NEW DELHI: Reservations, now slogans, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat does know how to tread the troubled waters. And effect a volte face when his ‘no reservations’ or ‘Bharat Mata ki jai is compulsory’ stance stirs the waters into a massive storm. As in Bihar where the reservations comment contributed to the BJP defeat at the hustings, even though Bhagwat retracted his comments mid way into the elections.

So why has Bharat Mata ki Jai suddenly moved from the ‘mandatory’ to the ‘voluntary’ sphere? What happened in the span of a few weeks, or for the RSS chief just a few days when on May 3 he declared, “Now the time has come when we have to tell the new generation to chant ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ (hail mother India). It should be real, spontaneous and part of all-round development of the youth”; and by March 28 he had shifted to, “We have to show the path to the world through our deeds and create such an India that there is 'Bharat Mata ki jai' across the world...We don't want to force is not to be imposed?”

This turn around has left the BJP in the lurch. More so as it had strongly defended the slogan, despite strong opposition with Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Venkaiah Naidu maintaining in Parliament that there was urgent need to instill the feeling of nationalism as "some people" have objections to chant 'Bharat Mata ki jai' and have the "habit of eulogising" anti-nationalist like Afzal Guru and Yakub Memon."They are being eulogised, you are holding festivals for them and questioning unity, integrity and sovereignty of the country. So, there is a need to instill a feeling of nationalism. Why should anyone have objection on saluting motherland?" he asked. The opposition had opposed this with CP(M) MP Sitaram Yechury saying, "Now to insist nationalism means only the slogan (Bharat Mata ki jai) that they want people to give is very very clearly an unfortunate replay of how (Adolf) Hitler used nationalism for the rise of fascism in Germany.”

So what happened for Bhagwat to change his mind? Veteran leader L.K.Advani described the controversy as “meaningless” just recently, refusing to even answer questions on the issue. But then Advani is now on the periphery of power, and certainly not in a position to influence decisions. The pressure most certainly did not come from the BJP that had cosied up to the slogan, and was strongly in support of it becoming the defining benchmark for nationalism judging from the debate in Parliament, and the exuberant defence mounted by its spokespersons. The affiliates of the Sangh were also supportive with in fact a few hard right sites expressing dismay over Mohan Bhagwat’s change of heart. A site “Struggle for Hindu Existence” carries an article after the RSS chief’s second statement expressing deep dismay over the decision, and maintaining that Owaisi and his likes must be very happy men today. Referring to media reports about Bhagwat’s seemingly more conciliatory statement, the article notes, “if this report is true with a video footage of Bharatiya Kishan Sangha’s press statement, this shift is highly derogatory to RSS ideology and obviously detrimental to the morale of crores of Swayamsevaks (volunteers) who fight for the dignity of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ in India.”

So again back to the question, what compelled Bhagwat to ‘soften’ his earlier statement. One main reason that eclipse the assessment that the first pronouncement had achieved what it was intended to, by feeding into the ‘nationalism’ debate and further pushing the target groups towards the defensive. In fact quite the opposite seems to have happened over March:

1. The Shiv Sena, a BJP ally, has upped the ante on Jammu and Kashmir asking the RSS/BJP whether it would ask PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti to chant ‘bharat mata ki jai.’ And whether she will, and what will the BJP do if she does not? Similar observations have also been made by some Opposition leaders, making it apparent that mandatory recitation of a slogan in India can become a double edged sword for even the BJP. More so as in Jammu and Kashmir the strategy seems to be to form the government with the regional party, and not place it under these pressures;

2. The target for the polarisation through this ‘mandatory’ recitation was intended to be the JNU, HCU students and the Muslims. However, these groups barely responded to this debate, with the students ignoring it altogether and the Muslims---except for Asaduddin Owaisi---also dismissing the issue as meaningless. In that the approach was that no one had any objection to the slogan, but only about the manner in which the issue was being raised. The Opposition in Parliament sounded more sane and sober on this, than the Ministers on this issue.The primary target groups thus remained, disinterested and dismissive of this effort.

3. And finally, most importantly, other groups that had clearly not been intended as targets entered the fray with passion. The Sikhs, the Dalits in particular reacted sharply against the move to make a slogan mandatory and criticised the government for this. In fact leaders from within these groups came out with alternative slogans as well. For instance, Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) president Simranjit Singh Mann asserted, “Sikhs don’t worship women in any form.Hence, they can’t chant this slogan.” He further added, “according to the BJP, one who doesn’t say ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ is not a patriot and can be tried for sedition...Sikhs should say ‘Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh.” Punjab is going to the elections soon. Dalit scholars and organisations also questioned and criticised the government on this with scholar Kancha Ilaiah suggesting ‘Bheem Bhoomi ki Jai” as an alternative. In other words, the RSS chief’s exhortation was proving to be more divisive than polarising in its impact.

In three words, it did not work.