IT WAS ONCE one of the best known quasi-political organisations in India, but for some time now, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) seems to have lost steam. With a new electorate—of which 150 million is in the 18-24 age group—the RSS message of Hindutva no longer resonates as it did with the previous generation. It was written off as a spent force, even as one of its family, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was on the ascendant. The BJP, despite being often criticised for its Hindu roots, makes no bones about its affiliation to the RSS; its website says it is “today the most prominent member of the family of organisations known as the ‘Sangh Parivar’ and nurtured by the RSS.”
With the BJP in power at the centre with a sweeping majority, questions are being asked about the RSS ideology and whether the Hindutva agenda will be front and centre. At the heart of all this is a simple question: will the RSS be the power behind the throne? Spokespersons from both the BJP and RSS have denied this in various forums, stating that the Sangh will not interfere in the functioning of the government. At a function in Jaipur, held after the election results, RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav said: “The Sangh is not a political organisation but a social one…There is no way that the RSS would interfere in the government’s functioning and politics.” And followed that with: “If required, the Sangh may give suggestions.”
The fact is that a non-political organisation like the RSS can afford to take strong ideological positions, but a political party needs to be far more pragmatic. For instance, while the RSS has traditionally been all about swadeshi and self reliance, can the BJP afford to keep foreign players away from sectors such as defence and insurance? The party has already taken a clear stand against foreign direct investment in retail. Will that apply to other sectors too?
Both the RSS and BJP have, at various points, spoken out against the culture of dole that the Congress-led government believed in. Rather than wealth distribution through the Food Security Bill and the like, they speak of wealth creation measures and encouraging indigenous industry. But what does this mean to existing welfare schemes? The new party in power can hardly afford to dismantle all of these. In fact, in his speech after he was officially announced as the leader of the BJP-led alliance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “A government is that which thinks about the poor, works for the poor, and lives for the poor. I dedicate the new government to the poor.” After that, it’s going to be well nigh impossible to dismantle too many of the welfare schemes put in place by the Congress government.
Also, there’s this. “No government wants to accept this but basically each successive government benefits from the good work done by a previous incumbent,” says Arvind Virmani, former chief economic adviser to the government of India. “So the Congress government between 2004 and 2009 benefitted from the good work done by the BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and they are now paying for the complacency that they showed for a decade. Today, people want to know how you are going to better their lives. They will vote for anyone who promises a path to prosperity.”
The first hints to how the country will be run will, perhaps, be seen in the new government’s Budget, which it is expected to present some 50 days after taking office. And despite unambiguous statements to the contrary, there are growing murmurs that the RSS will push its Hindutva agenda through the government. Except, say RSS brass, it’s no longer a Hindutva agenda as commonly understood (or misunderstood). The organisation has changed direction and nuanced its approach when nobody was noticing, and is now pushing the development and economic growth cards.
The new RSS is changing its pitch, placing the economic message of jobs and prosperity above Hindu culture and religion, redefining the thrust of the Hindutva message for the first time in its 89-year history. Till now, the general public has seen RSS as a hardline Hindu organisation, prizing Ram over the rupee. It did not have any distinct economic ideology apart from swadeshi, a Gandhian idea of economic nationalism which was hardly unique. Till liberalisation in 1991, almost every Indian political party had, to varying degrees, espoused swadeshi. What set the RSS apart had always been the larger goal of Hindu revivalism. The reason for this comes partly from the definition of Hindutva itself. The man who defined the word Hindutva in 1921 had nothing to say about economics. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, writing while imprisoned at the infamous Kala Paani colonial jail in the island of Andaman, said, “Hindutva is not a word, but a history. Not only the spiritual or religious history of our people… but a history is full. Hinduism is only a fraction, a derivative, a part of Hindutva.”
Madhav has recently clarified: ‘We are not an economic fundamentalist. RSS is of the view that it is the government of India which should be making the decisions about what economic decisions are good for the country,’
TO UNDERSTAND THIS changed organisation, I spoke with some of the most reclusive strategists of the RSS starting with Swaminathan Gurumurthy, the undisputed economic brain in the RSS, to B. P. Sharma, one of the senior economic strategists of the organisation, and also newer affiliates like Saurabh Lahiri (known as Lahiri Guruji), an IIT Varanasi trained engineer and risk management expert who heads the Hindutva Abhiyan and is part of the Sangh Parivar.
