IN EARLY AUGUST LAST YEAR, a cohort of journalists gathered in Kolkata for a two-day seminar on Islamic fundamentalism convened by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the world’s largest non-political voluntary organisation and the eighty-eight-year-old bedrock of Hindu nationalism in India. This was the first time the RSS, also known as the Sangh, had held such a workshop—one in a series of four, aimed specifically at journalists, on issues of significance to the organisation, including politics in Jammu and Kashmir, scheduled castes, and development. Only ideological devotees were allowed in. According to the RSS’s annual report, the four events—the others were in Delhi, Bangalore, and Ahmedabad—drew 220 participants from across the country.
In Kolkata, the RSS’s prachar pramukh, or head of promotion, and the chief organiser of the event, Manmohan Vaidya, laid out the objective: to help journalists understand the nuances of the RSS’s position so they could better project the Hindu nationalist point of view. The participants were instructed that the seminar was not to be reported on, or talked about outside RSS circles. “During some sessions, we were asked to let it go in one ear and out the other,” a journalist and swayamsevak, or RSS volunteer, who works for a regional newspaper, told me.
At one point, Shrirang Godbole, a homeopathic doctor from Maharashtra who serves as an Islam pundit within the Sangh, explained that the Muslim community is not monolithic, but is riven by divisions just like Hindus are by caste. He then expounded on how even “benign” sects such as Sufism have a violent past. “Some of our leaders pay homage to Sufi saints without proper understanding of history,” Godbole told them, as a slide showing the BJP leader LK Advani at the dargah in Ajmer, Rajasthan, popped up on a screen. The swayamsevak-journalist said it generated a lot of laughter—even from Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS sarsanghchalak, or supreme commander, who was present throughout the workshop.
“The problem is Hindus have started thinking about themselves as minorities,” Bhagwat later told the group. “Hindus should have an aggressive, nationalistic stand.”
During a tea break, the journalists got chatting with Bhagwat. Inevitably, the conversation veered towards the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi, who two months earlier had been chosen, with the backing of the RSS, to spearhead the BJP’s parliamentary election campaign. “Modi is the only person who has remained rooted in the RSS ideology,” Bhagwat told the group, adding that the RSS had told party leaders, “You find good candidates—we will do the rest.”
Bhagwat said the journalists should tell BJP leaders that the party must embrace its core values—honesty in public life, and service to Hindu society. If they don’t, the party will become irrelevant. “If we win in 2014, the BJP can be in power for the next twenty-five years,” Bhagwat said. “If not, even if all of us try, they can’t be saved for the next hundred.”
“The way he said it,” the journalist told me, “it felt almost like the RSS is giving the BJP one last chance.”
MOHAN BHAGWAT is arguably the most powerful outsider in Indian politics today. Although the RSS publicly eschews politics, Bhagwat’s organisation supplies much of the ideological and strategic direction, as well as many leaders, to roughly three dozen affiliate groups across India. This includes the country’s largest trade union, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, which boasts over ten million members; the country’s largest student union, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad; and the country’s main opposition party, the BJP. The Sangh and its various offshoots, collectively known as the Sangh Parivar, or Sangh family, run more than 150,000 projects across the country, including educational, tribal welfare and Hindu religious programmes. The sarsanghchalak is considered the “guide and philosopher” of the entire movement. Since he was elevated to the post in 2009, Bhagwat has skilfully rallied the RSS and its affiliates to help the BJP prepare for and fight what have become the most significant elections since 1971, when Indira Gandhi took the Congress party to a massive victory and consolidated her personal power.
Bhagwat’s comments in Kolkata captured a large part of what now seems to be at stake: the ascendancy of the BJP and its prime ministerial candidate, Modi—and therefore of the RSS’s vision for India as a Hindu nation. But they also reflected long-standing frictions between the RSS and its most conspicuous offspring. For two decades, since the climactic destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and the subsequent establishment of the first BJP-led government, there has been a widening chasm between the RSS, whose full-time members are supposed to practice a celibate austerity meant to keep them singularly focused on the fulfilment of the organisation’s aims, and the leaders of an increasingly fractured BJP, who are often seen to be lusting after modern luxuries and personal power. Many in the party believe that the RSS does not understand politics. “The Hindutva element of the party has increased over the years,” a senior BJP leader and former cabinet minister in the party’s National Democratic Alliance government told me. “People with inadequate political understanding are pitchforked into the party.” For their part, RSS leaders contend that the party has compromised its ideology and strayed too far from RSS influence.
The reality, however, seems to be that the RSS and the party need each other if they are to thrive, or perhaps even survive. Although Modi has been the focal point for much of the media debate about the BJP’s chances of success, Bhagwat, more than anyone else, may govern the party’s fortunes. The Sangh family has a highly disciplined volunteer army that is the envy of every political outfit in the country, and the BJP understands that it would be severely crippled without the support of this force. At the same time, Bhagwat appears to realise that the RSS’s best chance of achieving its goals—assimilating Indian society to a particular set of Hindu norms, and achieving Param Vaibhav, or ultimate glory, for Bharat (as the organisation prefers to call India) by making it the vishwa guru, or guide to the world—is with the active support of a strong, sympathetic government. As one joint general secretary of the RSS put it, “as long as no party in India is in a position to get at least 40 percent of the votes or a two-thirds majority, you can’t get anything done.”
According to the political analyst and editor of the Hindi weekly Yathavat, Ram Bahadur Rai—who along with KN Govindacharya was part of the Bihar Chhatra Andolan, the first RSS-backed political movement (which eventually snowballed into an anti-corruption campaign spearheaded by Jayaprakash Narayan against the Indira Gandhi government, and culminated in the Emergency)—“Bhagwat has two tasks before him. One is to reform the BJP. The other is to reform the Sangh.”
To a great extent, Bhagwat has already begun to stall the drift in the Sangh family. In the five years he has headed the RSS, he has displayed a remarkable pragmatism in the way he combines authority and persuasion to govern the organisation and its offshoots. He has clawed back a significant amount of control over various affiliates, reining in openly militant arms such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal. Shakhas have begun to modernise, with training sessions now occurring at more (and more convenient) times, and even being conducted over the internet, for RSS members abroad. The organisation’s prachar vibhag, or publicity division, has gone into overdrive, creating a powerful presence on social media. Bhagwat has also deepened the RSS’s influence in the BJP, helping to choose party presidents, mobilise Sangh workers and volunteers ahead of the elections, and smooth the way for Modi’s ascent.
