Of the three Bharat Ratnas awarded Friday, Chandikadas Amritrao ‘Nanaji’ Deshmukh was a politician who hardly held political office. He never held a ministerial post and contested barely an election. But his real effect lies in the three ways in which he transformed Hindu nationalism, ways felt to this day.
His most obvious influence was as the long-time treasurer of the Jana Sangh, the precursor to the BJP. Through the 1950s and ‘60s, the Jana Sangh was funded by north Indian traders, working on a tiny budget and relying on the unpaid labour of RSS workers. Those with serious money, the anglicised south Bombay businessmen for instance, did not want to risk the ire of the dominant Congress.
Starting in the late 1960s, the man who bridged these two worlds was Nanaji. He would routinely travel to Bombay, making easy friendships with R V Pandit, J R D Tata, and above all, with Nusli Wadia.
Legend has it that he ran after a horse-riding zamindar in east UP on foot in order to raise funds for his party. He was also of obvious integrity. Nanaji’s second contribution was that he came to represent an alternative Hindu nationalist vision to Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The two were friends for many years. By the late 1970s, however, Nanaji would complain: “Bheed ham laate hain, dari hum bichaate hain. Saara shrey Atalji ley jaate hain.” (The crowd, we get. The carpet, we spread. But the entire credit is taken by Atalji).
Nanaji was also uncomfortable with Vajpayee’s decision to merge the Jana Sangh into the Janata Party in 1977, and his decision to move the new BJP in a ‘Gandhian socialist’ direction in 1980. Nanaji would sit on the floor in his spartan apartment at the Deendayal Research Institute, complaining about Vajpayee. But rather than make these complaints public, Nanaji chose to leave the party and go on ‘vanvaas’ to rural Chitrakoot.
The choice of exile was telling. While being active in the Jana Sangh, Nanaji had always encouraged rural movements that worked outside the state. He had worked with Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement. He was also a supporter of Jayaprakash Narayan’s rural work and was critical in bringing JP to the anti-Indira movement that would soon take his initials.
A few years after the Emergency ended, he moved to Chitrakoot where he worked with tribals and started a rural university. His actions showcase a strand of RSS thinking that has some similarity to Gandhi’s communitarian vision of post-Independence India.
Each of these contributions live on in the BJP today. The kind of systematic money power it wields would have been impossible without the early networks that Nanaji provided; Modi’s BJP has moved more towards Nanaji’s ideology rather than Vajpayee’s. And the rural institutions the RSS has cultivated, or the Anna Hazare movement it supported, provides electoral dividends to this day.
The author teaches at Ashoka University. He is writing a book on the BJP before Narendra Modi