6. Sangh Parivar, the last Gandhians

 

         When in 1980, the secularist tendency led by Nana Deshmukh and Atal Behari Vajpayee imposed "Gandhian socialism" on the newly founded BJP as its official ideology, all the establishment secularists laughed at this transparent attempt to acquire a new secular identity.[1]  "This party is neither Gandhian nor socialist", they said.  The party was in fact more socialist than it would like to admit after liberalization became the new orthodoxy, certainly more socialist than the non-socialist "cleverest bourgeois scoundrel" Gandhi ever was, but we can agree that it was less socialist than was normative in 1980.  What interests us more, is whether the BJP, always accused of having historical links with Gandhi's assassin, can legitimately be called Gandhian. 

 

         My view is that within the present political spectrum, the BJP is definitely and by far the most Gandhian party.  The former socialists and populists, who had inherited part of the Gandhian legacy through Jayaprakash Narayan, have become nothing but casteist interest groups steeped in coercive tactics and crime; there is nothing Gandhian about them anymore.  Congress, of course, presided over the betrayal of every single Gandhian policy under Nehru's Prime Ministership, and its level of morality and dedication to the nation is nothing that Gandhi would be proud of.

 

         By contrast, the BJP, or rather the Sangh Parivar as a whole, is definitely a Gandhian movement in many respects.  The Sangh Parivar supports economic self-reliance (swadeshi) coupled with cultural self-reliance.  The Sangh workers shun luxury and move around by public transport, in the lowest-class compartments; in communications as well as in their martial arts practice (with the stick), they are deliberately settling for older technology, quite comparable to Gandhi's choice for living in the past with his charkha.  Sangh whole-timers practise the typically Gandhian mix of politics and asceticism (including sexual abstinence).  The Sangh protests against Miss World flesh shows, the promotion of meat consumption by American fast food chains, the unnecessary and disruptive promotion of tooth paste at the expense of indigenous methods of dental hygiene, and other instances of dumping India's heritage in favour of undesirable and/or foreign alternatives.  This earns Sangh activists haughty smirks from the elite, but that itself is yet another point in common with Gandhi and his spinning-wheel.

 

         In some respects, the RSS follows Gandhi even where Gandhi was decidedly un-Hindu.  The seeming unwillingness to use the modernmost technology and media (which is gradually being superseded by modernizing efforts originating largely in NRI circles) is Gandhian enough, but is unwarranted from a Hindu viewpoint.  The ancient Hindus in the Indus-Saraswati civilization were in the vanguard of humanity in science and technology; Gandhi had his retro-mania from Christian romantics like Thoreau and Tolstoi.  The combination of social work with celibacy is characteristic of certain Roman Catholic monastic orders, but is foreign to Hindu tradition, where a clean separation is maintained between, on the one hand, the self-supporting worldly society, which takes care of its needy and in which every able-bodied young man is expected to start a family, and on the other hand the circles of celibate sadhus from whom no worldly service is required because their spiritual practice is contribution enough.

 

         Three central aspects of the Sangh's work are typically Gandhian, and are also the key to its success.  One is its grass-roots work, its impressive record in actual social service, which is far larger and more deserving of a Nobel prize than Mother Teresa's heavily foreign-financed operations.  Like for Mahatma Gandhi, politics for the Sangh is but one aspect of a much larger social programme carried out by the citizens' own initiative and effort.  This creates a much closer rapport with the masses, a movement with much stronger roots than purely political movements like the Hindu Mahasabha.

 

         The second Gandhi-like aspect of the Sangh's success is its religious dimension.  Though the BJP insists on its secular character, many of the Sangh-affiliated organizations and individuals are not that shy about their Hindu moorings, and this is precisely one of the reasons why they strike a chord of confidence among the people.  Tilak, Aurobindo and Gandhi made the independence movement into a mass movement by giving it a religious dimension; it is for the same reason that the Sangh has become a mass movement firmly rooted in the general population, a pool of Hindu commitment on which the BJP can draw at voting time.