Modi, who joined the RSS at age eight and once served as the organisation’s official liaison within the BJP, has also been a boon to, and a lodestar for, the Sangh. In the persona of the Gujarat chief minister—who projects a masculine Hindu pride while seeming to embrace a pragmatic economic philosophy and sporting a Movado watch, Bulgari spectacles, and Montblanc pens—the RSS may have found a way to resolve, or at least dissipate, the tensions between its ethos and the exigencies of contemporary political life. He has also helped to fire up the Sangh cadre.
Bhagwat has just over a decade before he turns seventy-five, the Sangh’s unofficial retirement age. Coincidentally, that will be in 2025, the RSS centenary. Between now and then, the organisation has planned a three-phase strategy aimed at expanding its work. Although the details of the strategy are not known, the phases recall a credo articulated by the RSS’s third sarsanghchalak, MD “Balasaheb” Deoras: “Organisation, mobilisation, and action!” The RSS says it’s nearing the end of stage one; it seems that the next step, for which Bhagwat has been preparing the ground, is to win political power. If the BJP becomes dominant in the next government, the Sangh juggernaut will likely begin rolling, entering a period of potentially unprecedented activity to fulfil its broader social goals. As Deoras once put it, “Organisation does not continue ad infinitum.”
ON FRIDAY, 13 September, a month after the Kolkata workshop, Modi was officially named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. At the beginning of October, Vidya Subrahmaniam wrote an opinion piece in The Hindu titled “The forgotten promise of 1949,” in which she argued that Modi’s appointment showed that the RSS had reneged on a guarantee in its constitution, written in 1949, to keep out of politics. A few weeks later, the Congress minister P Chidambaram told a public rally in Tamil Nadu that the 2014 general elections were going to be a “Mahabharath yudh,” an epic war, between his party and the RSS, “an organisation that has all along claimed to be non-political but chose to take indirect control of its political face.”
The former NDA cabinet member with whom I spoke told me of a common saying in the BJP: “soochna aai, sochna bandh”—the direction has come from the RSS, so stop thinking. But the RSS has always maintained that politics and politicking are not its proper work, even though it admits, sometimes grudgingly, that it shares an ideology, advice-on-demand and workers with the BJP. At least half a dozen senior RSS leaders, including the national executive member Madan Das Devi, who was formerly the Sangh’s official liaison to the BJP, told me that the RSS has nothing to do with the party’s internal affairs, and that the BJP’s decisions are the BJP’s alone. LK Advani, once a full-time RSS worker, has compared the RSS–BJP relationship to the one between Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress.
All of this makes the RSS’s open involvement in the party’s current election campaign a significant aberration. Around the time of Chidambaram’s rally, about three hundred RSS pracharaks gathered in Amravati, Maharashtra, for an informal RSS baithak; the main topic of discussion at the meeting was the Lok Sabha elections of 2014. It was clearly stated and unanimously agreed that the Sangh family had to come to power. A few days later, I met the deputy to one of the RSS’s national leaders—as well as regional domains, there are roughly a dozen national streams in RSS work, including physical training, organisation and promotion—at Keshav Kunj, the organisation’s regional headquarters in Jhandewalan, Delhi. He ridiculed Subrahmaniam’s article (“What is the RSS constitution? Most people in the RSS have not seen it. I am sure most swayamsevaks are not even aware that we have a constitution.”) and readily agreed with Chidambaram that these elections are essentially an ideological clash between the Congress and the RSS. He compared the current political moment to the period before the Emergency: “The situation in the country is very similar to those days and we are gearing up to fight it.”
Since then, the RSS has carried out a massive mobilisation of its volunteers—“the biggest since Emergency,” the deputy told me. Thousands of its workers are on the ground registering voters, updating electoral rolls and campaigning door-to-door to achieve 100 percent voting. Officially, Sangh volunteers are not allowed to canvas for any particular party, but this is an order honoured mostly in the breach. One swayamsevak I spoke with in Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar area said he went around to nearly four hundred houses handing out a flyer on important issues: one side of the sheet discussed urban economic concerns, such as roads and utilities; the other side touched on the RSS’s pet political themes, including terrorism, Pakistan, and “flying the tricolour at Lal Chowk” in Srinagar. The sheet also read, “Do you know who has achieved all of it? One ordinary man in Gujarat.” After handing it out, “we would tell people to vote for Modi,” the swayamsevak said.
Bhagwat has said that the RSS actively participated in only four previous general elections: at the end of the Emergency, in 1977; and in the three elections in the second half of the 1990s, when the BJP came to power. But he has also long acknowledged the importance of politics to the RSS’s mission. In an unpublished interview from the early 1990s, perhaps his first ever, he told the documentary filmmaker Lalit Vachani that the Sangh gets into politics whenever political developments are adversely “affecting the future of the nation”; its objective, Bhagwat said, is “only to give the right direction to political happenings, and then it withdraws.”
The RSS’s ambiguous relationship with politics, and by extension with the BJP, has its origins in the RSS’s early decades, long before the founding of the party, in 1980. Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar formed the RSS, in 1925, to create a large pool of disciplined, physically strong leaders who would provide direction to Hindu society. Hedgewar modelled his organisation on the British army, with a similar uniform and training in armed and unarmed combat.
Devendra Swaroop, the former editor of Panchajanya, the RSS’s Hindi mouthpiece, told me that the organisation “has a split personality” that goes back to Hedgewar. “He was a political man through and through,” Swaroop said when I met him at his modest home in East Delhi. “But he had also created the RSS as a time-bound organisation” that was supposed to dissolve into society after achieving its goals. “He did not see it continuing beyond twenty-five years.”
