the RSS was increasingly becoming unhappy with Vajpayee’s governance, especially with his moderate stand on issues the Sangh Parivar regarded as its own.

Inside the RSS, Bhagwat was conducting himself differently. He impressed upon the workers that he was devoted to Sangh traditions. To some, this was most evident in an incident that took place on Republic Day in 2001. Baba Mendhe, a Nagpur-based social worker, and about three other activists, quietly snuck into the Sangh headquarters in Nagpur. “We entered the RSS office on the pretext of paying homage to its founder, KB Hedgewar,” Mendhe told me. Once inside, they started shouting slogans such as “Pehle Rashtradhwaj, Phir Sabhi Dhwaj”—first the national flag, then other flags. Then they took out the national flag to hoist it. “In-charge of the premises, Sunil Kathle, and his men tried to prevent us from hoisting the national flag,” Mendhe said. “But when we succeeded in unfurling the tricolour, they attacked us. All the while, the RSS men kept shouting ‘Har Har Mahadev,’ whereas we yelled ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai.’ Soon, a large number of RSS men gathered and started beating us, forcing us to flee.”

The RSS was stunned. To an organisation that had practically boycotted the tricolour, insisting that India should have adopted a saffron flag instead, the development was seen as too outrageous to be ignored. The incident caused outrage among RSS men across the country. Kathle registered an FIR against Mendhe and his associates under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including unlawful assembly, rioting, voluntarily causing hurt, trespassing, intentional insult and criminal intimidation.

“Unfurling the national flag on a Republic Day was not a crime,” Mendhe told me. “We were doing peaceful protest, and we quietly left the place when the RSS men started attacking us violently. The case, therefore, would not have stood in the court.” However, “intense lobbying” by Dilip Gupta, the RSS leader in charge of Nagpur, ensured that “the case dragged for more than twelve years,” he said. “Had Mohan Bhagwat, who as sarkaryavah looked after the day-to-day running of the RSS, not been backing Gupta, he would not have pursued the case so intently and the case would not have dragged for such a long period.” In August 2013, a Nagpur court acquitted the activists of all charges.

The 2001 incident made it difficult for the RSS to continue its old practice of not unfurling the national flag at its headquarters. To save itself from further embarrassment, it was forced to hoist the national flag at its Nagpur offices on Republic Day in 2002. The practice has continued. Bhagwat, on his part, has tried to erase the RSS’s inconvenient history regarding the national flag.

In a nationally televised speech delivered at Vigyan Bhawan, on 17 September 2018, Bhagwat lied about a circular issued by Hedgewar in 1930 to establish the RSS’s association with the tricolour. “When Congress passed the resolution for Purna Swaraj,” he said, Hedgewar “issued a circular asking all shakhas to march past with the tricolour and pass resolutions welcoming the Purna Swaraj resolution of the Congress.” Bhagwat was referring to the Indian National Congress’s resolution of 19 December 1929, which asked Indian nationalists to fight for complete independence and urged Indians to celebrate 26 January 1930 as “Independence Day” by hoisting the tricolour. In fact, Hedgewar’s circular, dated 21 January 1930, asked all RSS shakhas to hold meetings on 26 January and “worship the national flag that is the saffron flag.”

I wrote about Bhagwat’s distortion of this history in a previous piece for The Caravan. Neither Bhagwat nor anyone else in the RSS responded to it or issued any public apology.

Bhagwat’s maiden book, Yashasvi Bharat, was published in 2021. Its preface, written by the late RSS ideologue MG Vaidya, says the book draws heavily from Bhagwat’s past speeches, including the one he delivered at Vigyan Bhawan. In this book, the lie about Hedgewar’s circular on the tricolour has been quietly omitted. “Swayamsevaks have been honouring the tricolor since the time it was first hoisted,” Bhagwat says here. “When Congress first passed the resolution for Purna Swaraj at its Lahore session, Dr. Sahib issued a circular asking all shakhas to hold meetings to pass resolutions welcoming the Congress and send them to Congress Committee.”

