Bhagwat’s new Bharat

Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat’s speech on Vijayadasami at Nagpur has not received a serious reading. There was a furore about broadcasting it nationally but minimum quotes without a sense of the whole was discussed. A portly man standing in khaki shorts, could be a village elder, or someone addressing a parent-teacher meeting. As one listens, one realises his canvas is broad and as he unfolds his plan, one senses he is not training a cadre but seeking to remake a nation. This is the reason his speech has to be read as a full text. Text is a combination of statements and silences. For the first time, instead of a political leader, a scientist presided over the function. V.K. Saraswat, former head of Defence Research and Development Organisation, probably another chip from the Kalam Bloc, presided over the occasion.

Mr Bhagwat began amicably and ritually, with an invocation to former leaders. Each name is a symbol and each symbol or icon is a part of the RSS pantheon. The invocations, part tribute, part an anniversary list of critical dates and crucial rituals, began with B.R. Ambedkar with the remarks that this is the 125th birth anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Ambedkar is part of the RSS pantheon and Mr Bhagwat domesticates him with a comment from Golwalkar who described him as a confluence of Shankara’s sharp intellect and Buddha’s compassion.
The list as litany and liturgy includes K.B. Hedgewar, whose 125th anniversary is also this year. It is also the birth anniversary of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. The list of founders and their anniversaries spelt out, Mr Bhagwat expands into millennial time. He begins by saying that this is the 1,000th coronation year of Raj Rajiwar Rajendra Chola. It is the 1,000th anniversary of the great philosopher Ramanujacharya and of one Shaiva philosopher Abhinav Gupta. The message of reform rooted in philosophy is clear. Genealogies are important because they inform ancestry. Mr Bhagwat then adds a little tribute to former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam who died this year. After anniversaries and ancestors are honored, the speech begins.

It is a vision of resurgent India, a revived India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, lacking the hopelessness, the despondency of the Congress. It is a celebration of rule and regime. It is a Modi regime, ruled by the RSS. It is a celebration of victory, of a thanksgiving. Where the victor picks his heroes banishing others with benign neglect. It talks of an optimism of expectations and “a world being introduced to a new Bharat”. It is clear that Vijay Dashmi is the right day to speak. It celebrates the victory of Ram over Ravan, of the Bharatiya Janata Party over the Congress. The world might be Manichean, but good is winning over evil.

When power is stable and the political vision intact, there is little that can threaten the new Bharat. There is no direct reference to the present, to Dadri or to farmer suicides. Within a cycle of civilisational time, when the present regime echoes the Chola dynasty, small incidents are of little consequence. They are exaggerations that cannot touch the core of sanskriti. Violence today, Mr Bhagwat claims, has not damaged the normative integrity of culture. Yet there are slippages one cannot help but notice.

Firstly, a confusion between civilisation and nation-state. Second a blurring of idioms of past and present. Do words and concept mean the same today? The notion of culture, Mr Bhagwat insists, cannot be simplistic. Bad philosophies lead to bad policy which nations take time to recover from. Mr Bhagwat cites the case of development.

He cites the 1951 UN report, which claims that ancient philosophies and old institutions have to go if development is to become possible. He condemns the proclamation as insensitive and materialist, a philosophy forced on the world. In October 2005, the leaders of G-20 countries recognised that there is no uniform development approach that fits all countries. By 2008, the World Bank sees this as conventional knowledge. Mr Bhagwat suggests we dig deep into our philosophy and its style of life, use energy which provides the life-blood of terms like sustainability or holism. He turns almost Gandhian in his search to prioritise small industries, small traders and farmers. The question one has to ask is while the BJP, Mr Modi and the RSS share power, do they share similar or common ideas of development? This is not clear.

There are two interesting changes in tone. His concern for demography is more policy rather than politics oriented. It is about balancing manpower and resources. Mr Bhagwat has secularised the demographic question. It is no longer the Malthusian dread that Muslims might multiply faster than Hindus. He claims the need to go beyond vote bank politics to formulate a holistic approach applicable to all citizens.

Mr Bhagwat remarks that law can create institutional charge but psychic change — a change in mentality and attitudes — is difficult and more demanding. He cites the controversy over Santara or bal deeksha (the initiation of children as recluse) and says that this needs introspection, that the legislator has to work with the acharyas to bring about change. There is none of the cussedness of the Dinanath Batras and the legislators of the new syllabus. In fact, his comments on education are benign, more open-ended. There is no reference to the current mayhem around education, no appeals to the new Rams to slay the Ravans of the educational system.

He celebrates Indian diversity, but reduces it to Hindu culture and values. India as a civilisation of multiple religions, where Christianity is older than the West and where there are more Muslims than in Pakistan seems distant. He suggests that the RSS has been a nation builder and a culture builder for years. He is right in stating that a nation cannot be built on contract, but he says little about how a sacramental idea of a nation based on diversity can be worked out.

There is an exclusiveness in his theory of inclusion. All in all, it is a benign speech — the problem is in its silences. It formulates a normative ideal which is not diverse enough and the way it mixes narratives it is not clear whether Mr Modi or Nagpur is setting out the normative bases of the future.

As an analysis of the present it is wanting. The doubts come when present and past are mingled and difference as divisiveness lack a dynamic of unity. As a statement Mr Bhagwat’s speech is welcome, and one hopes our democracy debates and discusses it, not as isolated nuggets but as a prelude to one systemic articulation of a new India which needs to be debated, challenged and desanitised.

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