Swaroop said, “the crisis of goal started in the RSS after Independence, because the goal of Independence was achieved without RSS.” In this period, a combination of influential leadership and historical cataclysm forced the organisation away from a direct engagement with politics. The highly revered second sarsanghchalak, MS Golwalkar, took over in 1940 and subsequently became venerated as “Guruji.” (Hedgewar briefly handed the RSS over to LV Paranjape in 1930, but Paranjape is usually not included in the reckoning of its chiefs.) Golwalkar saw the RSS as primarily a social, cultural, and even spiritual body that ought to shun politics, and he kept it out of the anti-colonial Quit India movement. This apolitical stance solidified in 1949, when the government lifted a ban on the organisation (which was imposed after the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, the previous year, by members of a Sangh affiliate). The RSS reciprocated with the promise made in its constitution.
Ever since, the RSS’s involvement with politics has often been at arm’s length in public, but intimate and complex behind the scenes—mainly because most of the top leaders of the now defunct Bharatiya Jana Sangh party, founded in 1951, and later of the BJP, came from and owed their primary allegiance to the RSS.
Unlike Golwalkar, subsequent sarsanghchalaks—particularly Golwalkar’s successor, Deoras, who was chief for twenty years beginning in 1973—embraced official power as a necessary instrument in the achievement of the RSS’s aims. Deoras was an acutely political man who understood the potential of the RSS’s highly disciplined volunteer force and wanted to use it to influence the country’s politics. When the organisation “assumes a certain strength or mass,” he once theorised, “the manpower put to action in the various fields of national life creates the desirable change.”
While Golwalkar was chief, Deoras had abandoned the RSS for at least half a dozen years because of a dispute with the sarsanghchalak over the organisation’s direction. As soon as he took over, Deoras plunged the Sangh family into several political agitations, including the one that led to the Emergency. Afterwards, the political scientist Pralay Kanungo writes in his book RSS’s Tryst with Politics, Deoras realised that “to remain in the mainstream of national politics” the RSS had to publicly “opt for the politics of accommodation.” This “realpolitik” led the Sangh to merge its political arm, the Jan Sangh, into the ideologically diverse Janata Party in 1977.
In the past fifteen years, first in the powerful post of RSS general secretary and then as chief, Bhagwat, too, has worked hard to assert the organisation in the political sphere, and to contain the conflicts between it and the BJP. That the party is now so openly reliant on the RSS is partly a mark of his profound influence. Many Sangh veterans told me that Bhagwat—whose father and grandfather were both RSS members and whose walrus moustache gives him an uncanny resemblance to Hedgewar—has picked up where Deoras left off.
DEORAS’S BELIEF THAT electoral politics could help the RSS refashion the nation in the organisation’s own image got its first major test in the late 1990s, when the BJP came to power at the head of an NDA government led by the RSS swayamsevak Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Ironically, the BJP’s years in power proved to be difficult ones for the RSS, as the party—made popular by a vigorous economy, and a dynamic foreign policy that projected supremacy over Pakistan and reset relations with the United States—elevated itself above its parent organisation.
From its inception, the RSS’s emphasis on Hindu exceptionalism had brought it into conflict with the brand of secularism espoused by the then dominant Congress. When the Jan Sangh was resurrected as the BJP, in 1980, the party explicitly adopted Gandhian socialism as its guiding principle in order to keep allegations of communalism at bay. In the 1984 general elections, the BJP was reduced to two seats in parliament; many believed that the RSS had refused to campaign for the party and even voted for the Congress.
In the following years, the BJP embraced Hindutva when it saw the amount of public support the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad attracted during the movement to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya. In June 1989, the BJP’s national executive met at Palampur in Himachal Pradesh. It passed a resolution drafted by Advani that formally put the party at the vanguard of the movement, thereby paving the way for the most communally divisive period in the history of India since Partition. From that day, the BJP, which had been one among many galleons in the RSS armada, became the flagship of the Sangh in the public imagination.
Riding on the temple movement and the mobilisation of Sangh cadres, the BJP captured power in 1996, for thirteen days. In 1998, it formed an alliance government, which lasted for thirteen months and exploded a nuclear weapon. In 1999, its National Democratic Alliance began five years of rule during which the government fought a war with Pakistan, and redirected India’s economic and foreign policy. But Vajpayee, who was prime minister in all of these governments, practically ignored the Sangh agenda of building a Ram temple, introducing a uniform civil code and repealing Kashmir’s quasi-autonomous status under Article 370. The former NDA cabinet minister told me that the prime minister gave RSS leaders “adequate izzat but set his own course.”
Vajpayee demonstrated his independence from the RSS early in his premiership. On 6 August 1999, four pracharaks were kidnapped from a Sangh-run student hostel in Tripura and taken to a camp in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The RSS blamed the Baptist Church and separatist insurgents of the National Liberation Front of Tripura, and pressured the government to send troops across the border. But both Vajpayee and the home minister, Advani, were reluctant to create an international situation, and the government never took military action.
Eventually, all four pracharaks were found murdered. Bhagwat, who had just been appointed the RSS’s general secretary, lashed out: “From the day of their abduction, the RSS has been trying hard to get them released. But its desperation was reciprocated by the union and state governments’ insensitivity.”
A slower burning but ultimately more incendiary conflict ignited over the Ram temple movement. Madan Das Devi told me about a meeting at the prime minister’s residence, early in the NDA’s term, at which he, Vajpayee, Advani, the RSS sarsanghchalak Rajendra Singh (who took over from Deoras in 1994), the RSS joint general secretary KS Sudarshan (who would take over from Singh in 2000) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Ashok Singhal were present. “Singhal really fired into Advani,” Devi said. “The feeling was that the Ayodhya land could have been given to the VHP.” The VHP leadership felt the NDA government belonged to them, and was letting down the cause—that the swayamsevaks and pracharaks in the government had ditched their ideology and roots. “One of the leaders of the government at the time said, ‘Why are we calling ourselves a party with a difference? We are the Congress with a tinge of saffron,’” KN Govindacharya, who was then a party general secretary, told me.
After Sudarshan became sarsanghchalak, “those in the RSS themselves began to believe that the BJP leaders had become bigger than them,” Sudhir Pathak, the soft-spoken former editor of the RSS’s Marathi newspaper, Tarun Bharat, told me. A decade earlier, at the height of the Ram temple movement, the RSS leadership had seniority and authority over the BJP. But by 2000, that was no longer the case; Advani, the second most powerful person in the party, became a full-time member of the RSS far before the new chief did. For the first time, there was a tussle over who should guide whom.
