The all-important Dussehra speech of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat on Wednesday must have come as surprise to commentators who barely four days before had been taken aback by statements of the organisation’s general secretary , Dattatreya Hosable, painting a grim picture of the Indian economy.

Hosabale reeled out damning statistics to make his point. He even cited a United Nations’ report to back up his contentions – even as the Bharatiya Janata Party government headed by Narendra Modi has vehemently rejected all claims that India’s economy is on a downslide.

In sharp contrast, Bhagwat said that the economy was recovering fast and is slated to improve even further.

The mutually exclusive positions taken by the organisation’s topmost leaders appear all the more baffling given the impression held by some observers that Hosabale is the Modi-Shah pick in Sangh parivar and Bhagwat is one with whom Modi has no real connection.

The question, therefore, is: what is the real view of the RSS, which is the parent of the BJP?

The answer is: both.

The method

That may sound odd but there is a method in this apparent madness. It is simply the proverbial carrot and stick policy. When Hosabale spoke about poverty, unemployment and economic disparity at an event organised by RSS affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch, this was clearly aimed at signalling to the Modi government that it must take notice of these problems ahead of the 2024 elections.

On the other hand, the RSS chief’s annual Dussehra speech in Nagpur, where the organisation was founded by KB Hedgewar in 1925, has never been the occasion for sermons to be given to citizens or to the outfits that constitute the parivar, the broad family of political groups that owe allegiance to it. It has, instead, always been the platform for the RSS to engage in grandstanding, to project itself as the philosopher king pontificating on India’s problems – and suggesting possible solutions.

So it isn’t surprising that Bhagwat did not persist with the line that Hosabale had taken only days before.

The RSS is adept at confusing its critics and observers by its equivocality on issues. It has done this several times before. For instance, in 2010, when the media had speculated that the RSS was about to change its uniform from khaki shorts to trousers, the Hindutva organisation simply put the plan off for another time. Similarly, when there was speculation about seven years ago that Hosabale was slated to replace Bhayyaji Joshi as general secretary, the organisation continued with Joshi despite his health problems.

The idea is to prove critics wrong and just keep them guessing. That is one of the chief strategies the organisation has employed throughout its existence of 97 years.

While observers might look at this as prevarication or obfuscation, the RSS chooses to describe this as flexibility. When Bhagwat referred in his speech on Wednesday to flexibility (“lachilapan”, he said in Hindi), he was trying to counter the critics who look view the RSS as a status quoist, Hindu revivalist organisation.

The biggest example of this so-called flexibility is in the RSS definition of “Hindu”. While most previous Sarsanghchalaks have clearly defined Hindus as people born in Hindu families, the RSS under Bhagwat has tried to appear inclusive by defining Hindus as anyone born in India – no matter if they are members of different panths (sects).

The so-called flexibility of RSS can also be seen as a smart repositioning of its ideas to allow it to steer clear of the tag of being a “regressive and communal force”.

On Wednesday, Bhagwat not only refrained from saying anything negative about the Modi government’s performance, he also echoed the new line taken by the prime minister in his Independence Day speech.

Modi had called upon Indians to be dutiful to the country through what he referred to as the “Panch Pran” – the goal of making India a developed nation by 2047 by removing any traces of a colonial mindset, taking pride in our roots, ensuring unity among the people, and following their duties and responsibilities. As if to underscore this, his government a few days later announced that Delhi’s iconic Rajpath (the Road of State) would be renamed Kartavya Path (the Road of Duty).

The role of citizens

Of course, there is nothing new in this as far as the RSS is concerned. The RSS has always maintained the government cannot be expected to do everything and that the society must pitch in with its own contribution (samaj ko karna padega). On Wednesday, however, Bhagwat laid extra emphasis on the duties of citizens as a prerequisite for the nation’s success.

“We will have to cooperate with the government and administration,” Bhagwat said. “Rules and laws change but unless we change from within, nothing will change.” He cited new initiatives of the Modi government such as the cleanliness drive and campaign to promote entrepreneurship.

Bhagwat also offered indirect support to the government on the unemployment problem. “The government and private sector together can provide only about 30% jobs,” he said. “For others, work will have to be created through entrepreneurial initiatives, which various sangh organisations have already started doing in about 275 districts of the country.”

However, Bhagwat added, “I don’t want to exempt the government of its responsibilities in this regard in any way.”

Bhagwat emphasised getting rid of harmful customs from the past while continuing to hold on to eternally (shashwat) pertinent practices. He warned against divisive forces from outside that aim to create discord and anarchy.

For the RSS to continue its campaign to transform India into a Hindu Rashtra, it is necessary for the organisation to issue cautions about obvious problems. But while it occasionally snubs its allied organisations, including the BJP, at other forums, on the solemn occasion of its foundation day of Vijayadashmi it is vital for the RSS to portray a complete sense of unity of purpose.

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