Mendhe remains aggrieved. “No amount of Bhagwat’s efforts today to appear as the champion of the tricolour can hide what he and his men did with us when we hoisted the national flag in the RSS headquarters two decades back,” he told me.

THE VAJPAYEE GOVERNMENT’S TERM ended in 2004. A year later, Advani, who was the BJP president at the time, visited Pakistan. Writing in the guest register at the mausoleum of the Muslim League leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Karachi, Advani lauded Jinnah’s speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947 as “a forceful espousal of a secular state.”

Sudheendra Kulkarni was with Advani in Karachi. He told me that the BJP leader Sushma Swaraj called him when Advani’s remarks were reported in India. He recalled her asking him, “What has Advaniji said? He called Jinnah secular?” Kulkarni tried to reason with Swaraj, “but she was furious. She simply asked me to tell Advaniji to withdraw that statement. I conveyed this to Advaniji. He became very upset but did not withdraw it.” When they returned to Delhi, he added, Sanjay Joshi, the BJP general secretary for organisation, met them at the airport and told Advani “that the Sangh was not happy with his remarks on Jinnah.” Soon after the episode, Kulkarni recalled, “Sudarshan in an interview said that it’s time for both Atalji and Advaniji to retire. I was with Advaniji when this happened, and he was very, very agitated. He actually spoke to [Sudarshan] and expressed his displeasure.”

According to a senior BJP leader, the stalemate between Advani and Sudarshan provided Bhagwat an opportunity to consolidate his own position in the RSS. “Were it not for this conflict between Advaniji and Sudarshanji, Mohanji could never have wielded so much power in the Sangh even before becoming the sarsanghchalak,” he said. “All through the NDA government, Sudarshanji and Advaniji seemed to work in tandem. When Sudarshanji targeted Atalji, Advaniji looked the other way, strengthening the rumour that he had a stake in the weakening of Atalji. But, once they fell apart, Mohanji, who had so long been enjoying the support of Atalji, moved in swiftly to take advantage of the situation. First, he aligned with Sudarshanji to weaken Advaniji in the BJP, and then he aligned with Advaniji to weaken Sudarshanji in the Sangh.”

Bhagwat cast himself as chief firefighter of the RSS. When the chasm between Advani and Sudarshan deepened and a crisis engulfed the Sangh Parivar, Bhagwat helped Sudarshan force Advani to resign as BJP chief. On 12 July 2005, the Times of India reported that Bhagwat led a delegation of senior RSS leaders, which included Madan Das Devi and Suresh Soni, that met Advani to deliver the “unambiguous message” that he should step down. The report added that the delegation also met Vajpayee and senior BJP leaders such as Jaswant Singh, Sushma Swaraj, M Venkaiah Naidu and Rajnath Singh, who pleaded that Advani be “allowed to continue at least till December in order to be spared the embarrassment.”

Despite his initial defiance, Advani caved within a week. On 18 July, the Times of India reported that, having told Sudarshan that he would step down, he met Bhagwat and Soni “to discuss the modalities of the exit plan, especially the timing.” In December that year, he handed over the presidency to Rajnath Singh.

By spearheading the efforts to reaffirm the Sangh’s primacy in the BJP, Bhagwat succeeded in winning back some popularity among RSS hardliners. He had proved himself able to cope with what seemed to be the biggest internal disruption by checking the founding member of the BJP for deviating from the core ideology of the RSS. This was an important turning point for Bhagwat. The personal progress he made within the RSS after Advani’s Jinnah remarks was remarkable. But he was still far from his domination of the Sangh, whose leadership was still in the hands of the hawks led by Sudarshan. And there were some unexpected twists ahead.

The Sangh Parivar was bogged down by the BJP’s unending crises after its loss of power in 2004. Things took a turn for the worse with the death of the party’s rising star Pramod Mahajan, in May 2006. Meanwhile, Vajpayee’s health was failing. Despite the Jinnah controversy, Advani seemed to be the most capable leader to restore the BJP to power. The RSS hawks, including Sudarshan, were the only ones still guided by a peculiar rigidity on Advani.

