Between 1947 and 1990, historians and politicians made us forget what Jinnah did to the way Indians thought about themselves — primarily as Hindus and Muslims rather than as Indians. So terrible was his legacy that even when it came to the appointment of a deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India, it was demanded that one deputy governor must be a Muslim.
The RBI replied that deputy governors did not represent any government or community. The matter was never resolved.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) wasn’t formed as a reaction to Jinnah’s communal politics of the post-1935 period. It had been formed in 1924 as a way of making Hindus proud of their heritage.
But it is one of those travesties of electoral politics after 1970, as practised by the Congress party, that today the RSS also frames everything in Hindu terms — Hindu good, Muslim bad. This book successfully traces that evolution of the RSS from mainly a cultural organisation that focused on Hindus alone to a political one that can’t ignore the Muslims.
The author, Dinesh Narayanan, has written a clear, calm and non-judgemental account of RSS today. It is by far the best book I have read so far on the RSS.
The book has nine chapters that cover a wide area. It also has a very detailed bibliography. It is very readable, both for its easy style and the manner in which it has been put together. A paperback edition, if necessary abridged somewhat, should be brought out for about ₹300. More people will read it then.
One valuable aspect of this book is the focus on issues of this century, rather than the last one. In this context, this reviewer found the chapter on Hindu economics particularly informative.
It gives several clues about the peculiar formulation of economic policy under NDA 2.
The RSS didn’t have a very clearly defined economic worldview till 1991 when the Swadeshi Jagran Manch was born. Ironically, just as Jinnah’s politics sharpened the organisation’s political view, Narasimha Rao’s economics sharpened its economics.
Rao opened India up to financial globalisation and trade liberalisation. But the RSS misinterpreted that to mean an end to self-reliance. Again ironically, the man who it chose to frame the issues and the RSS economic view was a former Marxist called MG Bokare.
Bokare began talking of ‘Hindu’ economics. He also thought that the founder of the RSS, VD Savarkar “was a communist in his economic philosophy... whose vision... was the closest approximation of the planned economy of the Soviet Union.”
Narayanan says this economics was “culled from Indian scriptures and texts beginning with the Rig Veda ”. At its core lay austerity which had lain at the core of Marxist economics also!
Like it, RSS economics didn’t approve of profit, consumerism, stock exchanges and joint stock companies. Narayanan, however, also writes that Hindu economics was all for competition, ‘decentralisation of economic activities and wage-less family enterprises”. And so on.
Much of the rest of this chapter is taken by the events that followed after the stable Vajpayee government was formed in 1999 after the Kargil war. There was, to put it mildly, constant tension over economic policies between the government and the RSS.
Modi and the RSS
Narayanan says when he became chief minister “Modi took a dim view of the RSS. He had internalised its ideology but seemed to disagree with its methods.”
This, in my opinion, is the most important insight in this book. It explains so much of what has happened since 2014. To quote the author again: “Modi believes that business runs the world and that India needs to strike alliances with big business to become powerful. However, a large section of the RSS sees it as succumbing to Western, especially American, business interests”.
It was left to Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS and well-wisher of Modi, to paper over the fault lines. But as the subsequent events showed — most notably the five-day strike by the BMS in January 2015 and the farmers’ agitation of June 2017 — the differences were many and deep. The SJM even opposed the land reform bill.
Narayanan says that “By the time the government was preparing to celebrate its first anniversary, the knives were out.” A BMS leader called the ministries ‘bonded slaves to the finance ministry.
Overall, all this had the effect of slowing down pro-business reform and it leads me to ask if it was Rahul Gandhi’s suit-boot remark that stopped Modi in his tracks in his first term or whether it was opposition from the RSS that forced him to go slow. Now it is beginning to look as if it was the latter.
The book has just three paragraphs about what has happened after the BJP’s emphatic victory in the 2019 general election when it won 303 seats. But, says Narayanan, “The unmistakable hint from the BJP leadership has been that the RSS is better off keeping away from politics.”
In August 2019 Mr Bhagwat admitted as much when he more-or-less said that the RSS and the BJP would have to agree to disagree on many issues. “They are responsible for the consequences of their actions. We can’t save them. Their blessings and sins are their own”.
The reviewer is a senior journalist and commentator