In Rahul v RSS, the Congress Fears Political Rivals More than the Courts

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Though Rahul Gandhi’s petition is now listed for final hearing on July 27, the Congress leader is unlikely to accept the Supreme Court’s suggestion that he express regret in order to avoid facing trial for defamation.

Gandhi assassination by Godse (1)

Pictorial representation of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Credit: Shyam Sundar Lal Agarwal publishers, Kanpur.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court may have pulled up Rahul Gandhi for his “collective denunciation” of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and warned that he would have to face trial for criminal defamation but for the Congress vice-president the option of apologising is likely to make no political sense whatsoever.

During a rally in Maharashtra in March 2014, Rahul had said, “RSS people killed Gandhiji and today their people (BJP) talk of him… They opposed Sardar Patel and Gandhiji.”

Rahul Gandhi’s allegation was no doubt a familiar one for the RSS, which is why the organization allegedly defamed chose not to move the courts. A local RSS worker, however, did file a case and it was to get those proceedings in a local court quashed that the Congress leader had moved the Supreme Court in May 2015.

Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948 by two Hindu fanatics, Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte. Though Godse had been a member of the Hindu Mahasabha and of the RSS and had worked to bring them together, he maintained that he was no longer with the ‘cultural’ organization at the time of the killing. This claim has always been contested by the RSS’s critics and in 1994, Gopal Godse, Nathuram’s brother, said in an interview to Frontline that

“All the brothers were in the RSS. Nathuram, Dattatreya, myself and Govind. You can say we grew up in the RSS rather than in our home. It was like a family to us. Nathuram had become a baudhik karyavah [intellectual worker] in the RSS. He has said in his statement that he left the RSS. He said it because Golwalkar and the RSS were in a lot of trouble after the murder of Gandhi. But he did not leave the RSS.”

Though Rahul Gandhi’s petition  is now listed for final hearing on July 27, the Congress leader is unlikely to accept the Supreme Court’s suggestion that he express regret in order to avoid facing trial. Given the political realities of the day, the Congress cannot afford to be seen as softening its stand on the RSS – especially when other parties are aggressively seeking to fill the “secular space” being gradually vacated by it across the country – and will take its chances on merits, confident that there is sufficient official and other evidence to sustain its leader’s charge.

Historically too, Rahul would be hard pressed to adopt a softer line towards the RSS because what he said was also what his great grandfather and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru had believed when he accepted Sardar Patel’s recommendation to ban the organisation in the wake of Gandhi’s assassination.

‘RSS-mukt Bharat’

More than the burden of history, however, an apology would be politically risky for Rahul because increasingly many of the political parties seeking to emerge as challengers to the Bharatiya Janata Party have taken to openly criticising the RSS.

Taking a cue from the BJP which says its political goal is a “Congress-mukt Bharat” (‘Congress-free India’), Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) has now started talking about the need to rid India of the RSS.

The Bihar chief minister understands that while the ‘mahagathbandhan’ that stormed to power in the state last year may have had the support of others like the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party, he needs to establish a political presence outside the state in order to play a larger national role. Therefore Nitish now wants to bring various mass movements together under a common platform of creating an ‘RSS-mukt Bharat’.

The Bihar leader is now not only wooing various Socialist leaders who had worked with him in the past, he is also trying to widen his party’s base by doing so. And one of the regions he is focusing on is Uttar Pradesh, which is going to the polls in 2017. While some may see in this a deliberate attempt to make Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party pay for walking out on his alliance just before the Bihar elections after initially coming out in support of the mahagathbandhan, others believe the JD(U) leader now has national ambitions.

For Rahul Gandhi, though, Nitish is not as big a threat as Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party. The country’s oldest political party has already realised the damage potential of Kejriwal, who brought the party in Delhi to its knees. The 15-year rule of the Congress ended in the 2013 assembly elections, when its tally was reduced to just 8 out of 70 seats. Worse, Kejriwal returned a year later with a thumping majority – winning 67 of the 70 seats. And this time even the traditional Dalit and minority supporters of the Congress deserted it, leaving the party with not a single seat.

AAP against RSS too

As the AAP looks to Punjab next, the Congress leaders have been quick to notice Kejriwal’s astute messaging. Drawing on a theme that the JDU used to devastating effect in its campaign against the BJP in Bihar, Kejriwal warned a Dalit sammelan in Phagwara earlier this month that the “RSS and its protégé BJP” would end reservation as and when they get a chance.

Kejriwal knows the importance of targeting the RSS all too well. No wonder, he added for good measure, that while the RSS chief had backtracked from talking about the issue in detail ahead of the Bihar elections, as he realised that it will harm BJP s poll prospects, “it exposed the mindset and conspiracy of RSS and BJP about Dalits and reservation”.

Then again during his “Talk to AK” programme on July 17, Kejriwal had accused the RSS of spreading rumours and asserted that it had “no equal in the world at rumour-mongering”.

Ironically, Kejriwal was not always so outspoken in his criticism of the RSS.

Many in fact believed that the RSS and the BJP were behind his initial rise as they had backed – both logistically and physically – the indefinite hunger strike of Anna Hazare at Ramlila Maidan in 2011, when Kejriwal was part of Team Anna and a key member of his India Against Corruption campaign.

In fact, for many years the Congress believed that the AAP was the BJP’s ‘Team B’, and many in the party still swear by this. Even a few months after Kejriwal had taken on Narendra Modi in the Lok Sabha elections in Varanasi, then Delhi Congress president Arvinder Singh had accused the AAP of being a part of the RSS.

He was, however, to be proved wrong. Later the same year, AAP declared that once it came to power in Delhi, it would not allow the RSS to conduct activities in the city that promoted enmity:

“As per today, according to the law, the RSS is allowed to hold shakas. But if it conducts any activity which is anti-national in nature, or anything that promotes enmity towards a particular religion, which will lead to instigation of violence, then we will take action,”

The AAP’s message was meant for those Dalits and Muslims who had not voted for the party in the 2013 Delhi assembly polls and had chosen the Congress instead, giving it eight seats. Speaking out against the RSS appears to have helped AAP candidates. The Congress was decimated, while the AAP secured a whopping 54.3% vote share.

The fact that there are many rivals itching to take on the RSS will likely weigh heavily on Rahul Gandhi as he waits for his next day in court.

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