Why the BJP’s talented leaders are so smug with ossified RSS as their default boss One of the walls in my office displays a selection of the most devastating works of E.P. Unny, now India’s finest political cartoonist by far, and a worthy successor of the late Abu Abraham on the pages of this newspaper. Dated December 12, 2000, it has K.S. Sudarshan, the then RSS chief (sarsanghchalak), as a schoolteacher. Vajpayee, in school uniform (don’t miss the shorts, although, since it is black and white, we can only guess the colour), is squatting on the floor as the only pupil in the class, a slate in his hands. His question to the teacher: “Tell me Sudarshanji, what happened when Godseji went to the prayer meeting to protect Gandhiji?” That had appeared in a week when some of Sudarshanji’s statements had hit the funny headlines, particularly his conspiracy theory that the Babri Masjid had not been brought down by kar sevaks, but by a bomb planted by the Congress. I have to confess, though, at that point I thought the cartoon was a bit vicious, even by the standards of Unny’s acid-dipped pen. It took me nearly four years to realise it wasn’t, and why. I had gone to Nagpur to record a Walk the Talk for NDTV 24x7 (‘BJP shaken as RSS chief targets Vajpayee, family and aide Mishra’, IE, April 12, 2005, http://goo.gl/ LBc5z, video at http://goo.gl/S1Cgk) after a sudden invitation from the sarsanghchalak’s office. Sudarshanji had thoughtfully called me for a preparatory chat over dinner the previous evening. The meal, sitting on the floor in his semi-lit, gadget-less kitchen, was basic. RSS leaders, in fact, are usually so spartan they would make the Maoists look like rotten hedonists. And I don’t know how, but almost inevitably, the talk shifted to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Of course, Sudarshanji told me, it was an outrage to blame the RSS. But I wasn’t prepared for the story he told me in all earnestness. That Godse had only gone to greet Gandhi. That he had carried a pistol, but Gandhi was shot with a revolver. That forensically, if Gandhi had been shot from the front, the entry wound would have been smaller, and the exit a gaping hole. But it was the other way around. Conclusion: he was shot from behind. Implication (his words, not my interpretation): The only person who stood to benefit from his death was Nehru. So, my child, he seemed to say, Q.E.D. How did he know this? A senior police officer “from Andhra” wrote this in his book. Who is the officer and where is he? He died a long time ago. Where is the book? It went out of print a long time ago. NOW, I had the option the next morning to build the interview around this theory and it would have made instant headlines too, but funny ones. So I preferred the relatively boring contemporary political theme. He made even bigger headlines, calling for the “now really old” Vajpayee’s retirement, holding his foster son-in-law, Ranjan Bhattacharya, and Brajesh Mishra responsible for all of the BJP’s problems, questioning Uma Bharati’s upbringing etc, etc. And what was the response I got from senior BJP leaders who endlessly complained that I had talked poor Sudarshanji into saying all this incendiary stuff? He is a simple man: he is really a gullible old man with no control over what he says. Well meaning, but too “bhola bhaala” for politics etc. His successor, Mohan Bhagwat, is not any of that. He is smart, articulate and much younger. Nobody would dismiss him as a goof. Particularly in this leaderless BJP, where even his nod is the law. Read his customary Vijayadashami speech last week (http://goo.gl/kjRpJ). His economics is of the 1950s, but that you’d expect. So are his thoughts on society, religion, the Ram temple and most importantly, national security. He still wants to liberate PoK, alright. But he also said that “because of the policies pursued by government during the last decade”, terrorism is on a comeback trail in Jammu and Kashmir. The truth is, terror has declined consistently over the past years in Kashmir, and this year has been the best since, maybe, 1989. Ten months have passed (and I say this with trepidation), and our army has not lost even one life to hostile fire this year, but why confuse wise old deshbhakts with facts? One thing the RSS doesn’t lack is consistency. On all these issues — economics to society to religion to women to Muslims and Kashmir — its view has been as unchanging as the scriptures. So how does one run a BJP government in this country if every single decision has to either conform to the Great Teacher’s views or have his concurrence? Vajpayee did this, mostly in defiance of the Sangh. His own stature, beliefs and even political skills enabled him to do so. He opened many areas to FDI, including insurance, in spite of RSS-fuelled swadeshis. He sanctified the Line of Control as a de facto border — and thereby did the Indian strategic cause the greatest service — again ignoring the RSS. And even when they wanted Brajesh Mishra’s head, he let the grand viziers of Nagpur know that if they so insisted, they could take his instead. No wonder Sudarshan so hated him. THE situation today is entirely different. The BJP has so many leaders, and yet no leader. So it suits everybody to generally embrace the idea that the party’s power resides with the RSS. Nagpur, therefore, is the party’s 10 Janpath. The BJP can now keep or dump Gadkari. But does anybody have the courage to say who appointed him party president? Every time the BJP makes fun of Manmohan Singh as a prime minister appointed by 10 Janpath, it needs to ask itself how many of its presidents have been genuinely elected or chosen by consensus rather than “appointed” by Nagpur. Jana Krishnamurthy, Kushabhau Thakre, Venkaiah Naidu, Nitin Gadkari, and not to forget Bangaru Laxman. What did any of them amount to by way of weight, presence or electoral track record? They were all foisted by the party’s own 10 Janpath. And you can see the difference. The Congress is a family-owned concern. But at least its proprietors are in public life and fight elections. The RSS, on the other hand, only says it should not be dragged into the BJP’s politics. Its leaders are still private individuals. At an Express Group ‘Idea Exchange’ (organised by our sister publication Loksatta on September 4), Mohan Bhagwat touchingly said the RSS was not the HR manager of the BJP. You have to be a brave man to question the sarsanghchalak. But do check that statement out against the procession of top BJP leaders — including Narendra Modi — who have been visiting Nagpur lately. This is the fundamental problem with the BJP today. Its pantheon of obviously talented leaders are loath to choose their first among equals and would continue to use the RSS as their default boss. In the process, they have to silently accept its ideological view of politics, society, economics and, worst of all, its old, paranoid, khatre-mein-desh worldview. Or, in short, the BJP’s problem is, it no longer has Vajpayee at the helm. And its top leaders are unwilling to even select, appoint or package a leader half as inclusive as him. Nobody in the BJP today has the stature or courage to challenge this fatal contradiction of India’s second-largest party being controlled by a self-avowedly “apolitical”, and definitely extra-constitutional, centre of power. Postscript: Much before Sudarshan, there was Balasaheb Deoras. At the peak of the terrorism in Punjab, he had famously asked why there should be a problem between Sikhs and Hindus. Sikhs, he said, were only keshdhari Hindus, after all. Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was still alive and in control of the Golden Temple and I was present for his afternoon discourse, which was more politics than religion on the day Balasaheb’s statement was published. So, if Deoras calls us keshdhari Hindus, he asked, what will he call Muslims? Sunnatdhari (circumcised) Hindus?