LONDON/NEW, DELHI – From a distance, the scene is as colorful as any in India. Men dressed as Hindu deities, with tinsel crowns and tridents, wait for their turn on the stage. Teenagers saunter by trucks carrying effigies of mythological heroes and listen to speeches.
Yet a closer look reveals elements that are less picturesque. The speakers are repeating well-worn slogans common among hard-line elements of India’s religious right. The young men are armed, some with ceremonial swords of little use, but others with combat knives and heavy-bladed hatchets.
“This is our tradition,” one says. “We are showing that we, too, are strong.”
The young men are from the Bajrang Dal, a youth organization dedicated to advancing a rigorous and revivalist version of Hinduism. The meeting last week in Delhi, the capital, was organized to celebrate the birthday of Hanuman, the monkey god.
“The others are always showing their strength. Now it’s our turn,” said Nala Kumar Thakur, an 18-year-old student from south Delhi, demonstrating slashing strokes with his saber. “All Hindus should know that their culture is under threat.”
The teens of Bajrang Dal believe they may soon have something else to celebrate. With the Indian election moving into its final weeks — the process of balloting 815 million eligible voters takes nearly two months — their favored candidate appears set to win in this emerging economic power of 1.2 billion people.
That candidate is Narendra Modi, the 63-year-old who leads the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Bajrang Dal is among the most militant of the many nationalist and religious organizations active in India that come under the umbrella of the Sangh Parivar (family of associations), which has been linked to a variety of violent acts. The BJP is perhaps the most moderate. Positioned somewhere between the two is the vast Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, National Volunteer Association), which Modi joined around the age of 10.
Many in India, and some observers overseas, are concerned by the possibility that an RSS veteran might soon run the country. Critics say that Modi stood by when 1,000 mainly Muslims died in sectarian violence in the state of Gujarat in 2002, shortly after he became chief minister there, and their fears for India’s communal harmony are thus well-founded.
Last week, 60 Bollywood personalities called on their countrymen to vote for the incumbent Congress party, despite its reputation for graft and economic mismanagement after 10 years in power, “to protect our country’s secular foundation”. In a letter to The Guardian, others, including Indian-born artist Anish Kapoor and author Salman Rushdie, argued that a Modi win would threaten the pluralism enshrined in the Indian Constitution.
But a Supreme Court investigation did not find sufficient evidence to substantiate the charges against Modi relating to the 2002 riots, which he denies, and other figures from the film world have backed him as a “visionary leader.” Some dismiss Kapoor and Rushdie as out of touch. Modi’s supporters also stress that Gujarat has been peaceful since 2002, unlike parts of India run by other parties, and claim that Modi’s pro-business policies have led to growth that has benefited all local groups.
Underlining the ideological roots of the BJP in the powerful, if low-profile, religious and nationalist right-wing movement is the unprecedented operation launched by groups from the Sangh Parivar to maximize Modi’s chances of victory.
In Indian polls, the first-past-the-post system combines with long-standing traditions of voting in blocs for community interests to give a small number of swing voters a massive impact. This means the work of the giant but highly disciplined RSS, as well as smaller fringe groups such as the Bajrang Dal, can be critical.
“Their significance varies from place to place but . . . they can have a very high impact,” said Varghese K George, political editor of the Hindu newspaper.
Just how much the RSS, which was formed in 1925 to encourage a resurgence of Hindu culture in the face of British colonial rule, is helping Modi’s campaign is hard to determine in crowded cities such as Delhi. But in places like the small temple town of Vrindavan, a scruffy collection of shrines, ashrams, potholed streets and tenements 190 km east of the capital, the depth of the collaboration is clear.
This region, on the margin of the vast northern state of Uttar Pradesh, is the Hindi heartland. Political strategists know the road to power in Delhi lies through the rough, poor state’s cities, towns and multitude of villages. It is here that the BJP has made its biggest effort, with the RSS at the vanguard.
Every morning a score of local men gather at 6 a.m. for the drill session that is the principal ritual of the RSS. They sing, pray to “Mother India,” drill and do exercises, part of another 40,000 such meetings simultaneously held nationwide.