Sensing a shift in the mood within the Sangh Parivar, Bhagwat decided to go against the wishes of the sarsanghchalak. He expressed his new line in a bold and provocative gesture: he showed up at a Janmashtami gathering at Advani’s residence, in August 2006, sending out a clear message that Sangh had forgotten the Jinnah row. “Although he was aware of some of the questionable aspects of his new attitude to Advaniji, his sense of tactics seemed to tell him that he must not line up with the minority in the Sangh,” the senior RSS leader told me. “Making a common cause with this rigid minority would have diminished Bhagwat’s own future prospects in the Sangh.”

Bhagwat’s move was widely appreciated in the RSS. Only Sudarshan and a small minority, still incensed against Advani, were critical of it. But they could not do much to stop Bhagwat, since it was obvious to everyone that his stand was in the interest of the BJP—and, therefore, the RSS. It was for this reason that, on 10 December 2007, a year and a half before the next general election, Bhagwat made the BJP declare that Advani would lead the party in the polls. To remove all ambiguity, he and Suresh Soni met Advani the same day. “The intention was clearly to try and bring the curtain down over reports about divisions in the Sangh,” the Times of India reported.

Bhagwat’s decision exposed Sudarshan to unpopularity in the RSS. Sudarshan’s penchant for sparking rows had already started facing criticism. He was seen as someone with too much of a loose tongue, so his interactions with the media decreased. Bhagwat’s decision lent plausibility to the rumour that Sudarshan was not in full control of himself and was not being able to take proper decisions due to his failing memory. The rumour was taken especially seriously by RSS functionaries who belonged to the Maharashtrian Brahmin community. The community had traditionally looked at the organisation’s top posts as its own preserve but had been enduring two consecutive non-Maharashtrian sarsanghchalaks. While Sudarshan’s family was from Karnataka, his predecessor, Rajendra Singh, belonged to Uttar Pradesh.

Bhagwat saw his new stand as one of the most crucial decisions of his career. He did not stop at just weakening Sudarshan; he moved swiftly to maximise his dividends. In March 2008, Bhagwat affected a coup, dropping many hawks from the organisation’s national executive and practically isolating Sudarshan. Among those who were removed from the highest decision-making body were MG Vaidya, K Suryanarayan Rao, Ranga Hari and Shripati Shastri. “Usually the RSS top brass does not announce changes in its organisation,” the Times of India noted. “Political analysts feel that Bhagwat has sent a message across that hardliners are on their way out.”

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT WAS hardly a surprise. “People had gotten fed up with Sudarshanji,” Ramesh Shiledar told me. “He had become old and erratic, and was not being able to lead the Sangh in the manner many thought he would when he was made sarsanghchalak. He himself had started telling people that he should retire now. The precedent had already been set by two of his predecessors, Balasaheb Deoras and Rajju Bhaiyya, who had left the office when their health started failing.”

It is not entirely clear whether Sudarshan, who was 78 years old at the time, was actually facing a serious health problem or whether it was made an issue to force him to give up the post. What is certain, however, is that, for almost a year, the pressure for him to retire and hand over the reins of the RSS to a younger, more energetic man was mounting from all quarters. As he had already been isolated in the RSS, there was no way he could resist this.

So, when the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha—all-India conference—of the RSS began in Nagpur in March 2009, a change of guard was already being anticipated. According to Shiledar, as soon as the meeting began, Sudarshan, yielding to the pressures and putting on a show of unity, declared his decision to retire and nominate Bhagwat as his successor. “Sudarshan’s announcement took everyone by surprise; Bhagwat the most,” Kingshuk Nag writes in his biography. “According to eyewitnesses, he was overwhelmed by the announcement and took a few moments to gather his wits.”