Within the BJP, Sudarshan, who was considered autocratic and whimsical, was an unpopular choice to lead the Sangh. Dilip Deodhar, a businessman in Nagpur, where the RSS has its national headquarters, grew up in an RSS family, is a long-time swayamsevak, and has been close with many senior leaders of the RSS; he said that when an ill Rajendra Singh first hinted that he was considering Sudarshan as his successor, in 1998, BJP leaders, including Vajpayee, asked Singh to postpone the decision. They told the organisation’s then general secretary, HV Sheshadri, that it would be “difficult to run the government even for a day” if Sudarshan became the RSS chief, Deodhar said.
Soon after taking over the RSS, Sudarshan tried to exert himself over the rest of the Sangh, including the BJP. Before an RSS function at a stadium in Delhi, for example, he issued instructions that nobody, including the press and NDA ministers, should be allowed in if they did not turn up in the RSS uniform, including the black Gandhi cap, long-sleeved white shirt with the sleeves rolled up above the elbow, and khaki shorts. None of the ministers—including Vajpayee, Advani and the education minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, all of whom had been swayamsevaks for several decades—attended. The then BJP president, Kushabhau Thakre, who was widely credited with building up the Sangh in Madhya Pradesh, arrived in the uniform but forgot to bring the bamboo staff that completes it. According to Deodhar, Thakre was asked to go back.
Delhi was Sudarshan’s base for much of the time that the NDA was in power. He frequently criticised the government in public, and meddled in ministries. In one characteristic episode, Sudarshan used a combination of Sangh organisational strength and government access to act as a cultural censor. When the director Deepa Mehta was shooting Water in Varanasi, filming was interrupted by RSS and VHP men who burnt down sets and shouted slogans against her, Mehta’s daughter Devyani Saltzman wrote in her book Shooting Water. Mehta was asked to get permission from the RSS chief in order to continue production; otherwise the protests would carry on. When she went to the RSS headquarters in Delhi one wintry morning, Sudarshan came to meet her wearing a heavy shawl, and a saffron balaclava over his face. He walked up to her and quoted a passage from Dante’s Inferno in perfect Italian, then sat down and told her not to misjudge the RSS.
“The Ganga is precious to us,” Sudarshan told Mehta.
“Have you read the script for Water?” Mehta asked. The RSS chief placed a copy of it on the table. “Where did you get that?” she said. Only one script had been shared outside of the production team—with the ministry of information and broadcasting.
Sudarshan said, “After all, whose ministry is it anyway?” He asked Mehta to work with Sheshadri Chari, then the editor of the RSS weekly Organiser, on correcting the script.
The RSS’s disaffection with the BJP had become so acute that for a time the organisation contemplated abandoning the party altogether. Among other things, the RSS leadership worried that the power-hungry ways and opulent lifestyles of BJP politicians were corrupting swayamsevaks, many of whom were losing interest in Sangh work. Following the 2004 elections, the RSS top brass, including Sudarshan, Madan Das Devi and MG Vaidya (whose son Manmohan is now the head of promotion) met at a farmhouse in Jhinjholi, on the outskirts of Delhi, to take stock of the organisation’s involvement in politics. Many of the leaders, including Sudarshan, felt that the RSS’s experiment with politics should come to an end.
Things reached absolute zero when Advani visited Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s mausoleum in Pakistan, in June 2005, and praised the Muslim leader’s secularism. Practically the entire RSS bayed for Advani’s head. Sanjay Joshi, then the party general secretary, demanded that Advani abdicate the party presidency. Advani was asked to report to the RSS’s Delhi headquarters and then convey his resignation at a press conference. Instead, he announced his decision to quit to waiting journalists as soon as he landed at Delhi airport. Later that year, Advani left the BJP’s national executive meeting in Chennai with a parting salvo: “Lately an impression has gained ground that no political or organisational decision can be taken without the consent of RSS functionaries. This perception, we hold, will do no good either to the party or to the RSS.”
While practically every leader stood arrayed against Advani, according to a former editor at an RSS-sponsored publication, Bhagwat took a soft line, arguing that the RSS should maintain good relations with India’s neighbours, and that the BJP should retain Advani as a sort of mentor. At the same time, he was quietly pushing for youngsters to take the party reins.
IN MARCH 2009, just two months before general elections in which the BJP was hoping to wrest back power from the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, the RSS effected a generational shift when Sudarshan chose Bhagwat, then the organisation’s general secretary, as his successor.
On the day the change of guard happened, Pathak was hanging around the main hall of the RSS’s sprawling Reshimbag campus, in Nagpur, whose Zero Mile was considered by the British to be the geographical centre of the country. At the time, the hall had lattice windows through which he could see the proceedings of the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha, the highest decision-making body of the RSS. “Normally Mohanji wears kurta and pyjama but that day he was wearing a dhoti,” Pathak recalled. In characteristic RSS style, the anointment was an unfussy affair. Afterwards, Bhagwat came out of the hall. “For a few seconds, he seemed lost,” Pathak said. “He could not even find his slippers. Then he regained his composure.”
Pathak said that when he later asked him about it, Bhagwat admitted he was stunned for a few moments thinking about the enormity of the role he had inherited: “I was just Mohan Bhagwat for those few seconds. I was thinking whether I will be able to do the job I have been given.”
The announcement was sudden, but not totally unexpected. The RSS had begun replacing its aging leaders with much younger ones beginning in the late 1990s; although this may have been a liability in short-term relations with the BJP, the organisation recognised the long-term importance of an energetic leadership. When the sixty-eight-year-old Sudarshan was appointed sarsanghchalak, the then general secretary, HV Sheshadri, told him there were two viable options for general secretary—Madan Das Devi or Bhagwat.
Sheshadri and Sudarshan were inclined towards Devi, who understood politics and was the official RSS point man for overseeing the BJP. But MG Vaidya advised Sudarshan that it would be prudent for him to put his weight behind Bhagwat. Like almost all RSS decision-making, the selection process was informal, highly consultative, and private.
“None of us had even heard his name until he became chief,” a senior editor at a national English-language magazine told me. Bhagwat was just fifty-nine.
