Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke out against self-styled gau rakshaks on August 6, saying that “70%-80%” of them indulge in “anti-social activities” under the garb of cow protection, several prominent members of the Sangh Parivar have responded to his comment – most of them objecting to it.

The first reaction came the very next day, when Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi, general secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh contradicted the figure cited by Modi and asserted that it was only a handful of “opportunistic persons” who were resorting to violence that could make the “sacred task” of cow service and cow protection look suspect. A day after that, RSS spokesperson Mohan Vaidya told The Indian Express that Modi should have “avoided” the 80% remark.

In the week that followed, several cow protection groups lashed out against Modi’s remarks but the strongest rebuke came on August 13, from Pravin Togadia, chief of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a cultural outfit under the Sangh Parivar. Togadia, at a press conference in New Delhi, termed Modi’s remarks as an “insult not only of Mother cow but also of Hindus and those who gave their lives to protecting the cow”.

“The prime minister should withdraw his speech against cow protectors,” Togadia demanded, adding: “He should also withdraw the advisory sent out by Home Ministry to states to take strict action against those who create trouble in the name of cow protection.”

A day later, Togadia was reportedly stopped by central intelligence agencies from travelling to Hyderabad, where he was to address Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal workers, citing security reasons.

Cracks appear?

This, on the face of it, may appear as though the prime minister is facing a major challenge from the RSS, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideological parent, and the Sangh Parivar, of which the BJP is a part.

A deeper look, however, reveals that the apparent tussle is nothing but a mock fight, in which both parties are victors.

Ambiguity, after all, has remained the main strength of the RSS and its affiliates. It is practiced throughout the Sangh Parivar – between the RSS and the BJP, the BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and so on and so forth.

Whenever any controversy is created by a Hindu rightwing organisation or its affiliates – as seen in the case of cow protection vigilantes that have repeatedly targeted Muslims, and more recently Dalits, which escalated with the flogging of four young leather tanners in Una on July 11, – the RSS and the BJP promptly dismiss the outfit as a fringe organisation, or the individuals as stray elements. While the RSS does this to distance itself from controversy, the BJP, as the party in power at the Centre, has to operate within a legal framework and answer to the people.

Best laid plans

It is widely known, however, that the so-called fringe organisations have spouted from the same ideology that is shared by the RSS-led Sangh Parivar and are, more often than not, doing the dirty work for the bigger parties. Such activities help polarise the society – divide it along religious lines and swing the Hindu vote towards the BJP.

By distancing themselves from these acts and by maintaining an ambiguous stance, neither entirely condemning them nor condoning them either, the RSS manages to keep Hindutva politics simmering and exploit a society divided along caste lines for electoral gains.

For instance, by opposing Modi’s statement against gau rakshaks, the RSS is allowing him to assuage Dalits and win back their faith, without hurting the sentiments of the BJP’s core, upper-caste Hindutva constituency.

This is important, because the BJP’s perception among Dalits is at an all-time low, after the Una incident prompted widespread protests by the community in Gujarat. There has been an unprecedented show of strength by the community. On Monday, Dalits concluded a 10-day, 350-km yatra from Ahmedabad, the state capital, to Una.

For the Sangh Parivar as a whole, which draws its strength from the BJP’s position of power in the country and in several states, it is essential that the party undo the damage while also holding on to the upper-caste Hindu vote ahead of assembly elections in several states next year.

And this is why, even though Togadia appears to have pitted himself against Modi and Joshi seems divided on his statement, a full-scale war in the Sangh Parivar is highly unlikely.

It is an open secret that most cow vigilantes are linked to the VHP, which is headed by Togadia and whose support is needed by Modi for the BJP to win elections.

As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was generous towards cow-protections groups. Between 2011 and 2014, the Gujarat government reportedly gave out Rs 75 lakh in cash as rewards to over a thousand vigilantes who had cracked down on supposedly illegal cattle transporters and filed FIRs against them. There was even a “Best Cow Protector” award of Rs 25,000 given out once in two years.

The supposed rift, then, seems nothing more than the Sangh Parivar’s time-tested strategy, ahead of the crucial assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat next year.