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Yes, RSS looking to do a Modi in UK. But not in conflict with PM

Kaveree Bamzai
Kaveree BamzaiJun 25, 2016 | 16:10

Yes, RSS looking to do a Modi in UK. But not in conflict with PM

Walter Andersen's The Brotherhood in Saffron, The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism, co-written with Sridhar Damle, remains one of the most authoritative books on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

A longtime scholar and observer of India, the director, South Asia Studies Program, School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University, is currently teaching graduate classes in China.

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There is no competition with Modi or BJP - but close coordination.

Kaveree Bamzai asked him about the news that RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat would be heading to London to have an interfaith dialogue with the Archbishop of Canterbury and have the beef ban endorsed by international celebrities such as Leonardo Di Caprio and Richard Branson - a development first reported by DailyO.

Among other things, he talks of Subramanian Swamy's role as a publicist for the party and how the Narendra Modi government has done rather well on several fronts.

Q. On the proposed meeting between RSS sarsanghchalak and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Does this signal a change for the RSS, in that they now want to be seen as a purely religious organisation?

A. The meeting with the Archbishop and the testimonials do not signal a move to being a religious organisation. The RSS was not established as a religious organisation and this sarsanghchalak is definitely not a religious figure (with religion usually referring to a metaphysical objective). Hinduism as a religion is far too diverse.

Q. What is the implication for Hinduism which doesn't have one religious authority?

A. Hinduism does not have a single authority as is common in the Semitic religions like Islam and Christianity. That diversity allows enormous differences in belief systems and the RSS has even praised this diversity of religious thought.

Q. But clearly, the RSS is looking for international recognition? Is it not unusual?

A. Yes, definitely looking for international recognition. But it has long maintained an effort to have international links - and its overseas branches are called the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh and it works closely with the overseas branches of its affiliates (for example, VHP) on joint ventures aimed at preserving Indian culture and uniting for joint efforts (like organising overseas rallies for Prime Minister Narendra Modi).

Q. Are they in competition with prime minister Modi who has been reaching out to the diaspora?

A. There is no competition with Modi or BJP - but close coordination.

Q. What do you think of the RSS' role in this government in terms of appointments of people like Subramanian Swamy who has said building of Ram Mandir is on the agenda?

A. Subramanian Swamy is a publicist for the party and therefore has a useful function in the rough and tumble of Indian politics. He is a fearless debater and very smart. You do not want to confront him in a debate. His American counterpart was the late William F Buckley Jr.

He, in fact, is probably more independent-minded than is typical in the BJP. I have known Swamy for some 40 years and can guarantee that he is a wonderful conversational partner and a stimulating thinker, though I often disagree with him. But he takes that in his stride.

Q. How do you assess the Modi government so far, especially its impact on the social fabric?

A. One's assessment of Modi government depends on what aspect one looks. All in all, it has done rather well by several criteria: Modi remains very popular in every poll I have seen and there is no other national politician who comes close.

India's economy continues to grow (it is the fastest-growing among the large economies) and the often unpublicised regulatory reforms have made India an easier place to do business according to criteria to measure ease of doing business. Arvind Panagariya has done a brilliant (and quiet) job in reforming India's regulatory system.

It has still more to do and low-level bureaucratic corruption is still rampant. However, there have been very few instances of corruption at high levels of government, in marked contrast to the previous government. On the social fabric, the fears that many expressed when Modi came to power have not happened and there is much hyperbole (the overuse of the word fascism in India) in the rhetoric.

There no doubt is wariness and perhaps a kind of self-censorship that responds to a definite emphasis on India's Hindu cultural framework (for example, yoga, the epics) and there are the far right radicals who generate fear because of their extremist triumphalism. 

The prime minister has criticised this for, among other things, getting in the way of his development agenda, but he will have to be more assertive to rein in the far right of the Sangh Parivar.   

Q. Are you expecting trouble in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh elections just as there were in Muzaffarnagar in 2014?

A. Elections in UP are always rough and tumble and I expect that again. India however has rules and there is some effort to enforce them. But given the importance of controlling the executive, all sides play rough to win.

Q. What do you think of the economic changes the government has brought about?

A. I am in China and consensus here is that prime minister Modi has done a good job and that suits Chinese interests as the declining Chinese economy needs markets and a developing - and growing - India is a prime target.

Q. How would you compare Mr Modi's relationship with the RSS to that of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and RSS?

A. Modi has a far closer relationship with the RSS than Vajpayee did, as you had a sarsanghchalak then who often disagreed openly with Vajpayee, especially on issues of economic reform.

The RSS leadership then (and to a certain extent now) has always been closer to a model of small enterprises and suspicious of the large as it is suspicious about the entry of foreign money, which often funds big business.

Last updated: June 27, 2016 | 11:41
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