When Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat took the floor at the ongoing three-day conclave “Bhavishya Ka Bharat – An RSS Perspective”, being held at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan, it appeared that Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s barbs at the right-wing organisation had hit home.

Bhagwat’s 80-minute speech on the first day and his address to the select audience on the next day could well be described as a point-by-point refutation of the charges leveled against the RSS by the Congress chief.

While maintaining that the RSS aims to unite society, Bhagwat was at pains to point out that the organisation believes in inclusivity, celebrates diversity, does not keep out women and, contrary to the widely-held impression, it is the most open and democratic organisation.

“People often believe that the RSS is a dictatorial organisation and that one man decides everything. If you want to see the most open organisation, then you should come to Sangh. There is no restriction. A RSS worker conducts himself in line with values given to him by the organisation,” Bhagwat claimed, rejecting the charge often levelled by Rahul Gandhi and the Sangh’s critics that it seeks to impose its ideology on everyone.

Ever since the Modi government came to power in 2014, Congress President Rahul Gandhi has been a relentless and vociferous critic of the RSS, the ideological mentor of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Nehru-Gandhi scion has used every forum and occasion to launch a blistering attack on the RSS. Whether it is an election rally, a press conference or his interactions abroad, the Congress chief never fails to accuse the Sangh of capturing the country’s democratic institutions, spreading fear and hatred and propagating a divisive brand of politics.

The RSS, he maintains, has an anti-Dalit mindset, keeps women out and is dictatorial in its approach that also extends to the government. More recently, Rahul Gandhi stoked a fresh round of controversy in an address at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London when he compared the RSS to the radical Islamist outfit Muslim Brotherhood.

On the other hand, the Congress president presents the Congress as a sharp contrast to the RSS and the BJP. While speaking the language of love and affection – he demonstrated this by hugging Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Parliament during the last budget session – Rahul Gandhi accuses the RSS of dividing people and indulging in hate-mongering.

“The BJP-RSS people are dividing our own people. They are spreading hatred in our own country. Our job is to bring the people together and take the country forward and we have shown how to do it,” he has often said.

Coming of age?

The ongoing conclave is essentially a coming of age party for the RSS which has, so far, been a low-key and reclusive organisation. It has, however, shed its earlier inhibitions and become more assertive since the BJP emerged as the central pole of Indian politics. The organisation has been feeling particularly emboldened as the RSS believes that now that the BJP is in power at the Centre and in most states, it is the most opportune time to propagate its ideology.

Consequently, Bhagwat has been more visible and vocal over the past four years as concerted efforts are being made for the RSS to join the mainstream. The RSS conclave at the Vigyan Bhavan is part of this exercise. The event is essentially meant to acquaint people with the functioning of the RSS and its ideology but Bhagwat also used the opportunity to respond to the organisation’s critics. RSS insiders maintain that they are worried at the persistent attacks mounted against the organisation at this particular juncture when it believes it is their time to win friends and influence people.

Often accused of furthering a majoritarian agenda through its ideology of Hindutva, Bhagwat claimed that accepting Muslims is part of Hindutva, which, he said means inclusivity. “Hindu Rashtra doesn’t mean there’s no place for Muslims. If we don’t accept Muslims, it’s not Hindutva. Hindutva is Indianness and inclusivity,” he claimed. “Hindutva binds us together and our vision of Hindutva is not to oppose or demean anyone”, he underlined.

Similarly, the RSS chief also sought to dispel the notion that the RSS exercises control over the government and that decisions taken in Delhi are dictated from the Sangh’s headquarters in Nagpur. “It is a myth that Nagpur runs the government. We do not have any impact on government policies. Today, several former swayamsevaks are in politics. They have become prime ministers and presidents and have ample political experience. Sometimes they ask for a suggestion, which we give if it is possible for us.”

Different approach

In passing, the RSS chief also had a word of praise for the Congress while referring to its contribution to the country’s freedom struggle. “In the form of Congress, a big freedom movement had started in the country which gave many great personalities,” he said. Speaking at a programme in Pune earlier this year, Bhagwat had said that the RSS does not believe in slogans like “Congress-mukt Bharat” as the organisation is not in favour of excluding anyone.

This is in sharp contrast to the statements made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been promising to deliver a “Congress-free India” while his government has made systematic efforts to undermine Jawaharlal Nehru’s contributions and achievements. The Congress has accused the BJP of destroying Nehru’s legacy.

Unlike Modi’s trademark belligerence, Bhagwat adopted a moderate tone in his speeches and claimed the high moral ground when he spoke of being inclusive and what he said was the RSS philosophy of reaching out to all sections. However, it is anybody’s guess if this effort was meant to placate the Sangh’s critics or confuse them. Or maybe, it was yet another instance of doublespeak.