Ask any Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh official about the organisation’s interest in politics and you will usually receive some version of a stock reply: the RSS is an apolitical, socio-cultural organisation involved in social (and cultural) work. In reality, of course, the Sangh exerts a profound influence on the Bharatiya Janata Party on many fronts, from policy framing to selection of leaders.
The organisation has remained largely away from the political spotlight during this election. But at least in Varanasi, centrestage in this year’s electoral war, a closer look reveals that it is not the BJP, but the Sangh that has been the engine powering the campaign.
A nagar karyavaha—a mid-level RSS worker—whom I met in the city used an unusual, if telling, metaphor to describe the RSS’s role in the campaign. “You see this hand?” he said, holding up his palm. “You can only see the palm lines and it is clean. The millions of microorganisms will only be visible under a microscope. Similarly, the Sangh workers are invisible, but always at work.” Portraits of the RSS’s first and second sarsanghchalaks, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar and Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, stared down from the wall behind him. The karyavaha explained that the RSS workers had been instructed that this was a “karo ya maro” (do or die) election for them. At the same time, they were never to “cross the line,” and were to avoid being seen actively campaigning. “The instructions given are: never go to the BJP office, don’t hold the BJP flag, don’t be seen on the BJP stage, don’t use Modi’s name in pamphlets, et cetera,” he said.
At one point during our conversation, the karyavaha received a phone call from Praful Patel, a former home minister of Gujarat, who was in town to help with Narendra Modi’s campaign, and wanted to enquire about a meeting later that day in Mahamanapuri Colony, which fell within the karyavaha’s area. That evening I went to the meeting, an unofficial open-house where locals came to meet Patel, and where he looked into certain aspects of campaigning. Most of the workers present were from the RSS. “If you don’t work for your own man, when will you work?” Patel said to them with a smile, just before leaving.
While the “Gujarat model” of development has been discussed to death this election, the “Gujarat model” of campaigning, being implemented by Amit Shah in Varanasi, has received less attention. Shashi Kumar Singh, the sampark pramukh—also a mid-level RSS worker—for the Ganganagar area, explained it to me. “The RSS aim is to reach every house in the constituency,” he said. “So they have divided the responsibility.” A “booth prabhari,” or booth in-charge, oversees a certain number of booths in the constituency. Under the booth prabhari is the panna prabhari, or page in-charge. “A panna prabhari is given the responsibility to reach out to 60 voters listed on two sides of a page of the voter list,” Shashi said.
To get a sense of the penetration of the RSS campaign, consider that the number of voters in the Varanasi constituency has been reported at around 17.6 lakh, spread across 1562 booths. Thus the average number of voters per booth is roughly around 1130—at 60 voters per panna prabhari, that makes around 19 panna prabharis per booth.
“In traditional campaigning, the responsibility stayed with the heads of various levels,” said Mahitosh Narayan Singh, a transport contractor who is the booth prabhari of the Nagwa area, overseeing ten booths. “This time, however big someone is, they have been given the responsibility of a booth.” The panna prabhari system, has been successfully implemented in three assembly elections in Gujarat, and has “energised the cadre,” he said. “We told them that the Sangh has chosen you to take care of the 60 voters. Nobody gave them this kind of a responsibility or purpose before.”
I accompanied Ramagya Pandey, a schoolteacher, on a visit to Nagwa, where he is prabhari of booth number 282. “I have been told to reach out to everybody and ask for a vote,” Pandey told me. “And to not argue with the supporters of the opposition. It also gives us a chance to know who is on our side.” As he went from house to house, asking people to vote, he meticulously noted the phone numbers of each voter on the list. “On the day of polling if they don’t turn up, we can call them up and ask them to come,” he said.
Pandey had heard that the BJP cadre had failed in their task to gather voter names and numbers. “Some of the names they gave turned out to be fake,” he said. “But when the Sangh takes up a job, they take the full responsibility.” He added, with unmistakable pride: “The party workers expect money, but we spend every single penny from our own pocket.”
