What normalising the Sangh means for national security
Taking cue from old soldiers once under his ceremonial authority, a former supreme commander would have done well to fade away. But just as some retired generals these days attempting to prolong their fifteen minutes of fame, the former supreme commander in question, Pranab Mukherjee, early this month chose to reenter the limelight by gracing a passing out function of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at Nagpur.
A skeptical interpretation has it that he was positioning himself for 2019, when, with the Modi wave expended, he might emerge as a consensus candidate in the prime ministerial musical chairs for the divided opposition. Unflattering biographies have it that he has nursed a repeatedly-thwarted prime ministerial ambition. The commentary detected an octogenarian lining up for his last chance. Be that as it may, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee’s foray has implications beyond his political future.
His is but the latest attempt at mainstreaming the RSS. So far, the Sangh has inveigled its way into India’s imagination, almost Chinese-like in biding its time. While Pranabda’s favour has been rather up-front and visible, quite like the evening ritual of talking heads at the idiot box constantly pitching its line, less intrusive, innocuous methods are constantly at play. Such as for instance the confabulations of the male lead with his shakha mates on over the innocent topic of a hefty wife-to-be in the national award-winning film, Dam Lage Ke Haisha.
Increasing comfort levels with the RSS and its ideology among people and its insinuation into our lives and consciousness as an unremarkable – if not positively enticing - entity is underway. The strategy is three-pronged: usher the RSS to respectability while out-shouting those calling this out, even as a smoke-screen is built in the form of Maoists and jihadists as primary threats to national security.
Alongside cooptation (as with Mr. Mukherjee), every effort is made to deter and threaten those who reveal the effort and the not-so-hidden agenda. Trolling and motivated law suits are perhaps the least dangerous manner of going about this. The killings of rationalists down south and the threats to life and intimidation of journalists, intellectuals and activists - the ever-growing list which includes Barkha Dutt, Rana Ayyub, Umar Khalid, Teesta Setalvad, Arundhati Roy – is a more direct method.
This also explains the social-media assault on Rahul Gandhi. He was spot-on in his wiki-leaked conversation with a US diplomat citing the threat from the far right as the more significant one, picked over Manmohan Singh’s famous reference to the Maoists as such. This prompted the undercutting of Mr. Gandhi’s credibility by the troll brigade, using by the now all-too-familiar memes and themes, such as ‘pappu’ (in contrast to the seemingly masterful communicator, Mr. Narendra Modi).
The RSS’s effort to move centerstage from the fringe is understandable. It is also explicable that affiliated organisations, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that stand to profit electorally from the RSS ballast as footsoldiers at election time, would be party to the effort. Given that the RSS-BJP relationship is no secret, it is not unreasonable anymore to expect six central ministers going into a huddle with the RSS samooh (group of RSS wings) as happened last month. The message is that the RSS is not untouchable but is instead the fountainhead of wisdom on governance.
Normalising of the RSS thus is to be unmindful of its concept of nation and nationhood and the dissonance it brings into India’s sense of self. Importantly, it upends democracy, making it synonymous with majoritarianism. Inability of India to keep extremist ideologies from electorally taking over the state is evidence of a deficit in its national security.
The danger is not only from the close and present danger, but from the deliberate deletion of this threat from discussions in the strategic community. It is as though by design that there is no mention of the threat that saffron extremism poses in India’s mainstream strategic publications. Though the threat is registered in liberal and leftist circles, they are long marginalized. The strategic community not only does not sound the alert, but actively obfuscates.
The inability to distinguish between an unexceptionable conservative-realist perspective – as can be expected to dominate in strategic discourse in India as elsewhere - and ideology-contaminated strategic penetration compounds India’s national security predicament. This indicates, as with other institutions and discourse spaces, the right-wing reigns in seminar rooms and think tanks.
Evidence is in the more prominent best-funded think tanks are but platforms for propagation of cultural nationalism. The official - autonomous - think tanks, that are government money funded, have on their rolls ideological warriors who drive out and tamp down debate. Many of these ‘strategists’ – mostly veterans of the armed forces - hop between think tanks taking their vile wares with them. This writer has over the past three months had to write in to three such think tanks reminding them of their editorial duty as gate keepers of professional opinion and knowledge spaces, to keep the strategic discourse uncontaminated by extremist trope. A result is in a paradigm dominance of sorts and a monocular strategic discourse.
The threat is kept under wraps from citizens, fed on the inanities on the sometimes combined jihadist and Maoist threats. The mere 47-odd adherents from India of the Islamic State are projected as a national security calamity. The arrest last week of five Maoists of an urban cell is hyped, in this case, with the implausible finding of a letter on gun-running from one of them.
The resounding silence on the Hindutva threat in national security terms is music to the ears of the national security establishment. Currently, it is headed by a national security adviser with well-known affiliations and reputation of being the right-hand man of a prime minister who was once an RSS pracharak. The establishment can be trusted to be oblivious to the threat and can be expected to be unwilling to hear otherwise.
A simple illustration on the implication of selective listening by those charged with national security is the letting-off of saffron terrorists in terrorism cases, no doubt by a whisper from the investigation agency to willing listeners in the judiciary. These put paid to India’s long standing global advocacy against terrorism and its Pakistan-targeted distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists.
Graver implications may arise in 2019, when power will be up for grabs. The national security threat from the far right at the juncture, possibility mediated by elements within the state, bears watch. The strategic community needs reappraising its complicity so far, while minders within the national security system need standing up to power. An intention to stare down intimidation – even if emanating from within the system - can deter, prevent, and, at a pinch, retrieve the situation. It is precisely for this reason the Sangh is playing footsie and personages who should know better playing along.