Book Review- Sanghi Who Never Went to a Shakha: Anatomy of Polarization

Rahul Roushan’s book traces his journey from his indifference towards his Hindu religious identity, to his wholesale acceptance of it and his subsequent paranoia of how his religious identity and his way of life are being threatened by forces he believes are inimical to both.

The book, a memoir, recounts his life starting from growing up in small town Bihar, graduating from Patna University, years he spent studying in Delhi and Ahmedabad, working first in the main stream media and then as an entrepreneur.

He employs this re-telling as a vehicle to mark milestones that led to the evolution of his present ideological mooring.

The reader gets a head start on the book from its title.
It uses the words associated with the Rashrtiya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the umbrella organization that’s nurtured the party currently running the central government in India- Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), Shakha- the smallest unit/meeting of RSS volunteers and Sanghi- a term mostly used as a pejorative in online discourse, to describe people considered radical supporters of the RSS and the BJP.

Growing up in a family with no strongly held religious or political beliefs, Roushan’s religious views were shaped by religiosity displayed by his parents, he describes this as limited to celebrating Hindu festivals, and his understanding of polity and management of religious fault lines via subscription to stories of religious harmony.

Growing up in the Bihar of 1990s, he writes that the prevailing political narrative was of caste and he remained ambivalent of his religious identity. This indifference was never disturbed, although he went to schools run and owned by Hindus.
This was the India of 90s and a middle-class boy was focused on building a career and attaining financial independence.

His views on what each political party stood for shaped by what he read and saw in the mainstream media.

There was no inkling or the mental bandwidth to question the prevalent wisdom of secular and communal credentials of political parties. BJP is communal because the newspaper I read says so.

Roushan writes he was a- Congressi Hindu.
He defines Congressi Hindu as one who notionally religious and accommodative/indifferent to government largess and special rights for religious minorities.

In 2001, Roushan moves to Delhi to study communication at India’s premier Mass Communication institute, Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC).

Here he is exposed to a cross-section of people.

Some of whom are unlike him.

They are deeply invested in their religious identity and hold strong views that are left leaning.

He is also exposed to behind the screen working of main stream media, its ideological biases and how the media uses its power to shape a particular narrative.

He finds a culture, that he claims underplays the role played by Muslim Fundamentalism in fomenting fault lines while exaggerating the role that Hindu fundamentalism plays.

He finds the same pattern playing out once he starts working with a main stream news channel.

This is a decade that sees 9/11, 2002 Godhara carnage and the subsequent riots in Gujarat, UPA coming to power at the Centre and 26/11.

Roushan’s experience of working with a news channel in this decade, studying in Gujrat, Roushan is a MBA from IIM Ahemdabad-closest India has to offering an equivalent of a Harvard MBA, and his stint as a media entrepreneur, Roushan founded the satirical news website Faking News which he sold to one of India’s leading media houses and worked for the media house for a while; shaped his firmly held view that the main stream media, specially the English language, in India for ideological and commercial reasons is deeply biased and staunchly anti-Hindu.

His reading of the manner in which this cohort of media has always covered India and continues to cover it post 2014 election of Narendra Modi, leaves him with no choice but consider them an extension of an establishment.

An establishment Roushan claims that is the inheritor of the British Raj, filled with a set of people who believe in civilizing the native Hindus, is indulgent to Muslim fundamentalists and continues to appease religious minorities at the cost of Hindu and national unity.

The incumbents of this establishment occupy prime positions in and use the institutions of judiciary and media to subvert the elected government and unlike the elected government are permanently entrenched.

By the turn of this decade, like most Indians he discovers social media.

It is here that he finds people who like him have started to question the received wisdom.

He discovers that there are more like him who increasingly challenge the veracity of news reports, what is printed and what is left out of them.

He has a ringside view as leading editors and anchors are found embroiled in cash for votes scam and ‘Radia Gate’ controversies.

The timing of main stream media starting to lose credibility coincides with advent and astronomical growth of social media.

Roushan finds that although grandees that of the old establishment continue to dominate conversation, it is no more a one-way street.

Their bias, incompetence and double standards are called out and their condescending attitude, hypocrisies pointed out.

It is also a place that’s increasingly full of rancor, name calling and deeply polarized on ideological lines.