 

         The third Gandhian trait in the Sangh's style of functioning is the moral dimension which it gives to its politics.  The BJP advertises itself as a disciplined party free of corruption.  When during the 1996 Lok Sabha election campaign, Narasimha Rao's men tried to implicate L.K. Advani in a financial scandal, the public reacted with a sincere disbelief: he may be a communalist, but we never saw any sign of corruption in him.  My own experience confirms that in general, the workers of the Sangh-affiliated organizations are sincerely dedicated to the well-being of their country and society without expecting personal benefits in return.[2]  Of late, this reputation has been corroded by scandals involving the BJP (though it remains the cleanest party by far), and even RSS grassroots recruitment is feeling the effect of the general spread of consumerism in Hindu society.  Traditionally, Hindus have held self-abnegation as practiced by Sangh workers in high esteem, but many members of the new generation (yuppie or goonda) merely find it funny; the RSS-Gandhian ethos has now become an upstream effort defying the spirit of the times.

 

         The kinship between the Sangh and Gandhi is real enough in these positive aspects, but it is just as palpable in some negative respects.  To start with a small but nasty point, Gandhi thought his own position (call it the Gandhian sampradaya/sect) represented the whole of Hinduism, both at the political and the religio-philosophical level, and strongly resented alternative centres of Hindu mobilization.  Though calling himself a Hindu, he claimed the leadership of the whole nation and not just of the Hindus, though the British secularists and the Muslims never conceded this more-than-Hindu identity to him (certainly a parallel with the Bharatiya rather than Hindu Janata Party).  When the Muslim League became a formidable challenger to Gandhi's claim, it would have been in the nation's and his own interest to let the Hindu Mahasabha counterbalance the League's influence; moderates normally use the presence of radicals as a useful bargaining-chip.  But Gandhi and his Congress wanted the whole Hindu cake to themselves. 

 

         The same intolerance of or at least annoyance with rivals for the Hindu constituency is in evidence in the Sangh.  In surveys of Sangh history, there is remarkably little reference to the Hindu Mahasabha and other Hindu organizations.  Especially glaring is the RSS reluctance to acknowledge the role of Babarao Savarkar (elder brother of V. D. Savarkar and an outstanding revolutionary in his own right). It was Babarao who had drafted the original RSS pledge and included the term ‘Hindu Rashtra’ in it. He had suggested the saffron RSS flag. He had merged his own Tarun Hindu Sabha as well as Sant Panchelgaonkar Maharaj’s Mukteshwar Dal into the fledgling RSS. He was responsible for bringing into the RSS such luminaries as Bhalji Pendharkar, the noted film director and later the Dadasaheb Phalke award winner Kashinath Pant Limaye who became he provincial head of the Maharashtra RSS, Babu Padmaraj Jain and other. Baburao toured extensively for the RSS in spite of his failing health. Both Hedgewar and Golwalkar had great respect for Babarai. Yet The RSS Story by K. R. Malkani does not even mention Babarao’s name. In fact some narrow minded RSS leaders from Pune had tempered with the chapter in Babarao’s contribution (written by P. N. Gokhale) that deals with Babarao’s contribution to the growth of the RSS. Similarly, no acknowledgement is made of the help which the RSS received from the Arya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha everywhere.

 

During the 1989 elections, when the BJP had an electoral alliance with the Janata Dal, Balraj Madhok stood as a candidate for the reconstituted Bharatiya Jan Sangh against the Janata Dal candidate in Lucknow.  Most Hindutva people were eager to work for Madhok, "one of us", against the JD secularist officially supported by the BJP.  When Madhok looked sure to win the election, Vajpayee hurried to Lucknow to discipline the BJP workers; he could not tolerate that a non-BJP man would enter the Lok Sabha in spite of his proven merit for the Hindu cause. 

 

         In a way, the Sangh attitude mirrors that of mendacious secularists who always label anyone speaking up for the Hindus as an "RSS man": they identify the Hindu cause with the Sangh.  Generally they do not see beyond the confines of the Sangh and are practically unaware that there are conscious Hindus outside the Sangh.

