Some 27 years after it was first published, Dr Walter Andersen's book The Brotherhood of Saffron, co-authored with Shridhar Damle, remains the definitive study of the sangh parivar and its dynamics in India. As a young state department official posted at the US embassy in India, and thereafter holding posts in Foggy Bottom that kept him in the India loop, Andersen has followed the evolution of the RSS and the BJP, including the rise of Narendra Modi, who he first met in Washington DC as a state department guest in the early 1990s. Dr Andersen is Washington's go-to man for matters relating to RSS and BJP, and these are busy days for him. Excerpts from the interview:
Walk us through Narendra Modi's RSS days, your early recollection of him, and his equation now with the RSS and the BJP's prime ministerial candidate.
Well, we all know that he comes from a rather poor OBC family. The RSS transformed him even though he had problems with them later. The RSS is a very collegial group and expects you to act in a collegial way. It never emphasizes the individual. And Modi is individualistic. From the organization you have a lot of good workers who have emerged, but you haven't had someone who is charismatic. The RSS damp down on charisma. Modi is an exception. He is charismatic and the organization where he began his political life seems to have accepted it. After he was appointed RSS pracharak in Gujarat, the organization was impressed by the focus and energy he showed in earthquake relief work. He sets objectives and gets the job done. That helped him advance in the organization despite his personality.
When did you last meet him?
Last June at Gujarat Bhawan in Delhi. The first meeting was when he came to Washington DC on a state department visitor program in the early 90s. I really didn't think much of him, but then he was part of a group of 10-12 people.
Do you get the sense that the RSS has distanced himself from him or he has fallen out with RSS? What is their equation?
Fallen out may be a bit strong. The RSS leadership in Gujarat was not enthused by him, particularly other affiliates like VHP. His relationship with them was cool if not cold. He ran things without vetting it with the RSS; he didn't see the need. He wasn't collegial, which is surprising for a pracharak. They exchange notes and exchange people...he didn't do that.
Was it different from Vajpayee's style of functioning?
Vajpayee was the supreme schmoozer. He worked collegially with the RSS. He had a superior relationship because he was elder to its leadership. There's night and day difference.
How much influence does the RSS wield over the BJP political structure - hasn't there been a progressive dilution ...
It has been going on for years; it goes on for years. The real dilution was when the BJP was formed and the decision was made to reduce the power the organizing secretary in the new BJP. In the old Jan Sangh it was critical post, manned largely by a pracharak. It is not the pratinidhi sabha, they did not make decision on party politics; it was through the organizing secretary. It was Vajpayee's and Advani's move to reduce influence and power of the organizing secretary. There are comparatively few paracharaks in the BJP now.
So you expect Modi to continue the policy? This talk of an expansion of the saffron agenda if a BJP-led government comes to power is overblown?
Absolutely. Much over blown. The fear is just the reverse ... that the RSS as an organization be submerged.
But some reports say the RSS sees this as a make or break election in terms of pushing its Hindutva agenda.
You know, it's interesting that the executive leadership of the RSS did not push Modi. This was the first instance of the cadre, the bottom, forcing the leadership to do something. This is also the non-RSS cadre as well. The RSS worries that it will get marginalized. You see it in the much quoted comment of the sarsanghchalak in the pratinidhi sabha 4-5 month ago in which he warns the RSS workers that their the primary duty is toward of the RSS. Why did he come out and say that? He saw them as more interested and more involved in politics.
Looking back what was the extent of saffronization of India in the six years of BJP-NDA rule?
There was to some degree. But remember it was a coalition government, and you have to keep in mind Susan and Lloyd Rudolph's thesis that any group that comes to power in a country as socially complex as India has to move toward the ideological center. It it does not it will not come to power or stay in power. You saw that with the Vajpayee administration also. It did not push any Hindu nationalist issue. They wouldn't have kept their allies had they done so.
So it will be the same with Modi?
We can only judge from his campaign. One of the Indian newspapers I think counted his use of the world development versus use of the word Hindutva. It was like 500 to one or two. The question is how will he keep the radicals, the right wing of the party in check.
A number of people think he is the right wing.
I don't think they know him.
Coming to economics, how does one reconcile the RSS plank of swadeshi economics with the reform-drive agenda of Modi or the so-called Gujarat model?
They are going to have an issue with that. AS the party has grown it has gotten more complex. If you have a person who is as development oriented as Modi, and who admires (Jagdish) Bhagwati and (Arvind) Panagariya...and they him ... there will definitely be some problems with the swadeshi brigade of Gurumurthy and co.
What will be the nature of Modi's ties with US and vice-versa in the backdrop of the visa flap? Is he the kind who will harbor a grudge?
Hindu nationalism in India always had a look east policy. It goes back a long way. When I met Modi, the one country he mentioned was Japan. He has already been to Japan and China and will look for significant investment from there. Not that he will ignore the US, but if I had to make a guess as to the first country he will visit, it will be japan.
Doesn't sound like good news to Washington ...
I don't think he is going to ignore US but this is not what his focus is going to be. Ii is not an unimportant country and there are strategic issues at play. He is not unaware of it. It will be an interesting balancing act.
What about the stability of a Modi-led BJP/NDA government if it comes to power? How will the old guard in the party who have been sidelined take it? And will Modi's peers who don't particularly like him be an alternative center of power? In many ways they sound like the Congress party, with rebels, dissidents etc.
The past few months have shown that he is taking control of the party. He is a smart guy. He will appease the old guard with public honors etc but will keep all the power himself. He is his own person and will run things, unlike Vajpayee, who was very collegial. Well, the younger lot each had a chance and he came out ahead. If he becomes PM I expect that will end. So far nobody has left and nobody is badmouthing him.
So no alternate center of power?
Maybe if he makes some egregious mistakes on the economic front or foreign policy front - and that too in part because there is an enormous sense of expectation.