The RSS’s campaign offices in Varanasi are in the localities of Godowlia, Sigra and Lanka. They are tucked away in quiet corners, with no signboards, though the RSS’s saffron flag does fly over the buildings. Amit Shah, the BJP’s campaign manager for Uttar Pradesh, inaugurated a new BJP campaign office in Sigra in early April in the ground floor of a newly built apartment complex, but the real planning was carried out in the RSS offices, especially those in Sigra and Lanka. I got a sense of their significance when I visited the Sigra RSS office—just a kilometre or so from the BJP campaign office in the same area—and saw Amit Shah leave as I approached.
Jai Prakash, a senior leader—karyalay pramukh—who heads the Sigra office, claimed that the RSS’s activities did not constitute campaigning, and were only aimed at increasing the voting percentage. “Every person of 18 years should be registered as a voter, so we are going from house to house,” he said. “We are working for 80 percent voting in Varanasi this time.” (Varanasi registered only 42.6 percent voting in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.)
The RSS is distributing pamphlets under the banner of the Jagruk Matdaata Manch (Voters Awareness Association). The pamphlets urged voters to think about issues such as national security under the threat of terrorism and Maoism; shrinking borders and an incompetent government; the threat to national integration from votebank appeasement, communal thinking and other factors. “We tell them that we are choosing a PM not MP, so the national issues matter more than the local issues,” Mahitosh Singh told me.
In his office in Nadesar, I asked Rajendra Pratap Pandey, a lawyer who is a sanghchalak—a senior RSS leader—about the reason for the unusual zeal of RSS workers this time. Pandey, a 63-year-old with a delicate face and horizontal stripes of some sacred paste on his forehead, said: “Modi was not made in a day. He was being primed since 1999. He worked hard himself, too, and the Sangh gambled on him. We sent many to the BJP, we gave them certificates that they are devta (gods) but they all turned out to be daanav (demons). But he remained a devta.”
Pandey then recounted the moment that the RSS decided to invest their hopes in Narendra Modi. It was 1999 and the BJP was reeling from accusations that its president Bangaru Lakshman had taken a bribe. “The Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha of the RSS—you can say the RSS parliament of 239 elected representatives—was held in New Delhi,” Pandey said. “Pyarelal Khandelwal and Narendra Modi participated on behalf of the BJP. It was god’s grace that Modi came that day. He gave such a rousing speech that the senior Sangh leaders thought ‘Yeh humari nayya paar kar dega’ (He will help us reach our destination). And we gambled on him.”
This election, Pandey is in charge of the Lajpat Nagar area, which has 1,20,000 voters. On 23 April, a day before Modi filed his nomination from the constituency, Pandey held a meeting with the area’s RSS workers to explain the organisation’s role in the campaign. “It is like Modi’s wedding, for which 40 organisations of the RSS are working,” he recounted telling the workers. “The BJP is like the son’s friends, who dance and create a lot of noise. They take photos and get all the publicity. But the Sangh is like the groom’s father. We have to put up with them because they are important for the son. If Modi wins, the BJP cadre will take the credit; if he loses we will take all the blame.”
Modi was the only reason Pandey was working for this election. “It’s been 50 years in the RSS,” he said. “If it were not for Modi, I wouldn’t give seven hours every day for campaigning. I would’ve earned ten thousand per hour every day instead. I have not taken up any cases or appointments till 12 May.”
Pandey had no kind words for Murli Manohar Joshi, the sitting MP, who has a poor record in the constituency. “We had conducted 128 meetings for him but he never took care of us after he won,” he said. “The BJP leaders think the RSS cadre are their unpaid workers.” But based on his interactions with Gujarat’s Sangh workers, Pandey was sure that Modi and Shah wouldn’t behave in a similar fashion if he won. “We feel Modi and his men will treat us with the same respect after elections too,” he said. “I have been to Gujarat many times and interacted with the Sangh workers there, so I know they are unlike other BJP leaders. Maybe because they don’t drink alcohol and eat meat.”
Praveen Donthi is a Staff Writer at The Caravan. He is trained as a researcher in modern Indian history and became a journalist by accident. He has previously worked for Tehelka, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald.