When Ashok Soni, the Madhya Pradesh zone chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), on March 20, proposed the name of sah sarkaryavah (joint general secretary) Dattatreya Hosabale for the post of sarkaryavah (general secretary), it became clear that the Sangh was on the path of a generational shift. Soni’s proposal was seconded by other regional chiefs at the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha (ABPS), the RSS’s apex decision-making forum, in Bengaluru, paving the way for Hosabale’s elevation to the second-highest position in the organisation, after sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat.
The appointment relieved incumbent Suresh ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi, who stepped down on health grounds after holding the post for four terms, since 2009. Back in 2018, when Joshi requested that he be relieved for health reasons, it had become near-certain that Hosabale would eventually take over from him. But the transition was deferred till after the 2019 general election.
The RSS has shakhas (branches) in 34,596 locations across the country and presence in 5,505 development blocks. It has doubled in size in the past decade and aspires to reach every mandal in the country over the next four years. The last such major shift in the Sangh happened in 2009 when then sarsanghchalak K.S. Sudarshan retired on health grounds. Hosabale was then elevated to the post of sah sarkaryavah from baudhik pramukh (chief of the intellectual cell).
A MODERATE FACE
Popular among his peers as ‘Dattaji’, 65-year-old Hosabale is considered to be a moderate who holds a progressive outlook while staying rooted in the RSS ideology. A post-graduate in English literature, the multilingual and soft-spoken RSS leader has a deep understanding of technology as well. In 2016, Hosabale had said the RSS did not consider homosexuality a crime. The remark was seen as a major deviation from the Sangh’s line of thinking. Then, it was on Hosabale’s intervention that the Narendra Modi government, in October 2018, got then MoS for external affairs M.J. Akbar to resign over sexual harassment charges.
As sarkaryavah, Hosabale is expected to work towards making the Sangh and its ideology more appealing to young Indians. Sah sarkaryavah Manmohan Vaidya explains that this is a critical area for the RSS as about 90 per cent of its units cater to people below 40 years of age. Hosabale is also expected to steer the RSS’s expansion into every mandal, South India being the focus.
He will oversee major events, such as the 2024 Lok Sabha election and the centenary celebrations of the RSS a year later. If all goes well, Hosabale may even have a shot at becoming the RSS chief after Mohan Bhagwat, 71, retires. (The RSS now retires its office-bearers at 75 or gives them a lighter workload.)
Hosabale is the first leader from the ranks of RSS affiliate ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) to reach the position of sarkaryavah. In the ABVP, which he joined in 1972, Hosabale was instrumental in setting up the World Organisation of Students and Youth (WOSY), an international forum for the youth, in the late 1980s. In 2009, he was given charge of expanding the RSS network overseas (largely in the US and Europe). He also strengthened the Seva International, Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP). Post the 2014 Lok Sabha election win, the BJP has been mobilising volunteers of these networks to ensure that Prime Minister Modi’s grand townhalls are a success.
THE BIG REJIG
Following Hosabale’s elevation, two other sah sarkaryavahs, V. Bhagaiah and Suresh Soni, were retired and Arun Kumar and Jharkhand regional head Ramdutt Chakradhar inducted in their place. Soni was the first among top RSS leaders to back Modi for the PM’s post. Kumar is considered the RSS expert on Jammu and Kashmir and had played a pivotal role in the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019. It was on his recommendation that the BJP called off its alliance with Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP (People’s Democratic Party) in June 2018.
With the team of six sah sarkaryavahs reduced to five, the RSS is expected to rejig their roles and responsibilities by July. Till then, Vaidya will oversee Seva (social service), Sampark (communication) and Prachar (publicity) departments; Krishna Gopal will be the bridge between RSS affiliates and the BJP and its government at the Centre; and C.R. Mukunda will manage the Sharirik (physical training), Baudhik (intellectual) and Vyavastha (organisational) wings.