Gurumurthy is one of India’s most sought-after, yet low-key chartered accountants; the sort billionaires consult on a regular basis. He has been called in as advisor to some of India Inc.’s biggest deals, and is famously known as the man who helped the Bajaj brothers, Rahul and Shishir, resolve their differences in 2003. Even before that, he made a name for himself as a financial sleuth; in the 1980s, when The Indian Express newspaper took on the might of Dhirubhai Ambani and Reliance Industries, Gurumurthy helped the newspaper uncover several irregularities in how Reliance was run. That created the image of Gurumurthy the giantkiller.
It’s not just India Inc. that listens to this low-profile accountant. For over four decades, he has been a member of the RSS, and was one of the convenors of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an organisation under the RSS to promote economic nationalism. That makes him seem less important than he actually is, which is the chief economic ideologue of the RSS. He says he draws inspiration from British economic historian Angus Madisson who explained how India’s economy collapsed from an entrepreneurial age to a strongly controlled British colonial rule and the socialist model India followed after independence stifled its growth. “We have to return to a model where individual and his ecosystem, his friends and family create flourishing enterprise with as little interference from the state as possible. State dependence was never India’s way. We need to empower communities and remove state barriers,” says Gurumurthy.
NOT EVERYONE’S BUYING into the changed organisation, of course. “Economics is a mask for the RSS,” says Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP and former minister of state for human resource and development. “In their entire ideology, economics has never been core. Their ideology is about religion and not economics. This economic mask allows them to try and present a benign face but a mask is a mask.”
Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, agrees. “When you study the model that is being espoused both by the RSS and the BJP, it does not hold. Even in Gujarat, the human development indicators leave much to be desired. The promise of prosperity needs to be examined not just through income but though human indicators like health.” Ghosh adds that the promise of prosperity to all could come at the cost of identity. “This a homogenising effort towards the goal of a majoritarian [Hindu] nation using neoliberal economics.”
But, says Gurumurthy, this is not true. He says that the fundamental flaw of Nehruvian socialism is that it made more and more people dependent on the state through large social welfare schemes — including those of last decade which have been criticised for inability to create skills and assets. “The more people become dependent on the state, the more their inherent entrepreneurial capability shrinks,” he says. Rather than homogenous big industry, he adds, the RSS vision is of empowered entrepreneurs taking the nation ahead.
This entrepreneur-driven model is what Modi has used with great effect in Gujarat, leading to the rise of what’s being called the ‘Gujarat model’. In the process, he has pushed out hardline RSS members like Pravin Togadia, and clipped the wings of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. This led to some friction between Modi and the RSS in the early days, says economist and historian Meghnad Desai. “The RSS relationship with Modi has been difficult because he has really pushed the envelope in transforming what the whole Hindutva politics meant onto a jobs delivery model.”
Had Modi’s model not been successful, the Lok Sabha elections would likely have seen a somewhat different outcome. But “what if” history, while fascinating, is nothing like the real thing in this case. The RSS saw the force of the argument Modi was making, and realised that to reduce the disconnect with the youth and marginalised, the economic argument was a winner. The BJP believed Modi’s formula would take it to power, which was apparent in the party’s 2014 manifesto. Unlike in past elections, the manifesto does not devote a special section to the building of the temple in Ayodhya, nor does it devote pages to the propagation of Hindu culture. Rather, it mentions the temple once, and spends far more space on laying out the party’s stand on the economy and industry.
THE RSS AND the Sangh Parivar burst into public discourse in the early 1990s, demanding the tearing down of a mosque in Ayodhya and replacing it with a Ram temple. The BJP, then just over a decade old (the party was formed in 1980), was equally active in this movement, which managed to, for a period, overshadow the huge shift taking place in the Indian economy. Till then, India had been largely closed to the world, although a process of modernisation had begun under Congress prime minister Indira Gandhi and later, under her successor (and son) Rajiv Gandhi. Coupled with many years of a snail-like pace of growth, it meant that the economy was floundering.
By 1991, the country was facing a balance of payment crisis, and was forced to appeal to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank for a loan. The loan came with strings, including opening up of the markets, which then finance minister Manmohan Singh announced in 1991.
The Sangh Parivar, however, was then more concerned about the Hindutva message and the building of the Ram mandir. There were noises made about selling out to foreign interests, of course, and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch claimed that the country’s indigenous industry would be eroded by cheap foreign goods. A report in late 1991 in The Hindu newspaper (then widely seen as an apolitical observer) stated that the BJP had argued that Singh’s plans were “far too radical and that in the name of liberalisation and globalisation foreign banks and unscrupulous elements are benefiting”. But these were whispers compared to the roar for the Ram temple. The Hindutva agenda, it was clear, took precedence.
