By Amulya Ganguli
Two intriguing exercises in U-turns are on at the moment. While Congress president Rahul Gandhi is trying to rid the Congress of its pro-Muslim image, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief, Mohan Bhagwat, is claiming that a Hindu 'rashtra' (nation) will include Muslims as well.
Although Bhagwat did not specifically say so, it was obvious that the Muslims would not be treated as second-class citizens in a nation of Hindus as was decreed by M.S. Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak (head) of the RSS.
Are these changes for real or fake? If they are real, then both the Congress and the RSS can be said to be turning over a new leaf.
The formidable impact of such changes, especially the one in the RSS, on the social and political scene is obvious. In a way, it will be on the scale of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) which brought the communist Soviet Union into the capitalist world.
Will the RSS similarly break out of its earlier Hindu-centric mould for which it was accused by several judicial commissions of instigating communal riots and become secular?
However, the problem in the case of the RSS is that it is not alone. It is a part of a large brotherhood which includes the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and others.
Although the RSS is their mentor, it is not known whether it will be able to bring their thinking in line with its new, accommodative mode.
The task is bound to be difficult considering that the saffron brotherhood has nurtured an anti-minority outlook for decades, regarding Muslims as "internal enemies No. 1" and Christians as "internal enemies No. 2", according to Golwakar.
Although the RSS and the BJP have now distanced themselves from this section of Golwalkar's catechism, the Ramjanmabhoom agitation of the 1990s showed how the Hindutva brigade continues to hold the two communities as responsible for all of India's woes, starting from the destruction of temples in medieval times to the country's partition in the modern period to the conversion of Hindus to "alien" religions.
Another fear of the saffronities is that the Muslims would outnumber the Hindus by breeding exponentially with their four wives - hum panch, hamare pachis, as Narendra Modi once said - while the Christian missionaries will continue to "harvest" gullible Hindu souls.
It is open to question, therefore, as to what extent Bhagwat's words of wisdom will lead to a dramatic rethinking in the Hindutva ranks. It is this sceptism which apparently made the opposition parties at the national level stay away from the three-day conclave which Bhagwat addressed at New Delhi's prestigious Vigyan Bhavan.
However, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. If there are no more lynchings of suspected beef-eaters, no more campaigns in favour of 'ghar wapsi' or the reconversion of Muslims, and no more instances of love jehad resulting in the harassment of inter-faith couples, then it will be presumed that the RSS chief's counsel of restraint is having a sobering effect on the saffron storm-troopers.
As important as the stoppage of lynchings will be the end of the cold-blooded killings of rationalists or scientists or journalists, which have evidently been carried out by those indoctrinated by the philosophy of hate directed against Left-Liberal members of the intelligentsia.
And, what about the venomous outpourings of the countless saffron trolls who let out whoops of joy over the killing of an intrepid scribe? Will they pipe down and become models of restrained behaviour?
Cynics may wonder whether Bhagwat's latest nod to the "idea" of a multicultural India, which is normally derided by the Hindu Right, is an attempt to gain respectability for the Sangh Parivar by entering the gated enclaves of the Left-Liberals who regard themselves as the standard-bearers of a modern, cosmopolitan lifestyle while the Parivar with its fetish for Hindi, vegetarianism and cow's urine is seen as a bucolic outsider.
It is possible that the RSS realised that notwithstanding the enormous material and political clout it has acquired because of the BJP's political success, its social standing hasn't improved.
The anglicised, deracinated "urban Naxalites" in the cocktail circuits continue to regard the Hindu Right as usurpers in the corridors of power.
But if the RSS dons the cloak of inclusiveness, where does that leave the BJP? Already, Bhagwat's praise of the Congress's role in the freedom struggle and his observation that he does not believe in the idea of the country being made "mukt" (free) of any party has poured cold water over the BJP's plan of ushering in a Congress-mukt Bharat.
This is the first sign that the RSS and the BJP do not see eye to eye on at least one matter. The place of honour for Muslims in a Hindu rashtra will also focus attention on the BJP's reluctance to choose Muslims (and Christians) as the party's election candidates.
The branding by some BJP leaders of their opponents as anti-nationals also goes against Bhagwat's moderate tone. If the RSS chief's discourse robs the BJP of its divisive plank, its election campaign is bound to lose its sting. The 'chelas' (ideological followers), therefore, will have to harmonise their political line with the guru's latest views.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)