Is Prime Minister Narendra Modi primarily responsible for India’s current Covid-19 tragedy? On May 15, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat declared that the government, the administration and India’s people had become complacent after the first wave of Covid-19 ebbed. The the Opposition and the media were quick to note that the head of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s parent organisation had included Modi in its list of those responsible for the tsunami of deaths.

But what about the responsibility of the RSS itself? After all, the RSS, despite maintaining that it is non-political, does everything in its power to ensure that the Bharatiya Janata Party comes to power – and stays there.

Bhagwat has previously claimed that the organisation that he commands could be readied to fight India’s enemies at the borders at only a few day’s notice. How did this powerful organisation fail to gauge the enormity of the medical crisis correctly and direct the BJP and its prime minister to deal with it appropriately?

Moving forward

As is well known, Modi spent decades as a full-time RSS worker. After the 2002 Gujarat riots that occurred when Modi was the state’s chief minister, the RSS and Modi seized the moment to strengthen the narrative of Hindu victimhood and move forward to New Delhi. They shared an ideology of “I use you and you use me.”

Modi and Mohan Bhagwat know this well. They used each other even as their common enemy – Muslims – remained constant. Neither had an agenda to develop India on all fronts, ensuring faith in democracy and human equality. They have never believed in the core principle of democracy – liberty, equality and fraternity.

It is clear that Mohan Bhagwat is the most powerful RSS sarsanchalak since the organisation was created in 1925. No other head of the Sangh has had such an influence on the Indian state and civil society – particularly the Hindu civil society – as Bhagwat does.

This is because before Modi won the elections 2014, the RSS-BJP had never been in control of Delhi and so many states. Even Vajpyee’s tenure from 1999 to 2004 was limited by a coalition in Delhi, with only a few states in BJP control. As a consequence, KS Sudarshan, the RSS head for nine years from 2000, was less influential than Mohan Bhagwat is today.

Narendra Modi in RSS uniform.

In March 2020, when the pandemic first came to attention, the RSS-BJP pushed the theory that members of the Tablighi Jammaat Muslim group were responsible for spreading the virus because they had gathered for a religious conference – even though it had started before lockdown was announced.

As it turns out, the RSS is even more responsible for spreading the coronavirus this year. Isn’t the RSS responsible for the Kumbh Mela that the Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh governments organised? Who should be held responsible for the spread of the virus from the Kumbh to villages around the country and mass deaths around the sacred river Ganga?

At the same time, when elections were taking place in five states, the RSS was involved in mobilising vast numbers of people for public meetings for Modi and other leaders. Didn’t the virus travel along with RSS activists from house to house, village to village, city to city?

There was news during the election campaign that Bhagwat had contracted the coronavirus disease and had to be hospitalised. Even then, he did not openly suggest that the elections should be postponed. He clearly did not get cured by the cow urine and dung therapies that some Hindutva supporters are pushing. Despite this, he has not come out to criticise this pseudo-science.

Caste drives power

Mohan Bhagwat and Modi have grown in the same organisation. Until Modi became prime minister, he had no control over the all-India networks of the RSS and its vast network of organisations. Given the caste cultural control in the Sangh, Bhagwat was a very powerful man in the RSS when Modi – a member of the Other Backward Classes – was nothing. Before 2002, Modi took his orders from Mohan Bhagwat in the RSS and another Maharashrian Brahmin, Promod Mahajan, in the BJP. Caste has always driven power in the RSS-BJP structures.

The only thing that worked in Modi’s favour was his Gujarati background which gave him strong links to business networks. Once he became Gujarat’s chief minister, a position he seemed to win almost accidentally, he used his networks well to propel him further. It is certainly unthinkable that Mohan Bhagwat accepts Modi as a leader of greater stature even now. After all, Kautilya never accepted that Chandragupta Maurya was superior to him.

How can India believe that Mohan Bhagwat and the organisation that he heads has no role in bringing the nation to its present crisis? They must own up to their role in this devastation. Escapism is not nationalism.

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author. His latest book is The Shudras – Vision For a New Path, co-edited with Karthik Raja Karuppusamy.