“This is a daily routine for tens of millions of people across India. The RSS is the most strong and most popular volunteer organization in the world. Our goal is to spread the love of the motherland among all society,” math professor Dr. Krishna Kumar Kanodia said as men behind him marched in lines and went through yoga routines.
Kanodia, who joined the RSS 30 years ago, said that India was at a turning point. “There is a new age dawning,” he said. “It was prophesied 178 years ago. The future of India will shine. The U.S. is just an economic and military superpower. We will be greater than that, because we will be a cultural superpower too. People must vote for the best leader for national power.”
After the drill session, the men spread out through Vrindavan, which goes to the polls this week. The RSS leadership, having controversially decided to mobilize its cadres for the election, has said it will not endorse any single candidate, even Modi, who has sprung from its own ranks, but will only call on voters to cast their ballots in the national interest.
“The tradition in the RSS . . . was that the organization prevailed over the man, and leaders had a collective decision-making process and never projected a single individual,” said professor Christophe Jaffrelot, a specialist in South Asian extremist organizations at King’s College London.
But as the activists move through the streets of Vrindavan, handing out BJP leaflets featuring Modi’s portrait, there was no such reticence. “We tell people to vote for Modi,” said small business owner Harish Bhartia, 47. “He is the strongest person of India. He can tackle our problems.”
Phone numbers are recorded so each RSS activist can make hundreds of calls on polling day to make sure supporters have voted.
“RSS leaders may be worried at making their organization dependent on one man (but) Modi has galvanized the urban middle class and the . . . activists. The RSS need Modi more than he needs them,” said Jaffrelot.
For the BJP, this is a huge boost, giving it the organizational firepower to take on the local networks of the Congress party, in power for all but 13 years since India gained independence in 1947.
Heema Malini, a former film star and BJP candidate for the Mathura constituency that includes Vrindavan, said the RSS had helped her campaign “very well” as she addressed a meeting of activists from the organization and from the more militant Vishva Hindu Parishad on Friday. Despite little talent for public speaking or enthusiasm for meeting voters, Malini is expected to win easily.
RSS activists and officials say they do not discriminate on the basis of religion. Several pointed out there were senior Muslim officials in the BJP. But dozens of conversations reveal a worldview that is deeply sectarian. Few endorse the sentiment of the Bajrang Dal official in Delhi who told The Observer that India’s 150 million Muslims were not “really Indian” because they prayed facing Mecca, but many claim Indian Muslims are loyal to Pakistan rather than India, are attempting to win a “demographic war,” and support terrorism.
Both the Muslim Mughal dynasty, which ruled much of South Asia from the 16th to 19th centuries, and British imperialists are seen as foreign invaders who between them destroyed a perfect Hindu rural society. All accuse successive Indian governments of “appeasement” and favoritism toward religious minorities.
“This current government is working for the Muslims and only for the Muslims,” said Padma Nabh Goswami, a full-time RSS activist in Vrindavan.
The RSS worldview is also deeply conservative — and expansionist. Many RSS activists blamed a recent surge in sexual violence in India on the influence of “Western ideas.” For Padam Singh, the head of the RSS in Vrindavan, today’s India is a stunted colonial creation and a mere shadow of “Greater Bharat,” a civilization-based state stretching from Afghanistan to Indonesia. “This election is about change. And that means bringing Mr. Modi to power,” Singh said.
The predicted victory of Modi thus poses many questions. How close is the former top RSS organizer’s ideology to the group of today? How much influence will the many other senior RSS members currently in top posts in the BJP have if the party takes power? How will fringe groups like the Bajrang Dal react to victory? Could, or would, Modi restrain them if they launch new campaigns? And how far could Modi actually implement any radical agenda, given the complexity of India’s political system and the necessity of coalitions and consensus building?
For the moment, there are no answers. Modi has already shown he is prepared to reject key parts of the RSS agenda, such as a commitment to economic self-sufficiency, and downplay others, even a demand to build a Hindu temple at the contested site in Ayodhya. He has also distanced himself from militant groups like the Bajrang Dal. Most voters appear to have decided that Modi can bring jobs, end graft, reinvigorate economic growth and restore battered national pride. Other concerns appear secondary.