Rahul’s verbal sallies on the RSS reinforce a perception that Congress continues to seek to make the majority community accept the second-class status given to minorities in some countries.
Rahul Gandhi seems to have hit upon a formula that he hopes will establish him as the alternative to the BJP and to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is to attack the RSS in a manner that suggests that he has spent very little time meeting its members or visiting its offices. Surely a necessary requirement before seeking to be established as an authority on what is probably the world’s biggest NGO. This columnist was explicit that the best favour that Rahul Gandhi could do for his party in 2019 was to rule himself out of the Prime Ministerial sweepstakes. The reverse took place. The victory of the BJP in 2019 was not a done deal in 2018, but became so once Rahul was declared the Congress Party nominee for the Prime Ministership. In 2009, the UPA was assisted by the contrast between L.K. Advani and not Sonia Gandhi as hoped for by the BJP but Manmohan Singh. While Advani was an able leader, he lost his chance for the Prime Ministership by backing A.B. Vajpayee for another innings in 2004 rather than staking his own claim. Had he been the PM face of the BJP in the 2004 polls, it is likely that the NDA may have limped back to office. Once the party lost to the Sonia-led UPA (and given the warmth with which the avuncular Vajpayee regarded the AICC president), Advani was damaged in a manner that gave the advantage to the Congress Party in 2009. As for the 2014 polls, had a more conventional leader than Narendra Modi been nominated as the Prime Ministerial face of the NDA, while the combination may have secured a slim majority, the BJP certainly would not have. Modi made the difference. In the 2019 polls, it was the combination of the Balakot surgical strike and Rahul Gandhi being seen by voters as the Opposition alternative to Modi that clinched the issue for the ruling party. The BJP improved upon its majority in what may be called a “Reverse Rahul Wave”. Not that the heir to the Congress leadership had not worked hard at improving his standing among voters. He clearly saw his ticket to victory as being a series of sharp attacks on Narendra Modi. That the Prime Ministership is still regarded with awe and respect in India, and that as PM, Modi has that protective layer around him, was ignored by Rahul Gandhi. The Congress leader’s attacks on Modi only seemed petulant and excessive, especially in the absence of any clear evidence or even specific charges against the individual who since 2013 has remained the most popular politician by far in India.
It was Swami Chinmayananda in the 1970s who first spoke of a “Hindu vote bank”. There has been much talk about the BJP being the favoured party of the RSS, but the reality is that the other national formations appear to have shut their doors to that organisation, thereby leaving its immense number of cadres little alternative but to gravitate to the BJP. The RSS itself has come a long way, asking only that a citizen of India acknowledge that he or she belongs to a country with a recorded history that goes back more than 5,000 years. Especially since Mohan Bhagwat took over as the head of the RSS, more and more of those flocking to its functions are dressed in denims and would be perfectly in place in any street in Los Angeles or London. RSS Sarsanghchalak Bhagwat asks only that the embrace of modernity never abandon its roots in the millennial traditions of India. Decades ago, this columnist visited the RSS offices in Delhi to meet on the then head of the organisation, K.S. Sudarshan. He took with him a friend who was a precursor of Rahul Gandhi in that he was a fiery critic of the RSS without having spent a minute meeting its members or visiting any of its offices. It was a bit of a surprise for his friend to enter what seemed to be a cosy old-folks’ home when he was expecting a bustling office filled with individuals ceaselessly seeking (in his reckoning) to create divisions and faultlines in Indian society. Grandfatherly individuals wandered around, many either talking to each other softly or reading newspapers. While this columnist went upstairs to meet Sarsanghchalak Sudarshan (who had a wonderful sense of humour and inside a somewhat forbidding exterior a very warm personality), the friend was left below in the company of the elderly “fanatics”. By the time this columnist returned after more than an hour— Sudarshan was an amazing raconteur and time flew in his presence—the once fierce critic of the RSS had befriended some of the grandfatherly figures he had met and was smiling and beaming away along with them. Perhaps Rahul Gandhi should do the same. After all, to “cross the river by feeling the stones” was an adage popular with Deng Xiaoping, some of whose immediate family such as his daughter know Rahul and Priyanka well. The RSS has several million active volunteers, and many more times that people who are its sympathisers. Each of them has friends and family, who do not recognise the RSS supporters in their midst as the ferocious fascists that members of the organisation have been painted as being by those phobic to the RSS. Each of them will lose some of whatever respect they have for Rahul Gandhi when they encounter statements such as that the RSS is the same as the terror schools of Pakistan. Interestingly, the Jamaat-i-Islami Hind (an organisation known and respected by this columnist) paid tributes to K.S. Sudarshan on his demise in September 2012. It was remembered that the former RSS Sarsanghchalak used to visit mosques quite often to exchange views on religion and society with the believers he encountered there.
The verbal sallies of the heir to the AICC presidentship on the RSS simply reinforce a perception (strengthened by the manner in which the Congress Party conducted its campaigns in 2014 and 2019) that the party continues to seek to make the majority community accept the second-class status given to minorities in some countries. It is the Congress Party that has made Swami Chinmayananda’s forecast of a Hindu vote bank come true. It is the Congress Party embrace not of secularism but of the contra concept of “Nehruvian secularism” that consolidated much of the BJP vote reservoir. Rahul Gandhi is by his tactics reinforcing that pool of voters, which is why BJP president J.P. Nadda must be grateful to him. In the meantime, Rahul by his language will continue to demonstrate to the tens of millions of RSS members and sympathisers that he needs to know a lot more about the NGO that he has joined a long list of politicians in denouncing.