As the Opposition parties and civil society groups mount an ideological attack against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, there is a growing view in the Bharatiya Janata Party that it should change the narrative of this debate – by shifting the focus to the Sangh’s activities in the social service sectors.

Ever since it came to power over two years ago, the BJP has been constantly pilloried for encouraging and supporting the divisive and communal agenda of its ideological mentor, the RSS.

Whether it was the issue of religious conversions, the controversy over growing intolerance, the saffronisation of educational and cultural institutions, the ban on the consumption of beef and the new-found belligerence of cow protection vigilantes, the BJP has been facing the wrath of its political opponents. They have accused the ruling party of being unnecessarily lenient to RSS members who have been indulging in violent activities.

This debate on the RSS is bound to sharpen in the coming months now that Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, after much dithering, has finally decided to face trial in a defamation case regarding his remarks about the Sangh and convert his legal case into an ideological and political battle. This will ensure that the negative characteristics of the RSS remain a subject of animated discussion each time the Congress leader provides a historical account of how the RSS never participated in the country’s freedom movement and that a one-time member of the Sangh, Nathuram Godse, had assassinated Mahatma Gandhi.

Changing the debate

Since the RSS remains a favourite subject of debate on television news channels and in the print media, an influential section in the BJP has suggested that instead of getting entangled in an ideological discussion, the ruling party should use these debates to its advantage by shifting the focus to the "sewa" undertaken by the RSS members. “The BJP should draw attention to the network of schools run by the Sangh and also speak about its work in other areas like education and tribal rights, “ remarked a senior BJP leader.

The party, he said, held a brainstorming meeting recently to fine tune its response to the various charges hurled at the RSS. He said there was general agreement during these discussions that it would be a good idea to change the narrative and highlight the positive work being done by the RSS which has not been recognised. Since it is a low profile organisation and manned by self-effacing pracharaks, the BJP leaders maintained, nobody in the RSS spoke about its activities in the educational field or in the tribal areas. Nor has this work been documented, BJP leaders lamented.

"The mention of the RSS usually evokes images of khaki-clad men attending morning shakhas in neighbourhood parks or of militant looking men wearing saffron bands, carrying trishuls [or tridents] and marching through the streets shouting Jai Shri Ram," a BJP leader pointed out. “We can change this perception if we continuously highlight the selfless service being undertaken by the members of the world’s largest NGO."

The BJP leaders, who are pushing for this tactical shift, argue that their political opponents will find it difficult to counter their position if they constantly focus on the sewa done by the Sangh.

Another opportunity?

However, the BJP’s new strategy to highlight the social service work being done by the RSS is unlikely to deflect the opposition’s attention from its original script: that the Sangh’s basic ideology is to create a Hindu rashtra through its divisive agenda and that all its activities are actually aimed at propagating this communal philosophy.

In fact, the BJP’s political opponents will get an opportunity to underline that the Shishu Mandir (literally, temples for students) schools run by the educational wing of the RSS, are actually Hindutva laboratories to indoctrinate young minds. Similarly, they claim that the chief purpose of the RSS's Vanavasi Kalyan Ashrams (literally, tribal welfare centres) is to Hinduise adivasis and inculcate the Sangh’s ideology in the students.

As it happens, the Modi government is hard put to explain itself each time its party MPs and ministers make inflammatory speeches and RSS-affiliated organisations conduct activities like love jihad, ghar wapsi and resort to violence in the name of cow protection.

The BJP can hardly stray from the ideological moorings of the RSS.

At the same time, it cannot allow Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s development agenda, which promised to turn around the economy and create more jobs, to be derailed. Having spent his formative years in the RSS, Modi obviously finds it difficult to pull up the Sangh and it was only after considerable prodding that he recently commented on the manner in which gau rakshaks or cow protectors were indulging in violence.

Despite the prime minister’s brave words, it is difficult for the Modi government to distance itself from the RSS especially when the Prime Minister and his ministers line up before Sangh leaders to present an account of their work and to seek directions for the future.

With the RSS exercising overweening influence over the BJP, Modi has a tough job to convince people that his government disapproves of the activities of the RSS and various organisations affiliated to it.