The announcement may certainly have given the 58-year-old Bhagwat pause, but the reason was likely different. It must have come as a relief that someone he had tried to oust for the past years was willingly yielding his position. There was no last-minute hitch to the transfer of power, and he moved smoothly from the de facto to de jure head of the RSS. Shiledar told me that, more than once during the months before the conference, Bhagwat had worried that he might lose control of events. The sarsanghchalak is not elected; he is simply nominated by his predecessor.

The dominant RSS functionaries belonging to the Maharashtrian Brahmin community were satisfied with the development. Bhagwat’s quiet demeanour was liked by all, and his thick white moustache, reminiscent of Hedgewar’s own upper lip, had increased his popularity within the organisation. To the younger lot, too, it was a moment of triumph—they saw him as their own man, as opposed to Sudarshan, who was to be respected and revered but was very distant. In 2016, when Vachani met the RSS volunteers he had interviewed in 1992, they expressed their pride in Bhagwat. “The feeling was almost like, ‘This is our man, we grew up with him,’” he told me. “One guy even said he played in the lap of the man who is now the supreme leader of the RSS.”

Bhagwat soon set about becoming the key arbiter in the affairs of the BJP—the arena he was so well acquainted with and which had acted as the springboard for his rise to the RSS helm. Once he settled down, he started conveying his ideas to the BJP. Advani, the BJP’s prime-ministerial candidate in that year’s general election, called on Bhagwat in Nagpur soon after he became the sarsanghchalak.

The BJP’s defeat in the 2009 election set off more feuds within the party. It enabled Bhagwat to intervene and consolidate his own power—and that of the RSS—over the BJP. He had the experience from his tenure as sarkaryavah.

On the eve of the BJP’s three-day chintan baithak—introspection session—which was to begin in Shimla on 19 August 2009, Bhagwat made a power move. Advani was the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha at the time. In an interview to the Times of India, which was published on the opening day of the Shimla meet, Bhagwat suggested that Advani should consider stepping aside and help usher in younger leadership to lead the party. “We have been saying to Advaniji since 2003 that you have sufficient young workers, bring them slowly forward,” he said.

Bhagwat added that the raging factional feuds in the BJP “must stop immediately. It is now too much.” He blamed the feuds on a “lack of balance, procedure, methods.” To a question on whether Arun Jaitley, Venkaiah Naidu, Sushma Swaraj and Narendra Modi were the only options for next party president, he said, “The BJP should look beyond these four. … I feel there are several good leaders in the BJP who are competent to take over the reins of the organisation.”

The message was unambiguous. It turned the chintan baithak into a meaningless exercise and set off a series of negotiations and deliberations for a generational shift of leadership in the party. In December 2009, Sushma Swaraj took over from Advani as leader of the opposition. To ensure a graceful exit for Advani, the BJP amended its constitution and created the post of chairman of the parliamentary wing for him. The following day, the BJP parliamentary board elected Nitin Gadkari, the chief of the party’s Maharashtra unit, a Nagpur Brahmin and considered extremely close to Bhagwat, as the party’s next president. Gadkari was hardly known in Delhi’s political circles.

Though Advani, following the change of guard, declared that he was not retiring from politics, there was hardly any doubt in the minds of anyone that he had been practically consigned to history by Bhagwat. However, in spite of the changes Bhagwat was trying to make in the BJP, there was one party leader who had designs of his own.

EVEN AS BHAGWAT WAS GROWING ambitious in his desire to control the BJP, Modi was working feverishly to expand his clout in the Sangh Parivar. The 2002 Gujarat pogrom, one of the country’s most horrific communal massacres in recent times, which had unfolded under Modi’s watch, had given his image a dark source of strength. Modi held aloft the promise of a Hindu Rashtra in a way no one had ever done in the past.

During the 2009 general election, the desire to see Modi as prime minister had begun echoing in the Sangh Parivar. Given that Advani was already in the fray as the BJP’s prime-ministerial candidate and the elections were not yet over, the rising clamour for Modi confused the party managers and the RSS leadership. “Instead of focusing on this poll, party managers are being asked for their views on candidate Modi for the next elections,” the Times of India reported on 26 April 2009. “The Modi-for-PM chant has put the focus on the BJP’s inner equations in the post-poll scenario and the varying tenors are a good pointer to intra-party rivalries. Modi’s emergence as the first among his peers is bound to upset other leaders, including those who are loyal to the official faction.”

