When the supremo of the RSS Mohan Bhagwat reads out the preamble of India declaring it to be ‘Socialist, Secular, democratic republic’ and recites the famous poem of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore ‘Where the head is held high and the mind is without fear’, it is certainly not an ordinary sight. There has to be some compelling reason that an organisation which has prided itself as the protector and promoter of exclusivist Hindu identity under the overarching category of cultural nationalism of majoritarian variety suddenly feels the need to project an image of inclusion and moderation. It needs to be understood against the context in which it has been delivered and the overall socio-political situation that prevails in India at this point of time.

The three day lecture series at Vigyan Bhawan was initially projected as an occasion where all political parties including Congress will be called to participate in a genuine exchange of views on contemporary issues. However, it actually turned out to be an event organized to give the RSS Sarsangh Chalak an occasion to explain its ideological and political position. Indeed Mohan Bhagwat made a strong pitch seeking to give RSS a more moderate, inclusive, democratic and open image.

There is no doubt that his speech genuinely covered most of the contentious issues which give RSS a hardline, rightwing, communal image. Mohan Bhagwat’s speech sought to prove that RSS and its leaders like K.B.Hedgewar and Savarkar were fired by the patriotic desire, that they were anti-British freedom fighters and nationalists. He also said that RSS believes in the Indian Constitution and it does not oppose reservations. The anti-Muslim label of RSS and the accusation that it is a non-democratic organisation was also sought to be dispelled in the three part speech of Mohan Bhagwat. From Cow Vigilantism to Uniform Civil Code, Ram Mandir to Article 370, conversion to imbalance in population profile, LGBTQ rights to the Presidential form of government and NOTA, the speech touched upon almost all aspects which relate to RSS and the contemporary politics in India. In that sense, the three day lecture series gave the most comprehensive RSS perspective on all issue under the sun. For a long time to come, it would remain a reference point on RSS view on these issues.

However, it remains a mystery as to why did RSS feel the need to undertake this exercise at a time when the BJP led NDA government at the centre is at the fag end of its tenure. On the face of it, one can argue that it was an attempt to broad-base the RSS and leverage its strong position today to further expand its support base. But a deeper analysis of the event reveals that it was a defensive exercise, a desperate effort at image makeover. It would be wrong to look for any fundamental changes in the position of RSS on its core ideological position. Nothing of that sort happened during this event.

On the most central issue concerning the identity of RSS viz its understanding of Hindutva, the RSS Supremo used a clever mix of semantic obfuscation to equate Hindutva with India. Play upon words and an attempt to manipulate some conceptual categories like nation and secularism have been the standard ploys used by RSS to push its agenda of majoritarian nationalism. Mohan Bhagwat built his entire edifice of argument peppered with folk wisdom and religious symbolism to imply that all those who live in India are Hindus and therefore India is a Hindu nation. By this logic Muslims and Christians and all others are Hindus because they are Indians. Those who don’t believe in it need to be convinced since they have perhaps other ‘material considerations’ to do so. How innocent and ingenuous an argument!

Cow vigilantism and mob lynching are worrying aspects for RSS since it has a disproportionate impact on tarnishing the image of Hindutva groups. In a bid to damage control, Mohan Bhagwat did say that any kind of violence was wrong and needs to be tackled appropriately. But he added that one should not ignore the sentiments of the majority community and people should also talk about the attacks by cow-smugglers.

He spent a long part of his speech calling for celebrating diversity in India but did not explain whether it gave right to people to eat food including beef according to their own cultural practices and liking and practice their religion and faith freely. It was a vacuous celebration of diversity which tried to evade the soul of diversity i.e. a genuine respect and acceptance of differences in people’s life, culture and belief as it goes against the homogenising ideology of RSS.

