The Media’s Hate-Hate Relationship With The Sangh

by Praful Shankar - Sep 27, 2016 03:19 PM +05:30 IST
The Media’s Hate-Hate Relationship With The Sangh Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Indian Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) speaks during a rally. (Getty Images)
  • The media loves to play up the supposed ‘regressive’ nature of the RSS and its members

    The continued disdainful and superficial analysis of the organisation at a time when it is more influential than ever before is perplexing

After the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) convincing win in the Assam assembly elections just over a month ago, the usual rounds of post-electoral pontificating went on in the media in the presence of India’s ‘intellectual’ class. Grudging respect was given to the efforts of the Prime Minister (PM), the BJP President Amit Shah, the Chief Ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal, and the party’s election strategist for the state, Himanta Biswas Sarma.

The credit given to them was unquestionably deserved. The BJP win in Assam would not have been possible but for the towering popularity of the PM, the credibility of Sonowal as a potential Chief Minister, the political acumen of the BJP President, and the spectacular campaign management skills of Himanta Biswas Sarma.

One name that went missing in most media discussions around Assam was that of Ram Madhav, the General Secretary of the BJP in charge of the state.

Ever since Ram Madhav was deputed to the BJP from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) two years ago, he has played a key role in two of the party’s most remarkable electoral performances, Assam and Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

In Assam, Ram Madhav’s quiet work behind the scenes in leveraging the reach of the RSS network, along with his deft management of the BJP’s state unit, set the foundations for what eventually became a landslide win.

Ram Madhav
Ram Madhav

In J&K, his role went beyond election management, extending into the creating of an unlikely alliance with the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). He had worked painstakingly with Haseeb Drabu of the PDP to create the Agenda of Alliance – a political document of remarkable maturity, so much so that it continues to serve as a framework for the alliance, even after the change in leadership at the top, from Mufti Mohammed Saeed to his more ideologically rigid daughter, Mehbooba Mufti.

Yet, despite these impressive achievements – in particularly difficult terrain and in a relatively short period – most mainstream English media outlets have chosen to look the other way, preferring to direct their energies on analysing – in a seemingly never-ending cycle – ‘game-changing’ electoral strategies around the entry of Priyanka Vadra into Uttar Pradesh (UP) politics.

This act of looking away is, in a way, symptomatic of how the English media chooses to view and portray the Sangh Parivar and its constituents. To portray Ram Madhav, who first rose to media prominence as an erudite and forceful media face of the RSS, in any vein other than the one reserved for ‘communal and regressive RSS apparatchiks’ would be akin to sacrilege for today’s ‘liberal’ journalists in search of soundbites.

While the media’s condescension and ignorance towards the Sangh are by no means a recent phenomenon, the continued disdainful and superficial analysis of the organisation at a time when it is more influential than ever before is perplexing.

Because the Sangh, for almost all of its history, has shunned the Nehruvian narrative and chosen to operate outside (and challenge) the Congress ecosystem, it has been accorded the post of the primary ‘persona non grata’ at the high tables of Lutyens’ Delhi.

As almost any journalist would tell you off the record, playing to the Congress’ caricature of the Parivar is almost necessary for one to ingratiate themselves with the leftist intelligentsia and their political masters.

Successive decades of following this unwritten code and a dramatic drop in the standards of journalism in recent times have led to a situation where finding a mainstream scribe with anything more than the usual ‘Hindu, communal, regressive’ point of view on the Sangh is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

For a long period post-independence, the media could get away with this ignorance. Until the onset of the Emergency, the Jan Sangh was not a major political player, and the RSS-Congress battle-lines were not fully drawn. Even during the post-Emergency and pre-Ram Janmabhoomi years, it was not quite clear whether the challenge for the Congress would come from the Janata Parivar or the Sangh Parivar.

But ever since the BJP veteran LK Advani changed the dynamics of Indian polity through his Rath Yatra, it has been clear that the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar are major players in the socio-political dynamics of India.

This situation has only been further accentuated by the ascent of Narendra Modi to Prime Ministership and rapid expansion of the BJP’s base by its current President, Amit Shah (both of whom, incidentally, are longstanding victims of the media’s dislike of the RSS).

