RSS and the Question of Morality
The RSS is generally perceived to be morally
upright; much of this perception comes from the fact that full-time members of
the organisation are ascetic and also claim they maintain a distance from
personal possessions and from the pursuit of power. They denounce power and claim
to assume an advisory role for the purpose of 'nation-building'. This kind of
optics fits well with the dominant morality, which is suspicious of politics
and comprehends personal family ties as narrow and driven by self-interest.
They are active during humanitarian crises and natural calamities, such as the
one we are witnessing now, with the spread of Covid-19.
This first-order idea of public morality is,
however, maintained by building a layered reality and multiple narratives and
practices that are not only not moral but are also patently immoral. Yet, how
does RSS in particular and right-wing organisations in general maintain a
Conservative organisations are precariously
located between absolutism and debauchery. Their idea of morality is one of
absolutism, which is visible in their asceticism and eschewing of anything that
is remotely identified as pleasurable. This basic idea is then followed up by
an understanding that a majority in any society does not live up to this absolutist
idea of morality, and are, therefore, necessarily immoral.
Moral-immoral is a zero sum game, where nothing
exists between an absolutist idea of morality and debauchery. Those who do not
live up to absolute moralism are necessarily immoral. They perceive their own
practice of morality as one under constant stress, and faltering, and therefore
needing a strong ideological and organisational structure that is strict,
hierarchical and disciplinarian.
So it swings from one extreme of absolutism to
the other extreme of cynicism, in the belief that nobody is actually capable of
living by any kind of moral value system and therefore, those who claim to
uphold the moral values of working for the collective good are either dishonest
or living in a fool's paradise and therefore need to be either exposed or
The operative logic of such an understanding is
that society is weak as long as collective ideals are based on, or left to,
individual morals. No individual is above suspicion and vulnerability-as we witnessed
during demonetisation. It is this logic that works to undermine public and
democratic institutions. Those working the institutions are actually hiding
behind the fig leaf of procedure and cover up real-time intentions they hold.
We could see this being demonstrated in the way every possible institution and
individual running them are systematically undermined, put under pressure, and
made to succumb. This is then seen as a vindication of the fact that
individuals are not capable of upholding moral values.
In undermining institutions and "exposing" individuals, conservatives feel they are actually strengthening the social
ethos by cleaning up and purging hypocrisy.
At the other end of the spectrum, this logic
works itself in self-justifying every kind of blatantly immoral action or means
they resort to-using the "cunning of reason" is a justified means to expose
latent hypocrisy. From an imagined idea of upholding an absolute morality, much
of the Right's practice, in its everyday forms, becomes blatantly opportunistic
and immoral. It does not mind spreading falsehoods, lies, falsely implicating
those they stand opposed to and even using physical threats and deploying
violence. Means, therefore, do not matter in establishing a social order based
on that imagined "original position" of absolute morality that is either to be
established or existed in an ancient past.
A third and perhaps most insidious and ominous
dimension is when they actually face individuals who have remained steadfast in
their public life and stood for collective values with conviction. Here, the
conservative Right either fears them or sees them as a reminder of their own
shallowness and thereby ends up vociferously hating them. The way the current
regime has treated public activists such as Sudha Bharadwaj, among others, is a
case in point. Such activists break the chain of equivalence that the Right has
conjured up for itself. They are honest but disagree with the Right. They
become a 'threat to national integrity and security'. Here the question of
morality is converted from a social to political and then to a question of
crime. Criminality is beyond reasoning-and so it is a threat to the nation.
Criminality is the afterlife of moral absolutism of the Right. It is again in
the name of a higher order that punishing such activists becomes justified. In
any case, this is how it is projected for larger mass consumption.
In its understanding that human beings are
morally vulnerable, the Right actually and actively creates vulnerability. In
its fear of honesty it creates conjured-up criminality. And in its imagination
of higher ideals it continues to justify everyday dishonesty. The Right not
only feels justified, but feels that the majority would fall in line because of
their own inability to pursue moral absolutism. They would celebrate "exposing" individual vulnerability of those in higher offices because it reveals an
underlying reality that was hidden under rules and procedures. The Right also
believes that unless this "sham" is not exposed there would not be enough
consent for its falsehoods, violence and majoritarian constructs; nor a
justification to find for treating some individuals and social groups as lesser
or second-class citizens.
Liberal democracy and liberalism are founded on
the reasonable pursuit of morality as enlightened self-interest that locates
one's own interest in the context of the necessity for collective living and
mutual cooperation. As long as individuals are not blatantly unreasonable and
immoral in pursuit of their self-interest, there is no compulsion or even need
of absolutist morals. Rules and procedures are meant to protect collective
practices from individual vulnerabilities. The Right upturns this logic of
reasonableness into one of blatant hypocrisy and reads them as modes of
preserving self-serving interests and entitlements. Here its reading by default
becomes anti-elitist but works to preserve privileges through prevalent social
systems such as caste and gender.
The question that should really interest us in
this global context of the rise of Rightist conservatism is how the mass of
people cutting across castes and classes perceive their constructs. Do they see
reflected in it their own story, of being belittled or feeling short-changed by
liberal values, and thereby do they read the Right's subversion of institutions
and undermining of individuals as a necessary corrective to a process that has
made them feel inferior and morally burdened? Or is there a possibility of the
majority feeling distanced from blatant immoralism as that does not reflect
their everyday reality?
The everyday reality of the most vulnerable is
constituted by both compassion and pragmatism. While the pragmatism of the
Right is organic, the violence it conjures up is not, and this is where the
hope of its rejection lies.
The author is associate professor, Centre for
Political Studies, JNU. The views are personal.