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An RSS in a state of transition puts on a progressive face, writes Bhavdeep Kang

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Dattatreya Hosabale, regarded as the liberal and progressive face of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, takes over as sarkaryavaha (general secretary) at a challenging juncture, when questions of individual freedoms, secularism, nationalism and economic reforms dominate the public mind.

His job is an important one; in effect, he is CEO to sarsanghchalak Mohan Rao Bhagwat’s chairman. Against the backdrop of socio-political churning and the consequent reconfiguration of relationships between various segments of society, between the old and the new and the RSS and BJP, he will have a significant role to play.

Immediate challenges

The most immediate of the RSS general secretary’s challenges is addressing a growing sense of Hindu entitlement, as opposed to Hindu pride, among a section of the militant right. It is a potential source of enormous embarrassment for the mother-ship, the BJP and the ruling dispensation, particularly vis-a-vis India’s determination to garner international goodwill and take pride of place in the comity of nations.

The dominance of the established urban elites over academia, media and the social sector doesn’t sit well with a newly assertive urban class uncomfortable with western labels and strait-jacketed definitions of secularism and nationalism. How far the pendulum swings the other way will depend to some extent on the narrative crafted by the RSS and the message percolating down to the cadres. It will have to exercise great caution, lest Hindu assertion become Hindu aggression and breach the proprieties of constitutional democracy.

A case in point is the obnoxious campaign by members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, an organisation founded by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, to whip up anti-minority sentiments in Uttarakhand. Banners declaring “This site is sacred to Hindus, the entry of non-Hindus is prohibited” were put up outside temples in the state capital of Dehradun. The incident followed the assault on a young Muslim boy at a temple in UP, where he had reportedly gone in search of a drink of water.

The quick response of the Uttarakhand and UP police in booking the miscreants in both cases is commendable. What is deeply worrying is that the perpetrators felt justified in visiting verbal and physical violence upon the members of the minority community, and were seemingly unafraid of repercussions.

Illiberal tendencies

The tendency towards illiberalism among members of the Sangh Parivar, displayed most recently in the bizarre statements of Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat, is another and equally serious challenge. The newly-appointed CM set up the backs of men and women countrywide – including those within the RSS – with crude animadversions on young women who sport ripped jeans.

At a time when the BJP is ardently wooing the women’s vote, by promising reservation in jobs, free education, healthcare and public transport and cash benefits for girl children, Rawat has done his party a disservice. He followed that up by cracking a bad joke about having “20 children” rather than just two, in order to get more free rations. He then rewrote history by confusing Great Britain with the US, unleashing a host of memes on social media.

For ‘Dattaji’, known for championing the rights of LGBTQs and women, freedom of expression and mutual tolerance, these naked displays of misogyny and majoritarianism will be hard to swallow. He represents the ‘modern’ face of the RSS that Bhagwat has sought to project in recent years.

Loony fringe containment

The RSS’s task in terms of containing the loony fringe is complicated by ideological adversaries worldwide, who are supported by vested interests and a section of the diaspora with deep pockets and wide connections. Misinformation and redirection are deployed to denounce progressive policies. Sadly, the hard right, which includes the more rigid members of the Sangh, has a tendency to play into their hands.

The charismatic and affable Dattatreya Hosabale, regarded as being open-minded and more in tune with the changing times than his predecessors, will need all the considerable tact at his command, moving forward. His third big challenge is managing the expectations of the cadre, who are disgruntled with the growing clout of ‘outsiders’, ideological dilution and the primacy given to BJP leaders.

Given the ongoing, fundmental social and political shifts, coordination between the RSS, its political wing and the government is all the more important. Although the media tends to refer to ‘Dattaji’ as being close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the former is his own man. How he steers the ship will be closely watched.

The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.

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