2014's RSS story

BY SN| IN Opinion | 25/12/2014
A strong leader can set the terms of discourse for the media. But only so long as more discordant disruptions don't take place under his watch.
SEVANTI NINAN on the media response to the RSS taking centre stage (Pix: Bhagwat~s interview on Aaj Tak)
Sevanti Ninan
After six months of being upbeat is the public discourse now turning somewhat edgy? 2014 is  the year when that the ‘remote control’ became unapologetically mainstream and emerged at centre stage. A 2009 Faking News spoof “RSS appoints Goldman Sachs as investment bankers for acquiring BJP” seemed to have come true without any help from Goldman Sachs.  

The prime minister, the ruling party president, several ministers and three current chief ministers have all been a part of its cadres, and now the chief ministerial contenders in Jharkhand include men with RSS backgrounds. 

Early into the new government’s tenure both TV and print took it upon themselves to acquaint us with what they called India’s and the  world’s biggest social organization. It had now assumed a role in governance far more substantive than in the earlier BJP government. The day before election results were counted in May, India TV was running a programme called Modi ki Bhagwat Katha, tracing the likely new prime minister’s relationship with the sarvsanchalak of the RSS. Mohan Bhagwat’s father, it said, had been Narendra Modi’s  guide and mentor as a young recruit into the RSS in Gujarat. In the months to follow another channel,  ABP News got the PM to talk about his relationship with Bhagwat’s father, the man who gave him his hand to clasp when he was very young.

Then in June, News 24 offered an long special programme on the RSS, its founding fathers and its emergence at key periods in the country’s political life, including during the 2011 Anna Hazare-led movement. And by late August ABP News  was telling us that Mohan Bhagwat was the most important man in the country outside of government. And Bhagwat in turn explained animatedly that the RSS was not a remote control, it made each person discover the confidence to rule within himself. 
RSS leaders are no longer either remote or faceless, they were on TV  for much of the year explaining themselves and the "human resource exchange" taking place between the BJP and the RSS as BJP general secretary Ram  Madhav put it to Aaj Tak. Increasingly though, as the media sees it, the relationship  seems less benign than a human resource exchange and it is showing up in the language newspapers and TV channels are now using. 

"Conversions come to Delhi on Christmas day," the Hindustan Times reported earlier this week about Hindu organisations planning to felicitate converted Muslims from Meerut at a ceremony at Ramlila Maidan on December 25. “BJP rakes up Hindutva” is what a recent Karan  Thapar programme kept flashing. The  worrisome keyword today is not remote control but the terms that the groups around the ruling party are coining: Love Jihaad,  Ghar Wapasi, and Hindu  Rashtra.   The last from Mr Bhagwat himself.  The Dainik Jagran quoted DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi asking the government to put a brake on Hindutva forces.

Mr Modi has demonstrated so far with his emphasis on governance and ‘swatch Bharat’ that a strong leader can set the terms of discourse for the media. But only so long as  more discordant disruptions don’t take place  under his watch. 

Even as the government stages thePravasi Bharatiya Divas and Vibrant Gujarat summits in the state, Mr Bhagwat, according to the Indian Express is getting ready to preside over another meeting in the state around the same time. This will be a three-day RSS karyakarta shivir near Ahmedabad “where the RSS will chart its course for the future – one of the issues being buttressing the Hindutva agenda.”  The paper goes further. “Sources said that the saffron outfits, including VHP, are detailing plans to introduce rewards for Hindu women who have more than five children in rural areas.” Family planning to be scuttled by incentivized Hindu procreation? Funny this did not get picked up more widely.

Meanwhile, the Economist saw fit to run three stories this year on India’s Hindu nationalists, featuring a long profile on Vinayak Savarkar earlier this month. (“The man who thought Gandhi was a sissy”.) And said in conclusion that if his influence grows, India’s tolerance and moderation will be at risk.

Overall though, there have been few negative reports so far from the ground on the performance  of the new chief ministers drawn from the RSS for Haryana, and Maharashtra. BJP president Amit Shah, who offered many quotable quotes this year, was reported as saying ML Khattar was picked for chief minister because he was honest before, and would remain honest after he became one.  In his Walk the Talk with Shekhar Gupta Khattar sounded measured, but offered little evidence of a purposful agenda.  Maharastra CM DevendraFadnavis  talks governance very animatedly in his  interviews. 
Goa chief minister Laxmikant Parsekar, though, has been more controversial with his remarks on environmental conservation and tourists coming to Goa only to do drugs. 
The more controversial ministers at the centre however are another story and have drawn their share of prolonged flak.  And within TV studios the ubiquitous presence of Subramaniam Swamy (who thinks secular critics of this dispensation are “westernized black Englishmen”) ensures that  contentious discourse will flourish into 2015, hijacking blander issues such as governance.
(A shorter version of this column appeared in Mint on December 25, 2014.)
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