Two Popes: Mohan Bhagwat’s feeble attempts to reassert himself

Bharat Bhushan

Bhagwat claims that the ‘1000-year war’ against ‘foreign aggressions’ has now been transformed into a war with the “enemy within’

It is a measure of the marginalisation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) under the Narendra Modi regime that its head Mohan Bhagwat is compelled to symbolically reassert his authority time and again. His latest interview to the RSS mouthpieces, Organiser and Panchjanya, is another step in that direction. Bhagwat claims that the “1,000-year war” against “foreign aggressions” has now been transformed into a war with the “enemy within”. He leaves unsaid that it is his organisation’s ideology that created the “enemy within” by painting Indian Muslims as lesser patriots, whose nationalism is forever in doubt.

By warning the minority that “Muslims must abandon their boisterous rhetoric of supremacy”, Bhagwat would have us believe that India’s Muslim population still longs for a past in which Muslim ‘invaders’ ruled India. The truth is that far from asserting such superiority, the bulk of Indian Muslims are socially, economically, and politically so disadvantaged that they are in no position to indulge in any rhetoric of supremacy.

If one considers the findings of the Sachar Committee Report (using 2001 and 2004-2005 data) — without doubt the most detailed report of the condition of Muslims in India in recent times — then almost every social and economic indicator confirms that they are far worse off than the rest of Indians. Their literacy rate is much below the national average (59 percent compared to the national average of 64.8 percent). The number of graduates among Muslims (4 percent) is nearly half of the national average (7 percent). There are fewer Muslims in government employment (23.7 percent) compared to the national average (34.2 percent).

The Sachar committee also found that the average salary of Muslim workers is lower than that of others possibly because they are in inferior jobs. Their participation in security-related jobs such as the police was at 4 percent lower than that of SC/STs (12 percent)  and OBCs (23 percent). The financial exclusion of Muslims was astounding with Muslims’ share of credit from public sector banks and private banks standing at 4.6 percent and at 6.6 percent while for the rest of the population it was 89.1 percent and 85.5 percent, respectively. The committee noted that access of the Muslim population to social and physical infrastructure was low, and the levels of poverty among them high — and worse off than SC/STs, who are generally considered to be at the bottom of the development index.

To speak of their indulging in a “boisterous rhetoric of supremacy” nevertheless allows Bhagwat to proclaim a communally divisive “war” as a constant state. It is this discursive creation of an enemy that he claims is the “social awakening” carried out by the RSS. Without such othering, the RSS will be jobless. If Indians need social awakening, it is against divisive rhetoric like this.

Bhagwat’s dwelling on the issue of LGBTQ is perhaps to show a liberal face. “People with such proclivities have always been there, for as long as humans have existed. …These people also have a right to live. Without much hullabaloo, we have found a way, with a humane approach to provide them social acceptance, bearing in mind that they are also human beings with an inalienable right to live.” Here Bhagwat has gone further than RSS leaders who have described gay marriage as “not compatible with nature” and “not natural”. It is also more than what the government is willing to say in the Supreme Court on the question of same-sex marriage.

Bhagwat touches upon a sensitive relation with those in political power. Through his ‘erudite’ take on Garibaldi, who led the unification of Italy but let others take state power, perhaps he is reminding those in power that they owe it to the RSS. Further, perhaps reminding them of the division of labour between them where it is the RSS that will chart the future course of Hindutva.

The question remains: why is he making these statements in public now? The RSS, with its many social fronts including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has today become subordinated to the political arm after the two-term electoral victories of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The RSS has been a major beneficiary with its functionaries occupying important political positions and actively competing to become chief ministers, ministers, and governors, and for discretionary appointments in the political and governance apparatus of the State.

However, the present RSS chief, or Sarsanghchalak, no longer enjoys the moral authority over the government as his predecessors once did. They used to advise on distribution of portfolios, on disinvestment policy, planning documents, and pressured the old guard to make way for younger blood. Modi was a direct beneficiary of this when he was declared prime ministerial candidate by the RSS in 2013-14.

The hierarchical superiority that the RSS chief used to enjoy over the leaders of the BJP because of his age, experience, and organisational ability no longer holds with Modi himself having been a leading pracharak within the organisation. Both are contemporaries with almost equal Sangh Aayu (years spent in the RSS) till the time Modi was sent to the BJP by the RSS.

Now, the Prime Minister towers over everyone else in the RSS family of organisations of which he is as much of an éminence grise as Bhagwat. Bhagwat’s interview may be expressing regret at this definitive shift in the frontier of control between the parent organisation and its highly politically successful progeny. Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to have made it abundantly clear that Mohan Bhagwat cannot be the sole Pope of Hinduism nor the Nagpur headquarters of the RSS a Hindu Vatican, when a more powerful political Pope sits in New Delhi.

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