Mohan Madhukarrao Bhagwat was born on 11 September 1950, in Sangli, Maharashtra, at his maternal grandfather Annaji’s home, into a family of Brahmins with close ties to the RSS. Bhagwat’s paternal grandfather, a lawyer from Satara named Narayan Bhagwat, moved to Chandrapur after his parents died. Narayan, or “Nanasaheb,” was a member of the provincial Congress and a schoolmate of Hedgewar’s at Nagpur’s Neel City School, which threw the future RSS founder out for defying British rule and singing Vande Mataram.
Bhagwat’s father, Madhukarrao, became an RSS pracharak in the 1940s and worked extensively for the organisation in Gujarat. He eventually decided to marry, but continued his work with the RSS until Bhagwat was born, after which he enrolled in law school in Nagpur. Bhagwat is the eldest of three sons and a daughter born to Madhukarrao and his wife, Malatibai.
The family was steeped in the values of the Sangh. Three generations of Bhagwats have held positions of authority in the RSS. After heading the RSS in Gujarat, Madhukarrao became Chandrapur district chief, a position held by his father before him. Malatibai was a member of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, the RSS’s women’s wing, and in charge of the Jan Sangh’s district women’s forum.
In January this year, I met Ravindra Bhagwat, Bhagwat’s youngest brother, at the family home in Chandrapur, a rapidly expanding Maharashtrian town whose skyline is dominated by the portly smokestacks of a 2,340-megawatt super-thermal power station, the biggest pithead electricity generator in the state. Hanging in the living room was a painting of a tiled two-storey house that originally stood where the large modern building—which includes shop fronts and Ravindra Bhagwat’s office—is today. A collection of mementos and trophies, many of them won by Bhagwat in singing and theatre competitions, were displayed on a shelf. Ravindra said that when Bhagwat returned from university after graduation he carried a gunnysack full of medals and trophies.
THE YEAR 1992 WAS A TUMULTUOUS ONE for India. The country was experiencing its own perestroika, launched the previous year by a Congress government led by the wily PV Narasimha Rao, only the third Congress member outside the Nehru-Gandhi family to become prime minister. That April, the revelation of a Rs 4,000-crore stock market scam triggered a tsunami of criticism against the capitalist turn the country had taken. As winter approached, the Sangh family prepared for its kar seva in Ayodhya, a massive mobilisation of volunteers who were supposed to help build a temple to Ram at his purported birthplace on the banks of the Sarayu river.
Around the same time, the filmmaker Lalit Vachani arrived in Nagpur to shoot a short film on the RSS. In 1990, Vachani had approached Sudarshan, then a joint general secretary, to make a documentary on the RSS. A pleased Sudarshan convened a gathering of about ten shakhas. “He was very disappointed to learn it was a radio documentary and there were no television cameras,” Vachani said. When Vachani returned two years later to make his movie, Sudarshan was “very enthusiastic. His attitude was like, where were you guys all these years?”
During two months of shooting, Vachani and his production team spent a lot of time at Asha Sadan, an RSS office in a mansion that also functioned as a sort of hostel for volunteers. One of the leaders whom Vachani met there was Bhagwat, who, as the RSS’s all-India chief of physical training throughout the 1990s, oversaw an integral part of character building in the Sangh.
“The boys at Asha Sadan simply adored him,” Vachani told me over Skype from his home in Germany. “He was like god to them.” One day the boys asked Bhagwat to play the flute, Vachani recalled. “He was terribly out of tune. Yet all the boys praised it like it was a great performance.”
Somewhere midway through Vachani’s twenty-seven-minute film, The Boy in the Branch, Bhagwat explains the logic of a game called “Kashmir hamara hai,” which is played in RSS shakhas. In the game, some kids stand in the centre of a circle and try to push out others trying to occupy it. “The shakha is the life of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,” Bhagwat says in the film. “Now they don’t have too much information about the Kashmir problem—Article 370, acts, etc—but at least awareness is built in them that Kashmir is ours. It belongs to Bharat.”
Vachani made a follow-up documentary eight years later in which he revisited many of the same places and figures. In that film, The Men in the Tree, Sudarshan elaborates on the significance of recruiting young swayamsevaks: “Children are prone to habit formation. In childhood, they are also influenced by their environment. They are moulded in that environment. From infancy stage to childhood stage, children are very retentive and malleable and prone to learning good habits. What you teach them has a lasting impact in their minds. That is why we get children into shakhas from infancy.”
Reflecting on the early 1990s, the three main characters in The Men in the Tree—Sandeep Pathey, Purushottam and Sripad Borikar—speak proudly about their roles in the destruction of Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid, on 6 December 1992.
“I was up on the dome,” Borikar says. “That was a lifetime achievement. We helped make history.”
The RSS, according to them, had planned the kar seva which led to the demolition, down to the last detail. Pathey says the preparations were so meticulous that everything was recorded—the age of each boy, which train he would travel in, the group leader to whom he would report. Even those who ventured to Ayodhya independently had to register with RSS workers. “It wasn’t possible for just anyone to go there as a temple volunteer,” Pathey says.
Borikar recounts, “Nagpur had chosen ten men who could face anything. I was one of them. 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.” He adds, “The Muslims will come around to our way of thinking. Gradually, an environment will build up in which they will realise that Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura should be handed over” to Hindus. “If Musims want to live in this country, then they will have to listen to big brother.”
Pathey goes on, “If they don’t hand it over on their own, then whichever way the Hindu behaves, they will have to face the consequences.”
AFTER HE BECAME SARSANGHCHALAK, Bhagwat’s first order of business was to continue to repair damaged relations with the BJP. He began by dismantling certain conventions. “Sudarshan did not want to go to Advani’s home because he thought, according to protocol, Advani should come to Jhandewalan,” Sudhir Pathak told me. “Mohanji said, ‘It doesn’t bother me. I’ll go to his house. After all, he is elder to me. We can solve issues only by talking.’” Bhagwat’s childhood friend Bhojawar told me that once when Bhagwat came to lunch at his home, he asked him how he handled Advani. “I know his status and I respect his age and behave accordingly,” Bhagwat replied. “But I don’t step back from the issue that I have gone to discuss with him.”
