The Bharatiya Janata Party’s announcement on Wednesday that it had reconstituted its two top decision-making bodies has once again brought into focus the complex and uneasy interplay of forces within the Sangh Parivar, the family of Hindutva organisations that have the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as their parent.

The reshuffle was notable mainly because some of the BJP’s most towering names have been dropped from the Parliamentary Board and Central Election Committee. It is being widely viewed as a measure to cut to size Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath.

But mainly, it demonstrates how the BJP’s leadership – by the all-powerful duo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah to be precise – has now put its unmistakable stamp of dominance on its patriarch, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It shows that the BJP under Modi in the most authoritative fashion has relegated the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to the background.

Some would ask why Gadkari, Chauhan and Adityanath’s exclusion from the two party bodies should be viewed this way. It is not because the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh sees them as indispensable in the Sangh Parivar’s scheme of things. Going by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s organisational philosophy, nobody is indispensable. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh does, however, see its supremacy in the Sangh Parivar as indispensable and inviolable.

A long process

Among the three that the BJP has dispensed with, Chauhan and Adityanath are not as representative of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as Gadkari is. For the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Gadkari is like a child born and brought up by the organisation in its home in Nagpur. Hence, one needs to look at Gadkari’s exclusion from the Parliamentary Board and Central Election Committee as yet another example of the dwindling of the primacy of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh compared to the BJP.

But this loss of primacy has not happened in a flash and without provocation from the patriarch. The things have come to this pass over the past two decades, with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh exercising its authority over the BJP in the first decade and beginning to pay for it over the next.

In this the tug-of-war, Gadkari has been used by both sides as a key player. In that sense, Gadkari is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s unintended victim – but the BJP’s intended target.

This tussle between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP goes back to the days of the National Democratic Alliance government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the late 1990s. Unhappy with Vajpayee and his deputy LK Advani for failing to adhere to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh agenda, the RSS, then led by KS Sudarshan, openly criticised Vajpayee and Advani, even asking them to step down and pave the way for younger leaders.

This exposed the folly of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s claim that all its allied organisations are independent and that the parent does not interfere in their activities.

The Vajpayee government eventually fell in 2004. While many analysts attributed its election loss to factors like Vajpayee government’s overzealous claim of national prosperity as reflected in its “Shining India” advertising campaign, it was clear that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pulled the rug from under the BJP’s feet by withdrawing its formidable support system.

This was also evident from the fact that senior Sangh functionaries blamed Vajpayee government’s fall on the fact that it did not care for Hindutva.

This had sent alarm bells ringing within the BJP. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh continued its paternalistic treatment of the BJP by catapulting Nitin Gadkari in as BJP president in December 2009. This was just about nine months after the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh itself underwent a change of guard, with current sarsanghchalak, Mohan Bhagwat, replacing the hot-headed K S Sudarshan. Clearly, Gadkari could not have been appointed BJP president without Bhagwat’s stamp of approval.

Gadkari, then 52, was a rank junior compared to top BJP leaders such as Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley. By appointing Gadkari as BJP president, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had only showed its poor understanding of the human aspect of politics. Although these senior BJP leaders were staunch Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh members and followers, they were thoroughly upset by Gadkari being put at the helm of the party.

Internecine war

An unseemly internecine war erupted within the party, with Gadkari on one side and the Advani camp on the other. This had led to people within the BJP feeding the media stories about alleged irregularities in the Purti Group pioneered by Gadkari. The drama ended the possibility of Gadkari getting second term as party president. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had miserably failed in its mission to get the BJP to fall in line. It continues to smart from that setback.

Thus, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which had exercised its formidable power against Vajpayee-Advani’s BJP in the decade between 2003-2012, had its first brush with a backlash from the BJP at the beginning of the next decade starting from 2013.

Around the same time, the BJP was witnessing the rise of Narendra Modi, with a groundswell of support for him to be appointed the prime ministerial candidate. Like Gadkari, Modi was a rank junior compared to those in the Advani camp and was, thus, unacceptable to them. Advani still had prime ministerial ambitions but Modi’s popularity was impossible to overcome.

During these tumultuous times, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was barely able to do anything. . Its hands were tied as Gadkari faced corruption charges and it had no grounds to complain about Modi. His so-called Gujarat model of development and championing of Hindutva left the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh no room to say or do anything to moderate his march to a virtually unchallengeable position within the BJP.

The mood and opinion within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was divided over Modi. While the organisation liked and was excited by Modi’s strident Hindutva, his domineering persona and his brash exhibition of self-importance were viewed with circumspection and scepticiism. “He is otherwise good but nurses permanent grudges [“deerghadweshi” in Marathi] against his critics even within the Sangh Parivar,” was the common refrain among Modi sceptics in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Modi eventually powered his way to the top and became prime minister in 2014. Having closely watched the tense BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh relationship from Vajpayee’s days, Modi crafted his way masterfully to the unassailable position in which is now. His enthusiastic championing of Hindutva ensured that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had nothing to complain about. Modi also ensured that his charismatic sway over voters continued to grow. He has proved that he does not need the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to be where he wants to, and do what he wants to.

His antagonism to Gadkari needs to be viewed in the context of events that unfolded between the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in days of the National Democratic Alliance government. His first strike against Gadkari was to deny him the position of chief minister of Maharashtra, a position Gadkari wanted to have. Not only that, Modi gave the position to Gadkari’s competitor from Nagpur, Devendra Fadnavis – another Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh favourite.

He continued to cut Gadkari to size by first taking away ministries like Ganga Rejuvenation and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises from him and now by removing from the party’s two top decision-making bodies.

This certainly cannot be to the liking of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh since Gadkari is among the swayamsevaks it painstakingly nurtured for leadership. However, it has no option but to swallow the bitter pill. If anything, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is only paying for using Gadkari as a pawn in its power tussle with the BJP.

Needless to say, Gadkari has been left to fend for himself.

Of course, individuals don’t matter much to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It can live without Gadkari just as it has lived without another of Modi’s betes noires, Sanjay Joshi. But this rather strenuous jostling with the BJP over the past two decades has put it in a situation it had never imagined – playing second fiddle to the BJP. It has proved itself vulnerable to one man called Modi, whose larger-than-life personality cult has cast a long shadow over it. As long as Modi is around, and followed by his alter ego Amit Shah, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh does not seem able to return to its position of primacy.

In fact, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh now needs Modi and Shah to stay on to win the next election too in 2024. If the BJP somehow loses the battle by falling short of a majority, the BJP might witness an internal upheaval. There would be a call for change of guard since Modi’s vote-catching ability would start getting questioned. If situation warrants hammering out a coalition with other parties, Gadkari would be the only acceptable face in the BJP. That might see the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh make calculated moves to re-establish its primacy by throwing its lot behind Gadkari.

But that’s only speculation. For now, all that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh can do it wait and watch.

Vivek Deshpande worked with The Indian Express and is now a freelance journalist in Nagpur.