 

         A typical Gandhian flaw in BJP functioning, the result of mixing self-denial (a personal discipline) with politics (a public affair), is the absence of any healthy sense of quid pro quo.  Gandhi always sacrificed Indian or Hindu interests without asking anything in return, hoping that this would soften the heart of the beneficiary and put him in the right mood to give something back at his own initiative.  Thus, after the outbreak of World War 1, "Indian political leaders, 'moderate' as well as 'extremist', were unanim­ous that the people of India should support the British cause against the Germans, but only for a price: the promise of home rule after the war.  Gandhi was almost alone in rejecting the idea of a political bargain with the British; he cherished the hope that in return for unconditional support, a grateful and vic­tori­ous Britain would give India her due when the war was over."[3]  As it turned out, the British took Gandhi's services (recruiting Indian volunteers to die a useless and horrible death in the war against Germans who had done the Indians no harm) but, except for an embarrassing medal of loyal service to the British Empire, they gave him nothing in return.  In the real world, politicians bargain for a tangible quid pro quo and don't count on gratitude.

 

         This Gandhian idiosyncrasy has set a trend in Indian foreign policy.  In his infamous 1954 "Panch sheel" treaty with China, Nehru conceded China's claim to Tibet but extracted no Chinese acceptance of India's established borders in return.  In the Indo-Pak wars, Indian successes on the battlefield were squandered in Nehru's vainglorious attempt to posture as an apostle of internationalism (bringing in the UNO in the Kashmir dispute, 1948), or as an occasion to show off India's sportsmanship (ceding the territory conquered in 1965), or in return for a meaningless declaration of good intent (releasing the Pakistani prisoners for a never-kept promise to keep the Kashmir issue bilateral in 1971).  In 1996, India parted with a large percentage of the Ganga water supply in an empty show of generosity to Bangladesh, effectively hurting its own agriculture and shipping industry, without even asking anything in return: not that Bangladesh treat the Hindu minority correctly, not that it restore the Chakma lands to its Chakma refugees, not that it take back its illegal Muslim migrants, not that it close its borders to separatist guerrilla groups terrorizing India's northeast.

 

         In this habit of making unilateral gestures to undeserving enemies, Gandhi had no followers more imitative than the BJP.  This party always sells out its principles and pays homage to everything and everyone its enemies cherish, without ever exacting even a promise (let alone a real bargain) in return.  No matter how many concessions A.B. Vajpayee offered during his 13-day tenure as Prime Minister in search of a majority, no matter how hard he kicked his Kashmiri refugee supporters in the groin by promising to preserve Art. 370, no matter how sincerely he condemned the Ayodhya demolition, he did not get a single undertaking from a non-"communal" parliamentarian to support the government during the confidence vote.  No matter how deep the BJP leaders crawl in the dust begging for certificates of good secular conduct from their enemies, this has never yielded them anything except contempt.  But so far, everything indicates that they can be counted upon to continue in the same direction.

 


 

           [1]  We omit discussion of the lack of an agreed meaning for the term "Gandhian socialism".  An insider told me that during one of the constituent meetings of the budding BJP, a vote was taken on whether the ideology should be "integral humanism" or "Gandhian socialism"; the latter won with a small majority, but to please everyone, it was then decided that the "Gandhian socialism" is actually the same thing as "integral humanism".  The incident reveals the lack of ideological sérieux in the BJP.  Similar illustrations of this weakness include Govindacharya's 1996 enthusiasm for "social engineering", a term dear to totalitarian regimes by which he meant simply the induction of more Backward Caste candidates in the elections.

           [2]  It is a different matter that this personal modesty is often combined with a lack of collective Sangh modesty.  Many Sangh workers are extremely touchy about criticism of the Sangh, even when they don't mind criticism of Hinduism or India.

           [3]  B.R. Nanda: Gandhi and his Critics (OUP, Delhi 1993), p.116.

 

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