Barely four months ago, an RSS ideologue from Nagpur was laying bare to me the elaborate and tangled web they had woven for opposition parties trying desperately to form a mahagathbandhan for the coming Lok Sabha elections. The fly they expected to entrap was Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who had then been starkly contrasting his Shiv bhakti with his secularism.
“We have manipulated him right into the corner where we wanted him. After professing his Hindutva so openly, can he stop us from building the Ram temple in Ayodhya? He will be exposed as a hypocrite and will be completely finished in one fell swoop,” he told me.
That was in October 2018. The RSS was not expecting the Supreme Court to postpone its hearing of the temple issue and thought Rahul had alienated his Muslim vote bank with the proud display of his janeu (sacred thread) and his visit to Kailash Mansarovar. When poll results in the three Hindi heartland states in December 2018 proved otherwise, I sensed a lot of bewilderment running through the RSS men who seemed to be comforting themselves with the thought that they could cut Rahul’s Rafale campaign down by resurrecting Bofors—indeed, true to expectation, Union Minister Arun Jaitley did bring it up vigorously in Parliament in December but nothing much came of it.
I still do not know whether to believe the man who told me that former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had sought RSS help to win the 1989 Lok Sabha elections. The return favour expected for that help does not even merit contemplation for the serious consequences it would have had for the people. But if his story is true, the nation was lucky that the Congress lost that election. “Because then Bofors happened. And nothing we could do to help him could save his government. The perception among the people of corruption in the government went deep and he had a very bad fall.”
Thirty years later, Rafale threatens to do the same to the BJP government at the Centre. When I called my RSS source back again he admitted reluctantly that the government may have been wrong in all its recent moves, including the needling of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Congress general secretary in Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s husband Robert Vadra.
While Vadra may or may not have properties in London that are being probed by ED or Mamata may or may not have something to do with the Saradha chit fund scam being probed by the CBI, there is a recognition among many members of the current dispensation that admitting tainted members like Mukul Roy from the Trinamool and Himanta Biswa Sarma from the Congress to the BJP, both said to be involved in the Saradha scam, was a bad move. But worse is the connection of Sanjay Bhandari, a defence dealer said to be an associate of Vadra, to the Rafale deal—the government can hardly go full throttle against the Saradha scamsters and Vadra unless it wishes to risk its own credibility on the issues.
Which is why both Mamata and Priyanka have made mincemeat of the optics the ruling party was hoping to cash in on ahead of the elections with their high firepower last week. It is unusual for a chief minister to sit on a dharna but Mamata did just that and succeeded in rallying almost the entire opposition, including the BJP ally Shiv Sena led by Uddhav Thackeray, and his estranged cousin Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, to her side (they didn’t go to Kolkata, but tweeted in
Priyanka’s ride with her husband to the ED office and her picking him up after questioning has rattled the saffron ideologues even more. Firstly, after an on-again-off-again kind of uncertainty, they were not ready for the surprise Rahul sprung on the nation by inducting his sister officially into the party. Secondly her unexpected car ride brought back memories of Indira Gandhi’s elephant ride to Belchi in Bihar to a Dalit basti. Though this was a personal ride and youngsters may not relate to the comparison, the RSS has not missed the powerful political messaging by Indira’s granddaughter.
However Priyanka might fare in Uttar Pradesh, what worries them more now is the potential failure of the Ram temple plank—their recent moves in this direction have left the sants and seers in Ayodhya a bit sceptical with none of the expected consolidation in sight. The SC has not really come forth in the manner they expected and the ordinance they were hoping would be passed to facilitate the building of the temple is no option, as it will never stand judicial scrutiny. In any case, the time for it is long past.
Under the circumstances, the BJP faces the prospect of going into this election with the same handicap Rajiv did—a defence deal gone awry, which is threatening to reduce their first majority government to the margins.
There were many in the BJP who described 2014 as akin to 1977 when the Congress suffered its worst loss against a combined opposition. However, 2019 now threatens to be more like 1977 and the RSS men who were sure they had everything in place for this election are reluctantly admitting that the best laid plans of men and mice might still go awry.
Senior journalist and political commentator