The RSS often claims that it is a cultural organisation and does not intrude or directly intervene into the workings of its political arm, the BJP. This is often contested, and there is perhaps enough evidence to show the RSS does mediate in matters of governance and has a stronger say in policy matters than it admits. Yet the RSS’s repeated claim that it does not intervene in politics is not important in itself. What it signifies—a different way of “doing politics”—is what needs to be understood.
When the RSS claims it is a cultural organisation it is arguing that modern politics and the state need to be subsumed to an essential cultural logic and not the other way round. According to it, the state itself needs to be ethnic and cultural, as opposed to culture being just one domain of a modern state. In effect, while the RSS appears to veer away from and against political power, and when its members project themselves as uninterested in political power thanks to their ascetic lifestyle, they are actually erecting a much larger edifice; that of subsuming the state within a dominant-majoritarian cultural logic.
This logic resonates with the ancient ethos of Brahmins maintaining their distance from political power and it signifies a new cultural logic to subsume politics. Politics cannot be independent of the dominant cultural ethos. This fits well with cultural nationalism and the ethnicized state. It also offers a critique of the modern, or “western”, (read European) way of understanding politics as a means to control and regulate the cultural ethos. There cannot be space for a legal-constitutional logic independent of the dominant cultural ethos. That kind of politics is superficial and essentially out of sync with local cultural cues. Eventually, all political parties—not just the BJP—need to be in tune with the “higher” cultural psyche, which is what that the RSS is doing. We are witnessing this separation of the cultural from the political and subsuming of politics under culture, with the Congress party’s welcoming of the construction of a temple at Ayodhya, and this in turn becomes the authentic identity of what India stands for.
This cultural logic of doing politics creates an additional dimension in modern representative politics wherein the dominant castes stand to control state and politics through culture and not through electoral majorities. Dominant castes are electorally vulnerable as they do not have a numerical majority, but once politics itself is reduced to culture their—meaning essential the Brahmins—perpetuate their hegemony by virtue of maintaining their distance from politics. The current regime has mostly appointed Brahmins as constitutional heads such as governors or as heads of higher-education institutions and universities, and so on. Brahmins continue to dominate the academia, media, bureaucracy and other social organisations, but it is neither desirable nor feasible for them to play a dominant political role. Here in a sense the cultural logic of the RSS merges with the imperatives of the numbers game of representative politics.
Within this separation of the political from the cultural (so as to subsume the latter within the former) lies the claim to moral supremacy of the Brahmins as knowledge-producers and guides to an ethical life, versus the wealth-seekers or those who chase political power. By default, this arrangement is also a critique of other castes, including other dominant castes, for it paints these social groups as more keen on worldly pursuits. Thus when it places the pursuit of political power as a lesser ideal, lower down in the pecking order of values than establishing an essential cultural ethos, the RSS is being inherently critical of modern politics too.
As a political outfit, the BJP, too, invites this critique, and therefore the RSS reserves the right to distance itself from it and even criticise it from time to time. This serves as a reminder to the BJP of its lower moral authority compared with the RSS. In exchange, the RSS reserves exclusive rights to interpret what constitutes the authentic cultural ethos of India. It essentially prioritises age-old caste-based Hindu practices, including the relevance of Varna hierarchy, ascetic values, sacred rituals, among other things. The endgame is to contain modern legal-constitutional authority under the dominant Hindu ethos. This is how the RSS retains dominant moral/cultural supremacy over the modern/political power of the BJP and other political formations.
A majoritarian Hindu nation is the product of this separation of the political within the cultural. Therefore, “Hindu”, by default, becomes a universal moral symbol that cannot be reduced to social or political differences. This is more about a moral vision than contested political ideologies or even a religious identity. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat can therefore claim that even Muslims born in India are Hindus. Identities here are not about religion or legal, social or political sanction but basically about being indigenous, cultural-moral and spiritual. All other identities are particular, while Hindu becomes a sole universal cultural edifice.
This claim to the universal is based on and linked to the very same separation of the cultural from the political, and the attempt to encircle one under the other. All critiques of majoritarianism coming from a political idiom become, again by default, particularistic. In his lectures at Vigyan Bhavan a couple of years ago, Bhagwat said we do not need a definition of who is Hindu, just as we do not attempt to define a person’s name—one simply responds to the name when it is called out. This helps being a Hindu cut across and overcome social differences such as caste, region and religion. But central to realising this vision is the RSS’s claim that it is not a political but a cultural organisation. This vision rests on its cultural critique of modern politics itself, not just of a politics or an ideology of any particular kind.
The construction of a majoritarian democracy is happening in India through a “higher”-order separation of politics from culture, and therefore no amount of critique of the RSS mobilising from within political limits easily sticks. It is this very phenomenon we see in action when it comes to the credibility of the current regime or the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. To gain resonance across social groups, those who oppose to this majoritarian regime need to think about new ways to approach the underlying division between politics and culture to question the claim of the RSS that it is exclusively cultural.
The author is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He edited Secular Sectarianism, published by Sage in 2019. The views are personal.