Many recent RSS decisions, especially with regard to the functioning of the BJP, clearly bear Bhagwat’s impress. On 2 January 2009, as general elections loomed, Bhagwat (who was two months away from being appointed sarsanghchalak), Madan Das Devi and Suresh Soni travelled to Advani’s house for talks with the BJP leadership. “We understand that it’ll be an NDA and not a BJP government, so you decide what you can do, and what you cannot, vis-à-vis our core Hindu agenda. The entire Parivar is firmly behind you, but there should be more such interactions,” Bhagwat said at the meeting, which lasted several hours, according to an Indian Express report. Bhagwat added that the BJP must ensure that “Hinduon ka anadar na ho”—that the Hindus are not shown disrespect.
After the BJP lost the elections, Bhagwat began tightening the screws. The Indian Express reported that he told Advani in August, “We would like to send a contingent of five hundred to seven hundred volunteers to strengthen your organisation at various levels, but it’s for you to take a call. First of all, you have to decide what kind of ties you wish to have with the RSS.”
On the eighteenth of that month, Bhagwat appeared on Times Now for his first interview as sarsanghchalak. He laid out five demands that the RSS would make of its volunteers in the BJP: uphold the Sangh ideology, uphold the RSS work ethic, maintain a “continuous dialogue” with other organisations where swayamsevaks are working and with those who “agree with the BJP,” ensure that the BJP is a “party with a difference regarding character,” and “bring the young generation along.”
“BJP as a party has to do this,” Bhagwat added. “BJP as a party is not run by the RSS. They have to find a way. Either they have to agree to this or disagree to this. They are free. But our swayamsevaks always belong to us. We are telling them this.” Bhagwat also hinted that the next BJP president should ideally be a leader who is not active in Delhi.
A few months later, the appointment of a new BJP chief sent out a clear signal that the RSS was trying to strengthen its grip on the party. According to several people in the Sangh family, including Dilip Deodhar and the swayamsevak who worked on the BJP’s Delhi election campaigns, the first choice was Narendra Modi. Modi, however, said he did not want a national role until the 2012 Gujarat elections were over. Manohar Parrikar, who had been the youngest-ever RSS regional chief and was then in between terms as Goa’s chief minister, was briefly discussed, but he was considered too young to lead the party nationally. Finally, Advani suggested the name of Nitin Gadkari, a Brahmin from Nagpur who has been a swayamsevak since his teens and served as the party’s Maharashtra state president.
Despite concerns about Gadkari, the suggestion was readily accepted by the RSS. “Gadkari had two problems,” Devendra Swaroop, the former editor of Panchajanya, told me. “The media didn’t know him and his style of expression”—his Hindi was relatively poor—“did not match with his national status. But Bhagwat thought he could play an all-India role.”
One of the BJP’s first major decisions under Gadkari’s watch had the stamp of RSS all over it. Barely a week after he was appointed, in December 2009, the results of the Jharkhand assembly elections came out; it was a fractured mandate, with the BJP and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha getting eighteen seats each, and the Congress and its allies managing twenty-five. A day later, the Jharkhand leaders of the RSS’s tribal wing, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, were called to Delhi to report on religious proselytisation in the state. The RSS felt that if the Congress cobbled together a government, it would give a fillip to Christian conversions. To block the Congress from power, the BJP decided to tie up with the JMM, even though many BJP leaders were against it because of allegations of corruption against the JMM leader Shibu Soren. The BJP had just fought a Lok Sabha election largely on the issue of black money. Sudhir Pathak, and a long-time RSS member with direct links to the Jharkhand leadership of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, told me that Bhagwat was the alliance’s prime mover.
During three years as president, Gadkari alienated many people in both the party and the Sangh. He drew particularly intense flak for mismanaging the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in early 2012. His business group, Purti, came under suspicion for fraud, and RSS members resented the open show of wealth at the wedding Gadkari threw for his son, that same year. “Why didn’t you object when ninety planes landed in Nagpur for the wedding?” an RSS member and former BJP state minister from Madhya Pradesh said of the Sangh leadership when I met him last November. “You have made moral values secondary.”
But Bhagwat backed Gadkari throughout his tenure, and when it was coming to an end, in late 2012, he let it be known that he preferred continuity. Several people, including Dilip Deodhar and Sudhir Pathak, told me that Bhagwat felt Gadkari should get a second consecutive term, and that Gadkari need not take personal responsibility for the charges against his companies.
The closer Gadkari’s presidency came to ending, the fewer backers he had in the party and the RSS. Among his remaining allies were MG Vaidya and his son Manmohan, the RSS’s head of promotion. The Vaidyas lobbied Bhagwat; he told them he had tried to retain Gadkari, but that the rest of the RSS and BJP leadership was firmly against it. Still, Bhagwat encouraged the Vaidyas to try again. According to Dilip Deodhar, the Vaidyas, without Bhagwat and the general secretary, Suresh “Bhaiyyaji” Joshi, met with the RSS senior leadership at the house of Bapu Bhagwat, a Nagpur-based swayamsevak. The RSS members heard them out, but said little. (Manmohan Vaidya denied this meeting took place.)
Finally, on 22 January 2013, income tax officials raided eight locations in Mumbai that were associated with Purti group companies. The addresses proved to be bogus. That day, Bhaiyyaji Joshi and Advani met with Gadkari in Mumbai, and advised him to step down. He resigned that night. With the blessings of Advani and the RSS, Gadkari nominated Rajnath Singh, who had led the party’s reconciliation efforts with the RSS after Advani’s resignation in 2005, to a second term. Singh took over the following day.
IF SINGH WAS AN ACCEPTABLE THIRD CHOICE for the RSS, Bhagwat would soon get the BJP leadership he most desired. Even before the party, under Vajpayee and Advani, lost a second consecutive general election, in 2009, Bhagwat had his eye on a future prime ministerial candidate—the Rajya Sabha member Pramod Mahajan, a Marathi Brahmin who became a full-time RSS worker in 1974 and later helped organise Advani’s rath yatra. According to the businessman and long-time swayamsevak Dilip Deodhar, between 2000 and 2006, Bhagwat used to secretly meet with Mahajan at the residence of Dr Vilas Dangre, a famous homeopathic doctor in Nagpur, where they had lengthy discussions late into the night. “Mahajan used to land at Nagpur airport and slip through the backdoor and meet Bhagwat at Dangre’s house,” Deodhar said. He added that Bhagwat saw in Mahajan the next BJP leader. (A family member of Mahajan’s confirmed that the two men were close.)