It is this crowd, of mostly unknown to him participants, he finds fellow travelers, who come together to propel his journey to the corner of Sanghis although he has never been to an RSS Shakha in his life.

The writing is lucid and the book reads like Roushan is in a conversation describing his journey.

For those who follow him on twitter and have read his blog posts and commentary, his ability to explain the underpinnings of ideological stand in simple and easy to understand language should not come as a surprise.

Where the book misses out his lack of any mention of opposite currents.

Surely Roushan met someone in his journey who made a compelling case for why the ‘establishment’ exists and why some one like him should be a part of it.

After all, Roushan went to an institute and worked in a profession that he claims is a happy hunting ground for the establishment.

Then there is the larger point of his book, his commentary on Twitter and through the website he runs.

He blames the establishment for being fundamentalist and a closed shop driven by its hatred for all things Hindu.

How does contributing to an eco-system that is as fundamentalist and as much a closed shop help.

Surely, he does not believe demography can be wished away.

To his credit he has taken the next steps via his work on a Hindu Charter and his writing on a possible way forward.

He does not cover those in this book. Perhaps there is a sequel to this book in works, where Roushan lays out his ideas on role and place of Non-Hindus in India.

In his seminal book Creating A New Medina, Venkat Dhulipala credits the role played by Urdu news media as one of the factors that solidified the idea of two nation theory and helped build the groundswell of support amongst the Muslim population that finally led to partition of the Indian sub-continent on religious lines.

As I read the book, I could not help but wonder if a century later, social media and online journalism is playing a similar role in amplifying and consolidating religious identities, both amongst Hindus and Muslims.

Rahul’s book is a must read for anyone interested in getting a sense of how one side of the ideological divide sees and reads India. With over three hundred thousand followers on Twitter and as a CEO of popular new portal opindia, Rahul’s is significant voice.

It is also a brave voice, for having taken a side this openly and running a news platform he is taking on the political opposition and burning all bridges within the media fraternity. I for one do not rule out the possibility of an Arnab redux happening to him if the present government is voted out.

Through the book Rahul also brings out the story of how India is changing.
Not too far ago, a boy from small town India would have found it virtually impossible to make a career in media without being employed by one of the bigger media houses, let alone being a meaningful influencer, MBA from IIM Ahmedabad notwithstanding.

They may still not easily get to write for columns for foreign newspapers, work for think tanks, participate in track 2 diplomacy or teach at liberal campuses, but they are shaping the discourse and our politics far more easily and more effectively.

 

 

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Book Review: Jugalbandi- The BJP Before Modi, by Vinay Sitapati

An oft mentioned take by the critics and opposition of the BJP and the ruling dispensation in India, on social media, reads- BJP and its supporters think that patriotism is a post 2014 phenomenon. A fair rejoinder to the take would be- opponents of the BJP and ruling dispensation think the fault lines in India and opportunist politicians aggravating these fault lines is a post 2014 phenomenon. The rejoinder got reinforced as I read Vinay Sitapati’s new book Jugalbandi- The BJP before Modi.

The book is on the careers and partnership of Atal Bihar Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani across their stints with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Jan Sangh and with Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP).

The lives and careers of these two gentlemen coincide with the first six decades of the republic and in writing the story of their partnership, Sitapati gives us a ringside view of political developments that have shaped post-independence India.

Extensively researched, the book in part a biography of Vajpayee and Advani, commences with an introduction to their childhood and the early influences that shaped their lives- conservative Hindu and semi-urban mores for Vajpayee, growing up in the princely state of Gwalior, where the Maharashtrian rulers give RSS foothold and cosmopolitan, upper class mores that get overruled by the anxieties and aftermath of partition and nudge Karachi boy Advani towards the RSS.

As the duo evolve and grow in tandem with RSS and post-independence broader Hindu Nationalism, the book brings out the ideological pining, the organizational structure and years of grassroot work that paved the way for RSS, an organization banned in the aftermath of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, helping form the government at the Centre within thirty years of the ban.