The other burning issue (quite literally, if you remember the students who immolated themselves in protest) that was identified with the RSS was that of caste-based reservations in educational institutions and government jobs, as recommended by the Mandal Commission and implemented by then Prime Minister V.P. Singh in 1989. There were widespread protests by student groups against caste-based reservations, and the Sangh Parivar’s student organisation, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad was one of the groups responsible for organised protests against the Mandal recommendations.
But all that’s in the past. Today, with the ideological manoeuvrability that political parties all over the world are known for, the RSS has morphed into an organisation that claims to be inclusive and development oriented. Does the thrust on development and growth and jobs for all mean that the Sangh Parivar is giving up its dreams to build the Ram temple? There’s nothing to indicate that. What is clear, however, is that the RSS is framing itself as a political player—albeit a backroom one. It is pushing the same agenda that Narendra Modi and the BJP did in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections—that of ‘less government, more governance’.
There’s logic behind this shift. The message of Hindutva resonated with a generation seeking a sense of identity at a time when the “idea of India” was being shaken by the entrance of global players. A clear, nationalist message went down well. However, three decades on, that message no longer appeals. The new demographic has grown up with open markets, and aspires for material success; it also has no patience with debating solutions, preferring to do something about its problems. And the RSS is talking to them.
“Building the temple is important but just building the temple means nothing unless you can give people livelihood,” says Lahiri, who used to work at IBM as a risk assessment analyst. “Hindutva has been seen through a very narrow prism. How can we talk about bringing back the cultural and spiritual glory of India when there are no jobs, no food, no roads, no electricity and no prosperity?”
Narendra Modi, now Prime Minister, realised this early on as chief minister of Gujarat. While he started off as the poster boy of Hindutva (up to and including communal riots in 2002, soon after he was sworn in as chief minister for the first time), he realised that the message of religion was not going to be enough to keep him in power. Development—in terms of job creation, infrastructure, and increased investment—was his platform. And despite much of the country, and indeed the world, seeing him as the man who failed to stop communal riots, his state voted him back to power three times.
THERE’S ANOTHER REASON for the change of image. The RSS (and by extension the BJP) has always been viewed as an organisation for upper caste Hindus. Even though it has shunned caste, it is almost always painted as being Brahmin and baniya (trader caste) dominated by opposition (and lower caste) parties.
The RSS could, conceivably, have played the Hindu card to get in these castes (‘we are all Hindus’ or a similar message of inclusion), but the fact is that many Hindu Dalits (the catch-all term for scheduled castes of all religions) refuse to be identified as Hindu. Lower castes, including the scheduled castes and tribes, make up 23% of the electorate; of this, Dalits alone account for 16%. Muslims, meanwhile, make up 14% of the population. So, for a political party with ambitions to wrest power at the centre, gaining the support of the 23% was vital. Putting jobs and growth at the forefront allowed the BJP get support and votes from lower castes.
The RSS leaders who met me explained that caste, for them, is about expertise in a particular skill or trade, with complete social mobility and no discrimination. It’s almost the law of Manu all over again—except with an economic twist. “Caste plus economics makes a great nation, caste plus politics destroys it,” says Gurumurthy, who tends to speak in aphorisms.
This is something that Professor Badri Narayan Tiwari, author of Fascinating Hindutva, and teacher of social history and cultural anthropology at the G. B. Pant Institute of Social Sciences in Allahabad, also attempts to explain to me. Having studied caste, economics and Hindutva closely in Uttar Pradesh for many years, he says: “It is wrong to look at the lower caste of Dalit vote as different from any other voter; the aspirations are the same. The promise of jobs is very powerful — every party promises this but no one with more vigour than Modi. That is an attraction.”
Says the economist Bibek Debroy, author of Gujarat — Governance for Growth and Development (2012): “Narendra Modi showed in Gujarat how the governance and development discourse could rise above sectarianism, he showed the common ground and how it could work as a bridge.”
The RSS is marrying this aspiration with its own political expediency, says scholar and writer on Dalit economics, Chandra Bhan Prasad. The defeats in the 2004 and 2009 national elections taught the RSS and the BJP that without winning over lower castes they could not hope to win. “The BJP lost in 2004 because of the aspirations that had been unleashed and the benefits, especially to rural India, had not reached fast enough,” says Virmani.