Despite these events, which would call for honest introspection on the part of the naysayers, the media and New Delhi’s ‘intelligentsia’ have only chosen to dig their trenches a bit deeper. It is not uncommon to read patronising opinion-editorials and articles on how much the Sangh is bereft of ‘intellectuals’, about its ‘communal’ orientation, or how far it is removed from the hopes and aspirations of new-age Indians.

While these pieces might result in the regular rounds of applause from within the Lutyens’ echo chambers, ground-level realities are different from what they suggest.

Today, the Sangh itself is one of the largest non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the world, with a membership conservatively approximated at around five million. Formed in 1925, it has managed to expand its base over the years with, it must be said, very little support from the establishment before 1999.

Among its affiliates are India’s largest student body, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and India’s largest trade union organisation, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh.

Seva Bharati, another affiliate aimed at working with the marginalised sections of the country (formed by the former Sarsanghchalak Balasaheb Deoras), runs some welfare programs like medical assistance, free education, and vocational training through a nationwide network of over 10,000 centres, extending to 602 districts.

The Sangh’s political affiliate, the BJP is in power nationally and in 12 states across the country, ruling over a little under half of the country’s population. Two of India’s most popular national leaders in recent times – Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi – come from its stable, as do a host of some of the country’s most successful Central and Chief Ministers.

These are achievements that would not have been possible for an organisation without intrinsic intellectual and execution capabilities.

But the contradictions between the media narrative and reality don’t end there. The media loves to play up the supposed ‘regressive’ nature of the RSS and its members. However, what they fail to mention is that the Sangh has been one of the first organisations in India to preach openly and work against caste discrimination.

In recent times, various high-ranking representatives of the Sangh have spoken in favour of the entry of women into all temples, expanding priesthood to all castes, and decriminalising gay sex.

The recent Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha – the highest-decision making body of the RSS – ended with a resolution espousing genuinely liberal causes like the extension of affordable healthcare and education to all.

The two Prime Ministers from the Sangh ecosystem, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, have been at the forefront of attempts to create an India built around modern technological advances while also pursuing contemporary economic agendas.

Also to be considered is the fact that the Sangh, which is a volunteer-based organisation enlisting membership on the basis of nothing more than a ‘call to service’, has still managed to play critical roles in seemingly reward-less movements, like the fight against the Emergency. It has also spearheaded numerous relief programs at the time of major disasters from the 1971 Orissa cyclone to the 2001 Gujarat earthquake to the recent Chennai floods.

Unlike the Congress and its related power structures, it has shunned any dynastic or feudal tendencies. Suffice to say, when the likes of Narendra Modi attended their first shakha, the chance of any political power would have been farthest from his mind - quite a contrast with most Congress entrants, who seem to consider ministerships their birthright.

Such aspects of the Sangh’s past and present have been continuously ignored and – at times – even altered by the media establishment, allowing rumours and innuendo to be presented before their audiences as facts.

Take, for instance, the case of Kanhaiya Kumar, who, during his 15 minutes of fame, roared in the JNU campus that the late Sarsanghchalak Golwalkar had met the Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. During the multi-channel fawning over what was a very standard speech from a Leftist student leader, not one channel or newspaper considered checking and pointing out that Kanhaiya’s claim was factually wrong.

Kanhaiya Kumar in JNU after his release (CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)
Kanhaiya Kumar in JNU after his release (CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)

Such a correction would have disturbed the cosy media narrative around the Sangh and exposed the hollowness of similar allegations raised routinely from the Left. Which is probably why the slight was ignored, and Kanhaiya was allowed to propound his imaginary conspiracy theories.

While it is expected that the BJP’s adversaries would look to spread misinformation about the larger Parivar, the complicity of the media – who are expected to be neutral or at the very least, truthful – in spreading such lies is truly inexplicable. It would seem that ‘Sangh Mukth Bharat’ is a dream that is not exclusive to just the BJP’s political opponents.

Note: An earlier version of this article wrongly spelt Mr Himanta Biswa Sarma’s name. That error has now been corrected.

Praful Shankar is a political enthusiast and tweets at @shankarpraful.

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