Sitapati presents Hindu Nationalist ideology- spearheaded by the RSS as one convinced that Indian sub-continent is Hindu/Non-Abrahamic in nature, that lack of unity amongst the Hindus has caused hemorrhaging of territorial integrity and a fear of demographic change that will be disadvantageous to the Hindu majority. The purpose of the political arm of Hindu nationalism is to build a unified Hindu identity, overruling its various caste lines, that will help in maintaining the territorial sanctity and preserve Hindu cultural identity.

Sitapati alludes the success of RSS in becoming a major political force to its ability to work as a Unified entity, no individual is bigger than the organization and all disputes, owing to personality or ideological differences, are managed internally and away from the public eye. It’s ability to nurture and groom talent that helps communicate its point of view clearly to the world at large and talent that keeps the organization a well-oiled machinery and above all to an organizational design that fosters and forges a sense one family amongst its members.

Between the two of them Vajpayee and Advani help implement the RSS ideology, first with Jan Sangh and then later with BJP as they play the roles of the Orator- Vajpayee the supreme orator- within and outside the parliament and Organizer- Advani the quintessential party man and ace organization skills, with ear to the ground; Sitapati credits their Jugalabandi, fine-tuned with their long-standing personal friendship, that withstands the test of time, to the complementary skill sets that they brought to the partnership and their years spent as active workers of the RSS. A partnership that saw its high noon with Vajpayee serving as the Prime Minister and Advani as the deputy PM of the country.

In the book Vajpayee comes across as a wily politician, who seeks acceptance within and outside the parliament by sticking as close to the prevailing political consensus and what he feels is the popular mood. Advani comes across as an RSS man, who is happy to play second fiddle to Vajpayee till the late 1980s when he truly discovers himself as a political leader after the Rath Yatra. Sitapati contends they are both similar in their deference to the Nehruvian consensus- left of the centre on economy and extension of differential rights to religious minorities, till there is a ground up pushback to this consensus from populace at large.

It is in explaining the duos response to feedback from their voters that Sitapati presents an insight often overlooked by commentariat and ignored by polarized and angry participants on social media- politicians act in accordance with the wishes of their voters. They thrive and survive when they respond to what their voters wants.

Vajpayee and Advani, hard as it may be to believe, were laggards when it came to the Ayodhya movement, Indira and Rajeev Gandhi nurtured the movement before Vajpayee and Advani’s BJP took charge. The duos Jugalbandi that led to formation of an avowedly right-wing government, was the two of them letting go of their deference to Nehruvian consensus and whole heartedly aligning with mood of the nation. This submission leads to the question how much of present-day India is because of Modi or is Modi a product of present-day India.

The writing is lucid and the author sticks to the language akin to journalistic reportage. The expanse of the book- the collection of characters who make an appearance and events that unfold, are all written in the style of long form journalism, the book is unputdownable for new junkies and history buffs. The book however, does not help us understand what led to marginalization of Advani after 2004. What made the true organization man break the ideological connection- his statement calling Jinnah a secular leader on a trip to Pakistan in 2005? How much the disarray of BJP, between 2004–9, can be attributed to Advani? For the takeover of BJP by Modi and Shah is also one of the legacies of the Vajpayee Advani duo.

The big take away though is how political parties in a democracy respond to the public mood and the limited say they have in shaping the public opinion. Be it Indira Gandhi’s nationalization of banks, her polarizing the Hindu votes in elections in J&K or the support that Indira, Rajeev and the Congress party extended to the Ayodhya movement in its early years. V.P. Singh implementing recommendations of the Mandal commission report, Vajpayee accepting the indispensability of Modi to the BJP in Gujarat or Advani turbo-charging the Ayodhya movement. These are all instances of politicians responding to an incentive structure designed for catering to feedback from voters.

The ‘liberals’ and ‘resistance’ to current government in India perhaps need to relook at their methods of building a robust opposition. Op-eds in foreign publications, never ending columns on websites all written in a European language and tweets for an echo chamber can only go this far, opposition needs a political party that gets the pulse of the nation for there is no dearth of issues on which the Modi-Shah duo can be challenged.

P.S: Post reading the book I heard a podcast by Amit Varma where he talks to Vinay Sitapati about the book. The episode is available on Varma’s podcast channel The Seen and The Unseen, the episode is an excellent addition to understanding the Vajpayee Advani Jugalbandi.

 

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