Mahajan was suddenly gunned down by his brother, in 2006. From that point on, according to Deodhar, Bhagwat began to back Narendra Modi, who had had a hand in organising Advani’s Ram temple agitation, and was then serving his first elected term as chief minister of Gujarat. Although Modi was a good organiser and had strong ideological credibility, many in the Sangh leadership were opposed to him, and he was under criminal investigation in connection with the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. (The investigation is ongoing.) “RSS leaders feared that court cases could go against Modi,” Bhagwat’s friend RH Tupkary, a swayamsevak and well-known metallurgist who headed the Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology, told me.
Tupkary, who said he is about to start work on a book tentatively titled “The RSS Re-Evaluated,” said the leadership’s attitude began to change when Modi swept the 2007 assembly elections in Gujarat; after that, they started seriously considering him for a national role. With a renewed mandate, Modi began to clip the wings of many senior organisation and party members, hardening some sections of RSS opinion against him. But Bhagwat was evidently not concerned: the following year, with much of the Sangh leadership fuming at the Gujarat chief minister, Bhagwat travelled to Ahmedabad to release Modi’s book Jyotipunj, a collection of profiles of his mentors, including Bhagwat’s father, Madhukarrao.
“The first time his name was discussed as the potential prime ministerial candidate was in 2011, in Baroda,” a former member of the RSS central executive council told me. “After the scheduled baithak ended, some of us were asked to stay back for a couple of hours. That meeting was devoted to discussing the political situation in the country.” There were more people opposing Narendra Modi at the time than supporting him, the former central executive member added. Over the next two years, however, the discussions continued at meetings in Chennai, Amravati and Jaipur. Throughout this period, the Sangh leadership was collecting feedback from its pracharak network, which unequivocally supported Modi.
According to Sudhir Pathak, “There were two views—to take only a secularist line, or to have some Hindutva also. The Hindutvawadi group was in favour of Modi. Bhagwat was not taking sides. Advani had shown that the Hindutva line can only take you up to 180 Lok Sabha seats; if you want to carry everyone along, a sober face like Vajpayee was necessary. But then the argument was that in 2004 we saw how far a sober face could take us. So the leaders sort of agreed that in 2014 Hindutva would be the appeal.” By June 2013, when Modi was chosen to head the BJP’s national campaign committee, virtually every RSS and BJP leader, apart from Advani, had fallen in line.
A large part of Modi’s attraction for both Bhagwat and the cadre may be that, despite his autocratic operating style, he has never challenged the Sangh’s fundamental ideology. Rather, he has shown the RSS leadership that the family’s core values can travel even better in new packaging—that designer clothes and talk of economic development can fit perfectly well with hard-line Hindutva. He is a model for swayamsevaks who have embraced the ethos of a consumerist India.
Many leaders in the Sangh family continue to be wary of Modi, who has successfully sidelined many of his political rivals, first in Gujarat and now within the national party; most party and Sangh members who have maintained their influence have done so by making way for his rise. Perhaps the only person who has publicly checked Modi without experiencing any political fallout is Bhagwat. The RSS chief, who is reluctant to give up on anyone who has been a member of the organisation (including Advani and Gadkari), has rehabilitated several of Modi’s rivals, such as Gordhan Zadaphia and Sanjay Joshi. In Bangalore this March, during the concluding session of the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha, Bhagwat, trying to refocus the cadre on its own agenda, reportedly told volunteers, “Our work is not to chant ‘Namo, Namo.’ We must work towards our own target.”
Still, Bhagwat seems to appreciate that Modi is currently the RSS’s best available means of securing political power. (That said, if Modi does become prime minister, he won’t necessarily need the Sangh until the next election.) In February, I spoke by phone with Vasant Limaye, a Pune-based corporate trainer and Marathi novelist. Limaye said he met Bhagwat at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur last year around Dussehra, while he was doing research for a new political thriller. Bhagwat told him about the BJP’s and RSS’s preparations for the upcoming elections, and said that the BJP and Modi were the right people to lead the country. Limaye asked him if he considered Modi to be a Winston Churchill. “What I meant was Churchill was the wartime British PM and was unceremoniously dumped after the war was over,” Limaye told me. “Bhagwat didn’t answer that question. He just smiled.”
THE SARSANGHCHALAK’S ANNUAL VIJAYADASHAMI SPEECH, in Nagpur, is considered the RSS’s most important public address every year. The one that Bhagwat delivered on 13 October 2013 was different in many ways from any that had come before; it was the first time in the history of the organisation that its supreme commander spent a third of the time talking about the national economy and government policy, with specific references to inflation, deficits and currency controls.
Biju’s exchange with Bhagwat after the Alappuzha meeting took place at about 3 pm. “Around 9.30 that night, Bhagwati Prakash Sharma”—the SJM’s national co-convener—“telephoned me and asked me to step down from the SJM.”
Three days later, the veteran RSS leader Ranga Hari told Biju that he should meet the sarsanghchalak again and apprise him of corruption in the SJM. For about a year, Biju and an SJM organising secretary named Appala Prasad had been campaigning against the SJM core committee member and former national convener P Muralidhar Rao. They had produced documents to prove that Rao had used SJM funds to buy property in the name of his wife, Pratibha, and a cooperative society he headed. Biju told me that when he asked the RSS national executive member Madan Das Devi about who approved the purchase, Devi admitted that Rao had not taken any consent. (When I emailed Rao for comment, he wrote back saying he had left the SJM in December 2008; when I pointed out that the transaction took place in 2010, he didn’t respond.)
Biju took the issue to the national joint convener of the SJM, S Gurumurthy, who promised to take action but then ignored the matter. Then, at the RSS national executive meeting in Chennai, Biju spoke with Bhagwat, who he said assured him they would meet again to discuss the allegations.
Biju sent two reminders to Bhagwat about their appointment. He soon got a call from the then RSS joint general secretary KC Kannan. Biju told me Kannan said to him, “You want to meet the sarsanghchalak to flag the issues in the SJM, right? He knows about all those issues and has said that he is not going to interfere in such matters.” Rao was finally forced to repay the money, but only after months of protest.
