New Delhi: Domestic politics not merely influences foreign policy; it sets the tone of it. The situation is no different for India. The off-on dialogue with Pakistan is a case in point. It is off again after some terrorist killings in Jammu and Kashmir. Imran Khan made a handsome offer of talks including the central issue of terrorism which deeply affects India. After saying yes, the Narendra Modi government said no. The rejection of the dialogue cuts deeper than the killings horrible as they are. It has, it would appear, much to do with India being in general election mode. A twisting and turning dialogue process which provokes more killings would become an unbearable burden for any government facing elections. The Narendra Modi government, furthermore, heads to the 2019 polls (year-end elections are ruled out) far weaker in comparison to the near-wave that brought Modi to power. There is a second reason to take fright at Imran Khan’s dialogue offer. It seems to have a connection with the mixed signals emanating from the RSS concerning relations with the Bharatiya Janata Party and especially the leadership of Modi and Amit Shah.

Pundits have been both surprised and confounded by the RSS chief’s advocacy of a moderate and inclusive Hindutva in a speech setting the agenda of the organization’s rather unprecedented outreach programme that commenced last week. The RSS chief’s tone was at variance from the stock stridency he exhibited in a function in the United States. Perhaps the extended stay in a foreign land cured the hard line on return. This has happened with others, including L. K. Advani. He called the 2002 riots shameful after a similar trip. Foreign audiences are not obliged to adopt extreme positions and their repulsion could change mindsets of radical advocates. The effect is usually permanent. This could partly explain Mohan Bhagwat’s softness towards non-Hindus and towards those unequivocally opposed to fringe Hindutva with its lynch mobs, resort to hate speeches and offers of bounties, and the indulgence in jingoism reminiscent of 1930s Nazism.

There is a second reason for the moderation of the RSS chief which could have made the Narendra Modi government jittery by far to snub Imran’s peace effort. Alluding to the RSS organization, Bhagwat called it thoroughly democratic and not subject to the whims of “one-man rule”. Narendra Modi’s regime is an open-and-shut case of one-man rule. The amended Rafale deal, for example, could be placed squarely at his door. Francois Hollande has comprehensively blotted his copybook. To have Bhagwat now speak of “one-man rule” should absolutely alert Modi of trouble ahead. To rub salt to the wound, the RSS chief has also castigated the BJP of Modi and Amit Shah for “Congress-mukt” politics while stressing his own and that of the Sangh organization’s belief in a “yukt” philosophy. If Bhagwat and the Sangh’s displeasure with the BJP results in equidistance from all political parties in 2019, the BJP is in hot waters. In the circumstances the Modi government cannot venture into a high-risk gamble with Pakistan. If the gamble fails, the opposition will make capital, and the RSS will join the chorus.

But there is also a deeper reason for Bhagwat and the RSS’s philosophic shift to moderation which could upset Modi and Shah’s calculations for 2019 and perhaps even prior. The shift likely involves two personalities, namely Rahul Gandhi and Nitin Gadkari. Rahul Gandhi has rediscovered the faith of his forebears in a most natural and appealing manner without affecting his political leanings and fundamental decency. Having gone as a common pilgrim to Kailash Mansarovar, the RSS can scarcely sustain its condemnation of his person and politics. Religiosity and observance do not necessarily mark an extremist; indeed, it is often the opposite. When religion is politicized, its sanctity is destroyed. If the Congress party, by virtue of Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, becomes the equivalent of Europe’s Christian democratic parties, it would be absurd for the RSS to spew stale venom on it. Perhaps Mohan Bhagwat sees the writing on the wall. Possibly keeping consciously away from the BJP in 2019 would serve the cause of the RSS; an arm’s length from the present leadership may be particularly valuable.

Which brings the focus to the second personage, this being Nitin Gadkari. Gadkari’s closeness to the Nagpur leadership of the RSS is an open secret. Gadkari believes in moderate politics and is the most acceptable face for NDA allies should the BJP be denied its own majority in 2019. Gadkari has even relations with all political parties and is opposed to “Congress-mukt” politics. Besides, he is an excellent minister, the only one who has performed in this otherwise third-rate government. If at all the RSS is interested in backing anyone in the BJP, it would be Nitin Gadkari. He is a team player. He is too smart to know that one-man rule will fail in a country as large, diverse and complex as India. The RSS’s moderation may well be designed to increase Gadkari’s acceptability across the political spectrum.

Surely some if not all these possibilities has occurred to the political managers of the current dispensation, and compelled an executive policy of the most mind-numbing status quo. The peace process with Pakistan is the obvious victim of this, and other fatalities in foreign policy will follow. Creativity in relations with the Major Powers, the United States, Russia and China, would be another casualty, though there was little of it to begin with. The world itself would not know what to make of India as it heads to the most dramatically portentous general election in years.