By Bibhudatta Pradhan and Nc Bipindra
They’re known as the RSS — a force of more than four million volunteers devoted to the re-election of India’s hardline Hindu prime minister.
But the power of the secretive, all-male Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh stretches way beyond dusty villages and sprawling urban centers. More members of the group, founded in 1925, are in the top ranks of government than ever before — including India’s president and vice president, the head of the ruling party and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who joined its children’s unit when he was eight years old.
With its affiliates, the RSS is recognized as one of the world’s largest non-government associations — and it’s also the ideological mentor of Modi’s ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. For three days last month, key RSS functionaries from all over the country gathered for their annual conclave in Gwalior in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh to discuss their core tenet: the protection of Hindu traditions and beliefs.
It set the tone of the agenda for the next BJP government. Priorities include the construction of a Hindu temple at the disputed site of Ayodhya, a uniform civil code for all religions and the abolition of special status for Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. All these were featured in the BJP’s election manifesto unveiled on Monday.
For Modi, the RSS also serves another function: It operates one of the country’s most effective get-out-the-vote operations. The group’s support, which hasn’t always been a guarantee for the BJP, could determine whether Modi stays on for another five-year term after votes are counted on May 23.
“Whatever we did in 2014 election, we will do this time also,” Alok Kumar, acting president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an affiliate organization of RSS, said at the Gwalior conclave. “We will try for one hundred percent polling to strengthen the Hindu forces.’’
Other key RSS members, some of whom asked not to be identified, confirmed the group would support the BJP in force as voters head to the polls in the weeks ahead.
“We will go door-to-door for maximum voting,’’ Om Prakash Sisodia, a full-time official from the RSS in Madhya Pradesh, said over breakfast on the sidelines of the meeting.
The RSS — which is Hindi for National Volunteer Corps — has only twice before put all its might behind the ruling party and mobilized cadres to campaign openly: in 1977 when the RSS was struggling for its survival, and in 2014 when it was blamed for propagating terrorism.
The group, banned three times in post-independent India, has been accused by opponents of fueling religious conflict that has claimed thousands of lives — mostly Muslims. A closed society, it mostly communicates mostly verbally with its members, keeps no records of those it recruits and has few dealings with the media.
The organization now has unprecedented influence across India, according to Walter Andersen, a professor of South Asia studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, who has studied the right-wing group for over five decades and also co-authored two books on the RSS.
“On policy process, yes, it is much more active and outspoken than ever before and that is because the affiliates have grown rapidly and those affiliates have penetrated every aspect of Indian society,’’ Andersen said. Modi enjoys their support because they “have a measure of influence in a BJP government to achieve what they want.’’
Like every BJP president before him, Amit Shah was among the 1,400 delegates who went to Gwalior. He sat humbly on a plastic seat with the rest of the attendees — without the paramilitary commandos who accompany him everywhere — and asked for their support to make Modi prime minister once again.
That approach has already paid off. RSS members have gone village-to-village, house-by-house to mobilize voters, highlighting Modi’s flagship welfare programs and calming the anger of citizens who still feel left behind in a country where a quarter of the population still live on less than $2 per day.
“As a leader of a political party, it’s his duty to seek support from all,’’ Suresh ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi, general secretary of the RSS, told reporters at the Gwalior conclave. “The role of the Sangh is to work for hundred percent voting in elections.’’
While the RSS officially says it’s apolitical, volunteers work in their “individual capacity” at polling booths to ensure maximum voter turnout for the ruling party. They coordinate with millions of members from its 40 affiliated organizations, including labor, student and education wings, as well as another 500 social groups that want Modi to win again.
No other political party in India has a similar organization behind it, said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a political analyst who has written a biography on Modi and the RSS. “The RSS has the biggest political network in the country, but they don’t say it’s a political network,” he said.
For nearly a century, the RSS has sought to place itself at the center of the country’s policy-making process. During Modi’s regime it has grown exponentially, with a 32 percent rise in daily gatherings across the country, according to figures provided by the organization.
The RSS has its own political priorities. The organization advocates for Hindu culture and believes India belongs only to Hindus. It has made the protection of cows — considered sacred to Hindus — a top priority.
When its chief Mohan Bhagwat said in April last year India must have ownership and control of the debt-ridden state-run carrier, Air India Ltd., the minister in charge committed publicly to retain the airline in Indian hands. It has since changed direction after a failed sale attempt.
One of its affiliated organizations successfully pushed the government to cut royalties on genetically modified cotton seeds, despite a concerted lobbying effort from multinational Monsanto Co. And the RSS and its associated organizations have pressured the government on issues ranging from the goods and services tax, labor and education to healthcare, forcing policy and rule changes.
Still, the RSS does not align with the BJP on every issue. The group has come into conflict with successive BJP-led governments that didn’t give more favorable treatment to domestic industry over foreign investment, and they’ve opposed some aspects of Modi’s proposed labor reforms.
RSS volunteers are like any other citizens who like the ideology of Modi and support him, said Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, vice president of BJP. “We are inspired by the same ideology.”
The RSS is famous for daily gatherings on sports fields and school grounds around the country. Volunteers including children as young as five exercise, march and sing patriotic songs while donning a distinctive uniform, which only in 2016 changed from khaki shorts to long brown trousers. During Modi’s time, the group said, its daily gatherings swelled to 59,266 from 44,982 in 2014.
“Modi is the most loved child of the RSS,’’ said Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “This time again RSS will back him to the hilt so that its ideological objectives are further progressed.’’
— Bloomberg, With assistance by Archana Chaudhary