As a former pracharak, Modi seemed fully aware of the hurdles he might face in the days ahead. He therefore made calculated moves to minimise opposition to his journey to Delhi. In his 2008 book Jyotipunj, he had paid obeisance to over a dozen RSS leaders, including Hedgewar, Golwalkar and Bhagwat’s father Madhukarrao, whom he called a pillar of the RSS in Gujarat. In the same chapter, he praised Mohan Bhagwat for becoming a pracharak like his father. At the time of publication, Bhagwat was sarkaryavah and seemed set to become sarsanghchalak.

However, Modi seemed to have a different opinion about the Sangh. “Modi looked at the RSS as an organisation very easy to suborn,” Shourie said. “He once told me that the RSS men are simpletons. Yes, the term he used for them was simpleton, not innocent. That’s Modi’s view that would fit Mohanji, fit the organisation he could manipulate.”

The period between 2009 and 2013 was a period of much commotion and turmoil within the BJP. Despite all odds, Advani kept insisting that he had not yet retired from politics. “That is when the ecosystem of Sangh Parivar began to root for Modi,” Sudheendra Kulkarni told me. “I won’t be surprised, though I don’t have concrete proof, if Modi actually managed it and made the RSS ecosystem start saying that Modi is the one who would get the party back to power.” Bhagwat’s all-out efforts to get Gadkari a second term failed miserably. After Gadkari’s name surfaced in the Purti scam in 2012—in which investigations found that Purti Power and Sugar Limited was receiving funds from shell companies—many senior BJP leaders came out in open against him and sought his removal from the post. He resigned and Rajnath Singh became the party president in January 2013.

“Rajnath Singh started promoting Modi right since the beginning,” Kulkarni said. “In this entire period, Mohan Bhagwat’s hands were tied insofar as giving approval for Modi as the PM candidate was concerned. The whole thing was kind of manipulated both within the Sangh Parivar and within the BJP. What upset Advaniji was the manner in which all this was taking place. For the first time, things were not happening in a transparent manner.”

In fact, Advani could never match the manner in which Modi usurped the limelight. “Advaniji was pained by the fact that persons he had groomed in the party were indulging in some kind of low politics,” Kulkarni added. “He also did not like the very open self-promotion by Modi in this period, although, whenever journalists asked him, he would say that when son begins to do better than the father, it’s a matter of pride for the father. That is how he used to explain the fact that the limelight was shifting to Modi. But he could also see that all this was managed. It was not natural, not spontaneous but managed. In fact, he was one of the first persons to recognise that Modi was very good at event management.”

Like Advani, Bhagwat too found himself watching developments in the BJP from the side lines instead of influencing them. As Modi galvanised the Sangh with his demagogic talent and machinations, Bhagwat—who until then had a role in influencing the chain of events in the BJP—fell quiet.

BHAGWAT’S WILLINGNESS TO SUPPORT Modi’s conquest of the Sangh Parivar certainly contrasted remarkably with the aggressive manner he had displayed in trying to establish the RSS’s supremacy in the decision-making of the BJP. “Part of the explanation lies in Mohanji’s worry that the Hindu terror investigation, which became intense since 2010, might lead up to him,” the senior RSS leader told me.

In an interview with The Caravan in September this year, Yashwant Shinde, a former RSS pracharak, claimed that Bhagwat had been informed his cadre were conducting bombings. “It’s not possible that Mohan Bhagwat didn’t know,” Shinde said. When someone from the Sangh asked Shinde if he wanted to talk to Bhagwat, he claims he responded like this:

I told them, “You tell me, who listens to them anymore? The BJP doesn’t listen to them. If you think they do, kick out two people, Hare Narayan, if you dare.” By Hare Narayan I meant Modi and Amit Shah. In Marathi, Narayan means goons. Then he went silent, as if all that BJP workers do is serve these two.