Prasad says though the lower castes have always been seen as one monolithic voting bloc, and used as such by politicians, two things have happened in the last few years. Many younger lower caste members define their life in terms of economic success because they have seen that making money breaks a lot of the old prejudices — and so they think more in terms of empowered career, not caste power. “They want someone who is talking about those things and are more attracted to the kind of pitch that Modi has. Also especially in sub-castes like Valmikis, Khatiqs (traditional butchers) and Dhobis feel that even within Dalits they are more discriminated against. Therefore, they see a return to Hinduism, especially if an institution as powerful as the RSS is wooing them, as a source of strength,” Prasad says. “The RSS realises that these two forces coming together gives them the best chance to expand their electoral base.”
Some of this focus on enterprise to bridge the gap between castes came when Nitin Gadkari, a long-time RSS man, was assigned as the president of the BJP. He formulated a plan to increase the BJP vote share by 10%. Part of his effort has been through his Purti Group which works in energy and agriculture. “Not even 100 people who work with me [his companies employ some 15,000 people in all] are from my [upper] caste,” Gadkari says. “My focus has always been to provide employment to lower castes and tribals. Economics is the answer.”
To critics who say that the RSS focus on growth and development is a cynical way of increasing the BJP’s vote share, the RSS talks history. Its own history to be precise. In 1973, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, the second sarsanghachalak or chief of the RSS, said: “There need not be any rigidity about the patterns of industrial ownerships. There are various patterns, such as, private enterprise, nationalisation, co-operation, municipalisation, democratisation, self-employment, joint-industry etc. For each industry, the pattern of ownership should be determined in the light of its peculiar characteristics and total requirement of the national economy.” When pitching casteless-ness, it also helps that Savarkar left behind was a legacy of breaking caste barriers. He was one of the first Indian leaders who started a Ganesh Utsav or celebrations dedicated to Lord Ganesh which was open to all Indians including lower castes.
This means the RSS has manoeuvring space to define its message, like it is with many affiliate arms, including the relatively new Hindutva Abhiyan led by Sourabh Lahiri. The Abhiyan has focussed on taking the jobs message to some of the most deprived lower caste districts in the country since it started in 2008. It works across the heartland of India, where also the maximum number of BJP votes are likely to come, from Dewas, Neemuch, Mandsaur, Sihore, Alirajpur and Jhabua districts in Madhya Pradesh to Jhunjhunu and Alwar in Rajasthan to Ranchi and Hazaibagh in Jharkhand and Begusarai and Motihari in Bihar. This includes hundreds of workshops on everything from computer training to English language classes.
This is what has attracted followers like Prashant Rorke, a Dalit social worker and Indian Revenue Service officer in Nagpur who believes the only way Hindutva can solve its differences with Dalits (who coined the anti-upper caste slogan, ‘Tilak, tarazu aur talwar, inko maro joote char’ which, roughly translated, means beat the symbols of the upper castes with shoes) is by talking about a common ground of financial growth. Inspired by Lahiri, Rorke runs a dozen government services coaching centres with his own money across Nagpur for 600 poor Dalit students.
“The only bridge that Hindu nationalism or Hindutva can have with the Dalits and lower castes is the equity that economic prosperity brings,” Rorke says, when we make a late night visit to the monument in Nagpur where Ambedkar had converted nearly 500,000 lower castes to Buddhism barely a month and a half before he died in 1956, and after, dejected by the pace of reform in Hindu society, he became a Buddhist himself. “People forget that Ambedkar was not just a great social reformer and a great constitutionalist, he was also a great economist — he asked us to become prosperous. Without roti (bread) and rozgar (income), there is no respect.”
This focus on wooing the Dalit and lower caste vote through an economic Hindutva has paid off in spades. The BJP has won 93 seats across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which were the strongholds of lower caste leaders such as Mayawati, Mulayam Singh, and Sharad Yadav. By means of smart alliances and by projecting Dalit leaders, the BJP ran away with a huge majority of seats. Tiwari points out that the Pasis, a Dalit sub-caste which makes up about 15% of the Dalit vote in Uttar Pradesh, have largely voted BJP.
Would it then be fair to say that Modi changed the RSS, I ask Desai. “I would argue that the change was already happening but Modi has hastened its pace. It is now a symbiotic equation where each cannot survive without the other—Modi needs the RSS network to enter national politics, and the RSS needs Modi as the embodiment of this new narrative of economics.” The symbiotic nature of the BJP-RSS relationship was seen when millions of RSS volunteers hit the streets to campaign for Modi. Which, as it turned out, worked very well for both.
(This essay was first published in Fortune India.)
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