Apart from dealing with economic issues, Soni will help Kumar with preparations for the Sangh’s celebration of 75 years of India’s Independence. Bhagaiah will deal with issues related to rural development, agriculture and panchayati raj. Most of the new team members are below 65 years of age and are expected to steer the organisation for the next decade. “The RSS is a dynamic organisation that undergoes changes in snyc with society. The new changes reflect that,” says Kumar.
Two other appointments have grabbed eyeballs. Sunil Ambekar, the former national organisational secretary of the ABVP, is now in charge of communication at the Sangh. He will be based out of Hyderabad. Ramlal, former BJP general secretary (organisation), is the new sampark pramukh and will be interacting with organisations outside the Sangh fold. He replaces RSS stalwart Anirudh Deshpande, who is now part of the central executive council and will operate from Mumbai.
The 1,500-member ABPS meets once in three years. The Bengaluru meeting was the first one to be held outside the Sangh’s headquarters in Nagpur. This was done in view of the pandemic and to allow a hybrid (online and offline) interaction. While 450 members gathered in Bengaluru, the leadership of 150-odd RSS affiliates joined the discussions by video link.
Hosabale has enjoyed close ties with PM Modi over the past three decades. In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, he convinced the RSS leadership to break free from the Sangh convention of remaining apolitical during polls and pushed the local shakhas to campaign for the BJP. It was his idea to assign ABVP pracharaks to the BJP’s outreach campaign for the general election.
Hosabale is also close to BJP chief J.P. Nadda and general secretary (organisation) B.L. Santhosh and played a role in getting them into organisational work. The BJP’s national team as well as those in the states are filled with Hosabale loyalists.
Born in Soraba in Karnataka’s Shivamogga district, Hosabale worked for the ABVP in his home state between 1972 and 1990, and then in the youth wing’s national team till 2003. This was the period that saw the ABVP encourage its women members to contest university elections and even gave them organisational positions. The tenure in the ABVP brought Hosabale closer to the BJP. In his heyday in the ABVP, his team included the likes of Himachal Pradesh chief minister Jai Ram Thakur, Uttarakhand’s Tirath Singh Rawat, BJP Madhya Pradesh unit chief V.D. Sharma, BJP general secretary Dilip Saikia, Haryana BJP in-charge Vinod Tawde and Union petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan.
Hosabale’s rise may bring the RSS closer to the BJP, but the Sangh will not necessarily support all policies of the Modi government, especially on the economic front. “We will oppose or support the government based on their work. We will remain their conscience-keepers,” says a top RSS leader.
While the RSS seconds Modi’s Aatmanirbhar Bharat plank, it widely differs with him on its implementation. For example, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) opposed the government’s decision to suspend labour laws in BJP-ruled states and is vehemently against privatisation. The Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) has reservations about the new farm laws even though it has withdrawn support to the farmers’ agitation, citing infiltration of anti-national elements. It was after the RSS convention with its affiliates in Ahmedabad in the first week of January that the Modi government relented and agreed to make amendments to the farm laws, and later even offered to defer their implementation.
Similarly, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) is opposed to further opening up of the insurance sector to foreign players, strategic sale of public sector enterprises and privatisation of public sector banks.
In 2015, Hosabale had advocated the opposition of RSS affiliates, such as BKS and SJM, to amendments in the Land Acquisition Act and forced the government to abandon the move. Later, a coordination committee, headed by then BJP chief Amit Shah and consisting of top leaders of Sangh Parivar outfits and Union ministers, was formed to regularly meet and discuss issues. However, in the second term of the Modi government, the biggest complaint of RSS affiliates has been a perceived lack of consultations before taking major decisions, especially those related to the core areas of these outfits. They argue that the Modi government’s decision-making is now too dependent on bureaucrats and hired consultants.
With Hosabale’s elevation as sarkaryavah, the Sangh Parivar organisations will not only expect to be heard more by the Modi government but also want a greater say in crucial decisions of the government. For Hosabale, it will also be about acting as an efficient bridge between those in power and their ‘conscience-keepers’.