“Look at Mohanji’s mental state in those days from the point of view of what was happening to Sangh functionaries like Ashok Beri and Ashok Varshney,” the senior RSS leader told me. Beri was a member of the RSS’s central executive committee as well as the pracharak in charge of Sangh operations in half of Uttar Pradesh. Varshney was a pracharak in charge of the Kanpur prant—administrative region. “The CBI claims that Ashok Varshney and Ashok Beri, senior RSS functionaries in Uttar Pradesh who were questioned in connection with the blasts at Mecca Masjid and Ajmer Sharif, have admitted that they were in touch with one of the Ajmer blast accused, Devendra Gupta, while he was on the run,” the Indian Express reported on 10 July 2010. A report in The Hindu hinted at Varshney’s possible involvement in another case at Kanpur, “where some time ago a few men were seriously injured when a bomb went off accidentally while they were allegedly engaged in bomb-making.”

Seven cases of saffron terror, involving a series of bombings between 2006 and 2008 in which over a hundred people were killed, were under investigation at the time. Prominent among these cases were the Malegaon blasts on 8 September 2006, the Samjhauta Express blasts on 18 February 2007, the Mecca Masjid blasts on 18 May 2007 and the Ajmer Sharif blast on 11 October 2007.

The Central Bureau of Investigation’s interrogation of Indresh Kumar, a member of the RSS national executive, in December 2010, brought the investigation to Nagpur’s doorstep. It was in connection with the Mecca Masjid bombing and had come during the CBI’s interrogation of Aseemanand, a long-time RSS member who had been arrested in November 2010 on charges of masterminding a series of saffron terror cases.

Aseemanand later told The Caravan that Bhagwat had been aware of the terrorist attacks:

After an RSS conclave in Surat, senior Sangh leaders including Bhagwat and Indresh Kumar, who is now on the organisation’s powerful seven-member national executive council, travelled to a temple in the Dangs, Gujarat, where Aseemanand was living—a two-hour drive. In a tent pitched by a river several kilometres away from the temple, Bhagwat and Kumar met with Aseemanand and his accomplice Sunil Joshi. Joshi informed Bhagwat of a plan to bomb several Muslim targets around India. According to Aseemanand, both RSS leaders approved, and Bhagwat told him, “You can work on this.”

By the time Modi started his operation to conquer the Sangh Parivar and force it into accepting him as the future prime-ministerial candidate, Bhagwat’s situation was becoming increasingly desperate. The investigation into saffron terror cases seemed likely to reach him sooner than later. “All office-bearers in the Sangh were scared,” the senior RSS leader recalled. “There was panic all around. At the time, winnability was the only thing everyone was concerned of. There was no scope for personal liking or disliking. And, when the juggernaut of Modi advanced from Gujarat and created hope in Sangh Parivar for a victory in the 2014 election, Mohanji had no option but to give in.”

So, when the BJP parliamentary board met, on 13 September 2013, to take a final call on the party’s prime-ministerial candidate for the upcoming general election, everyone seemed to know that everything depended entirely on the person who would help them wrest power from the Congress-led coalition. Modi had all the right qualities: the will to act, the capacity to deal with contingencies, the ability to mobilise the kind of resources required to win an electoral battle and the potential to create deep polarisation in society. His government has so far been a boon for the RSS activists accused in the terror cases. In April 2018, a special NIA court acquitted all the accused RSS men—Aseemanand, Devendra Gupta and Lokesh Sharma—charge-sheeted in the Mecca Masjid case, for want of concrete evidence after some of the witnesses turned hostile. In March 2019, a special NIA court in Haryana acquitted the accused in the Samjhauta blast case, once again citing lack of evidence. In the 2006 Nanded blast case, the CBI asked the court to reject Shinde’s application to appear as a witness.