Mohan Bhagwat reiterated the standard RSS position on Art 370 and 35 relating to J&K, that it should be scrapped. On Uniform Civil Code though he said that a consensus needs to be built before it is to be implemented. The recent Supreme Court judgement decriminalising homosexuality drew a conflicting response from RSS exposing its dilemma on the subject. Mohan Bhagwat seemed to reluctantly agree that homosexuals too have a right to live peacefully but he categorised it as an ‘unhealthy state of being’ for which effort should be done to cure it or normalise such people.

But the more problematic and dangerous formulations of RSS were reflected on his views on ‘changing population profile’ of certain areas. He advocated measures for demographic control for people who are not in a position to afford larger number of children. One can only guess what measures he had in mind on this issue.

Mohan Bhagwat was categorical and emphatic that the construction of Ram Mandir on the Babri Masjid site must be done soon using ‘whatever means’ required. This gives a certain indication of the possible direction of future politics for the RSS-BJP family.

Clearly, the overall position of RSS on its core issues remains unchanged. Of course, Mohan Bhagwat was quite defensive talking about some of the extreme views expressed in the book ‘Bunch of thought’ by M.S.Golwalkar. He said those were relevant only in the context of the times and now only the ‘edited’, sanitised version of this book should be taken as authentic.

But the entire exercise betrayed a certain worry and nervousness about the future direction of politics in India. RSS was compelled to come out and explain its position in moderate and soft words on core issues. More than anything else it is an expression of defeatism in the face of political reality that prevails in the country today. It is obvious that in the fifth and final year of NDA government, there has been hardly any progress on the core issues of RSS. For example, the BJP-PDP alliance in J&K has done it more damage than good. There has been no progress on doing away with Art. 370 or 35, though BJP has been making some noise from time to time for public consumption.

Issues like Ram Janma Bhoomi and Uniform Civil Code have been put on back burner. Attempt to project Triple Talaq as a polarising issue has also failed. The BJP government at the centre has not been able to make any fundamental or complete change in the educational structure of the country despite its professed position. Removing a Nehru here and including an additional paragraph on Maharana Pratap there is not what RSS thinks to be the change required in the way students learn about India’s past and the processes which drive the course of society.

The Swadeshi element of the economy remains stuck where it was. In fact, it seems to be retreating further with the possibility of opening of multi brand retail for multinational companies. The foreign affairs policy vis a vis Pakistan displays more signs of being directionless than anything else. Overall, there has been little progress on the agenda that RSS hoped to achieve during this period.

Coupled with this, there has been a deep disenchantment with the government in large sections of society. Traditional supporters of BJP-RSS such as small and medium businessmen may have voted for it in Gujarat etc, but they have become muted and neutral in view of losses suffered due to GST and demonetisation. Dalits have been alienated and the sub-caste division strategy of Dalits adopted by the BJP may have lasted its effectiveness. Upper castes are showing signs of being restive and becoming disillusioned with the BJP. Students and youth suffer on account of unemployment and are becoming agitated across the country.

The rising oil prices, falling rupee, a shaky banking sector, taint of Mallya- Nirav Modi- Choksi kind of people fleeing the country under the nose of the government and with its possible collusion, questions raised over Rafale fighter deal and similar other issues are taking the sheen off the BJP government. The allies of BJP are grumpy. The ‘maro-maro kato kato’ narrative of mob-lynchers and cow-vigilantes is increasingly painting BJP-RSS family in a gruesome, uncivilised and dangerous light. The impending state elections in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, despite the secret desire of BJP to postpone these somehow to be held with Parliament elections, are causes of deep worry for the BJP. Pinning all hopes on opposition disunity and absence of a consensus face for the 2019 elections may be too thin a thread for the current dispensation to hang on to for its future.

RSS realises the gravity of the situation. It knows that its growth and expansion has hit a plateau despite favourable institutional situation and plenty of resources. Obviously, RSS understands that when it has not been able to achieve any substantial progress on its core issues at a time when it is at the apogee of its strength, future is going to be grim and unpredictable. The need to project a more reasonable and soft image among the disenchanted people who had bought into the Modi narrative of development and anti-corruption plank is clearly discernible in the event organised by RSS.