THE RSS UNDER BHAGWAT may have updated its economic approach while retaining its ideological soul (the sarsanghchalak’s alleged tolerance for corrupt Sangh workers notwithstanding), and thereby partially overcome one of the most important challenges it has faced in recent decades—how to respond to the cultural upheaval wrought by economic liberalisation. But the organisation has failed to rid itself of a more longstanding existential threat—the bigotry of its members, especially against Muslims. Perhaps these trends are interlinked, and the Sangh, as it adopts a more market-oriented economic position, has found it advantageous to simultaneously reaffirm its aggressively Hindu-nationalist core.
Despite the RSS’s continual public denials that it is bigoted or fosters violence in its members, large and small examples of extreme intolerance in the Sangh family—Modi’s Uttar Pradesh campaign manager using the language of “revenge” and “honour” in riot-affected Muzaffarnagar; the head of the VHP calling for vigilante action to evict Muslims from their homes—seem to leak out into the press constantly. Bhagwat himself frequently accuses Muslim men of carrying out “love Jihad” by courting Hindu women. Former RSS members say that these are the attitudes in which the Sangh brought them up.
In January, I went to meet Shyam Pandharipande, a former journalist who grew up in an RSS family, at his sixth-floor apartment in Nagpur. “I joined the RSS before I joined school and I completed my RSS training before I graduated from college,” Pandharipande told me. He recalled a revealing episode from his third year of the Sangh’s officer-training camp, in 1970, the last step in becoming a full-time RSS worker. During a question-and-answer session, a volunteer asked Yadavrao Joshi, then the head of Sangh workers across all of south India, “We say RSS is a Hindu organisation. We say we are a Hindu nation, India belongs to Hindus. We also say in the same breath that Muslims and Christians are welcome to follow their faith and that they are welcome to remain as they are so long as they love this country. Why do we have to give this concession? Why don’t we be very clear that they have no place if we are a Hindu country?”
According to Pandharipande, Joshi replied: “As of now, RSS and Hindu society are not strong enough to say clearly to Muslims and Christians that if you want to live in India, convert to Hinduism. Either convert or perish. But when the Hindu society and RSS will become strong enough we will tell them that if you want to live in India and if you love this country, you accept that some generations earlier you were Hindus and come back to the Hindu fold.”
The RSS ideology has not always been so extreme. In the decade after Deoras took over, the Sangh managed to wipe away much of the stigma associated with its communalism. But then came the Ram temple movement and the demolition of the Babri Masjid, which indelibly stamped the Sangh as a fundamentalist organisation. Although the radicalisation that took place during the movement still defines the RSS for many people, I was told it created a generational rift within the Sangh family. A state executive member of the RSS in Kerala, who has been a pracharak since the 1950s, said that Ayodhya was never discussed at Sangh forums in the early days. “In the collected works of Guruji, there is no mention of Ayodhya or the Ram temple even once,” he pointed out. “A senior leader once told me that RSS’s participation in the Ayodhya movement was a case of the tail wagging the dog.”
He added that that single act—the destruction of the mosque—alienated thousands of people who were Sangh supporters. “I remember Kerala High Court judges openly participating in VHP conferences,” he said. “Similarly, many Muslims and Christians wanted to join the Jan Sangh. Now they do not want to associate.”
In the Bhagwat era, the Ram temple movement has largely been relegated to the increasingly minor domain of the VHP, though it also receives a mention in the BJP’s latest election manifesto. A couple of years ago, at a baithak in Tripunithura in Kerala, Bhagwat was asked about Ayodhya, “How long will it take to build a Ram temple there?” He replied that the dispute “won’t be solved for at least the next thirty years.” He then smiled, and added, “It will be the VHP’s biggest problem, too—to keep the issue alive for that long.”
Other pernicious strains in the Sangh seem to have thrived in the past decade. The RSS national executive member Indresh Kumar is named in the chargesheets for the bombings carried out by Swami Aseemanand and other Hindu terrorists between 2006 and 2008, when Bhagwat was the RSS general secretary. Although the investigations are proceeding at a snail’s pace, there is still some chance that Kumar may be charged. (Officials at the National Investigation Agency declined to comment on the cases.) In theory, Bhagwat, too, could come under investigation after Aseemanand told The Caravan in January that the RSS chief sanctioned the attacks.
The swayamsevak who worked on the BJP’s Delhi election campaigns told me that one reason the RSS is taking such an interest in these particular elections is that “they fear for their survival.” He said another UPA government might try to entangle Sangh leaders in the terror cases to subjugate the organisation. That possibility may now be remote, but charges and allegations of violence by Sangh members nevertheless hang like the sword of Damocles over the head of the RSS.
WHEN I MET the former BJP general secretary KN Govindacharya at his office in East Patel Nagar, Delhi, last October, he told me about an opinion piece that Vajpayee, then a forty-seven-year-old swayamsevak and president of the Jan Sangh, wrote in the Indian Express in 1972. The article argued that a strongly ideological party would never come to power in pluralist India, and could at best remain an influential pressure group. Swayamsevaks have two courses of action, Vajpayee wrote: give up on achieving power; or compromise on their ideology, come to power, and then discharge their responsibilities as RSS men.
After the article came out, the Sangh called a meeting of its national leadership to discuss Vajpayee’s views. The sarsanghchalak, Golwalkar, thought that in theory an ideological party could come to power. Vajpayee was not interested in debating possibilities; he wanted clear direction about which path to take. Golwalkar told him that it was up to Vajpayee and his colleagues in the party to choose.
As Bhagwat suggested to journalists at the Kolkata workshop last August, the Sangh family sees the current elections as an opportunity to solve this dilemma for the foreseeable future. Bhagwat himself has long been resolute about the direction in which the RSS must head. In an unpublished portion of his interview with the filmmaker Lalit Vachani, in the early 1990s, he spoke about new challenges facing the Sangh. The “RSS’s worst period is over,” Bhagwat said. “Earlier it was ignored. We didn’t have money or resources. It was a small organisation. Later, it was being opposed. There was a lot of negative, wrong publicity. People were filled with anti-RSS sentiment. Now that period is also over. From that perspective, the path ahead is clear.” He added, “Our thought is not opposed anymore. There is some because of political reasons, but we are not worried about that. We will handle it in our own style.”