Modi, then, promised to be the catalyst, the binding agent that would hold disparate components of the Sangh Parivar together, making them cohere. It was only natural that the board, brushing aside Advani’s reservations, anointed Modi as the party’s prime-ministerial candidate and set out on a quest to regain power after back-to-back electoral defeats in 2004 and 2009.

Bhagwat’s weakness in leadership became apparent at this time. The RSS chief had still not developed a vision for a future course of action and assumed that Modi would pay him obeisance in Nagpur after being nominated as the prime-ministerial candidate, as had been the practice in the past. A snub from Modi just before the beginning of the campaign left him searching frantically for ways—such as seeking help from Arun Shourie—to restore his pride. But that made his position even worse; a private snub became a public humiliation. From this point on, it seems, the direction of events completely slipped from Bhagwat’s hands.

MODI CONDUCTED A HIGH-DECIBEL election campaign in 2014. The entire Sangh Parivar turned into a gigantic election machine, overseen by his most trusted lieutenants. Swayamsevaks and pracharaks enthusiastically took part. For the first time in its history, the BJP got an absolute majority in Lok Sabha—a fact that made Modi’s stature in the Sangh Parivar unsurpassable.

Sensing the new mood and weighed down by the terror investigations, Bhagwat seems to have quietly given up on his desire to control the BJP. Instead, for the most part, he has stepped into a role that can at best be described as a glorified swayamsevak. Meanwhile Modi, as the Sangh Parivar’s leader, has brought its cherished goal of establishing a Hindu Rashtra closer than it has ever been before. Still, in Bhagwat’s ability to fit into the new arrangement, there is an element of historic compromise. The position of sarsanghchalak had never been as marginal as it became in Modi’s India.

Bhagwat’s statements and speeches appear to serve only one purpose: to amplify Modi. In the Vijayadashami speech delivered this year, he echoed Modi’s Independence Day speech, which was about, among other things, respecting women. “It is imperative to give women independence to work and equal rights in all spheres,” Bhagwat said. “So, beginning with changes within our own families, we will have to take it to society through the organisation. Until women’s equal participation is ensured, the efforts aimed at the progress of the country will not be successful.” Meanwhile, between Modi’s and Bhagwat’s speech, the rapists of Bilkis Bano were released. Bhagwat has similarly followed suit on Modi’s call to BJP cadre to work for the upliftment of marginalised Pasmanda Muslims. Bhagwat promptly had meetings with Muslim intellectuals, in August, and visited a mosque on 22 September.

Modi’s landslide victory in 2019 removed even the faintest possibility of Bhagwat regaining his lost status. “Bhagwat could not even keep a separate identity for the RSS,” Shourie told me. “Today, the RSS is the BJP’s adjunct for election purposes. Money has prevailed. A friend told me about the RSS: soochna aayi, sochna band”—we were told to stop thinking.

This dictum defines the change the RSS has gone through under Bhagwat. The compensation for pracharaks, apart from their obvious financial improvement and the construction of huge RSS offices down to the district level, is considerable. “People who have been on the margins are very easily mesmerised by the attention the state affords them,” Shourie said. “Now they are the rulers.”

Mohan Bhagwat once scoffed at the idea of the Ram Janmabhoomi issue ever being resolved, insisting that it was a fringe VHP preoccupation. The 2019 Supreme Court judgment in favour of building a temple further pushed the idea of Modi fulfilling Sangh dreams. By allowing Bhagwat to sit by his side while laying the foundation of the temple, on 5 August 2020, Modi let the RSS chief participate in this dream. “There is a wave of joy in the entire country today,” Bhagwat declared. “There is a pleasure about the fulfilment of centuries of hope. The greatest joy is because of the establishment of the self-confidence that was lacking today to make India self-reliant.”

“When Bhagwat became sarsanghchalak, many people in the Sangh and the BJP asked me what type of leadership he would provide,” Shiledar said. “What I told them then seems to be proving correct now: that he is a man of mediocre qualities and would succumb to any and every pressure that would be exerted on him.”

DHIRENDRA K JHA is a contributing writer at The Caravan.

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