Modi's nationalist foot soldiers take centre-stage in India

LUCKNOW India Tue May 27, 2014 7:07pm IST

1 of 2. Activists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu hardline group, hold bamboo sticks as they take part in a march in Bhopal February 23, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Raj Patidar/Files

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LUCKNOW India (Reuters) - Standing with Narendra Modi as he was sworn in as prime minister on the majestic forecourt of India's presidential palace was a cabinet made up almost entirely of ministers whose careers started in a hardline Hindu nationalist movement.

After the stunning majority won by Modi's party in the general election, the movement that believes multi-faith India should be recognised first and foremost as a Hindu nation feels closer than ever before to achieving its goals.

Hundreds of thousands of volunteers from the movement led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) actively campaigned in the election, using technology and sheer manpower to mobilise voters in regions where Modi's party has traditionally been weak.

Many are recruited into the RSS as children and stay in the movement through their lives. In the election, these volunteers carried voter lists on tablet computers or mobile phones, the biggest operation by the organisation since 1977 when disparate opposition groups merged to beat former prime minister Indira Gandhi and her Congress party.

"It is thrilling," said RSS campaigner Prabhu Narain Srivastava, wearing the group's uniform of baggy khaki shorts and a white shirt as children under his tutelage exercised and played school-yard games in Lucknow, the capital of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.

"We have been working for years for an absolute majority and now support is overflowing."

The defeat dealt this time to the Congress party and its secular politics that have dominated independent India has given some nationalists hope that the world's biggest democracy is shifting permanently to a Hindu-first majoritarianism.

Of the 23 cabinet ministers sworn in on Monday, 17 have their roots in the RSS and affiliates. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is effectively the political wing of the RSS. Many of the 22 junior ministers are also linked to the movement.

Modi, who joined the RSS as a child and spent his formative years working full-time for the organisation, shares its belief in a strong, proud India.

"Modi, the BJP and the RSS, it's not right to treat them separately, his is a leaf from the same branch. They can't be separated from each other, they complement each other," said Dinesh Sharma, a BJP leader and RSS member in Uttar Pradesh.

Still, Modi's government is unlikely to pursue an aggressively Hindu agenda. His election campaign focused firmly on promoting economic revival and good governance and those goals are likely to take priority over divisive aspects of the RSS platform that critics say fan religious hatred, especially against Muslims.

EQUAL JUSTICE FOR ALL

The RSS has told Modi it sees the main challenges for the new government as "security, economy, governance and social fabric", said the group's spokesman and national executive member Ram Madhav, who is being consulted by the Modi team.

However, social fabric is code for the government's treatment of minorities, which the RSS feels receive special treatment because of positive discrimination policies aimed at economically depressed sections of society.

"When I say social fabric, it means from the government side no majority-minority politics. Justice to everyone. Equal justice to all," said Madhav.

The BJP kept three of the RSS' key demands in its manifesto, including a promise to explore building a temple on the disputed site of a 16th-century mosque that was razed by Hindu zealots in 1992, but sources in both organisations say that these issues will not be a priority in the near future.

The other two are withdrawing the special status given to Jammu and Kashmir, India's only Muslim majority state, and doing away with civil laws that set different marriage and divorce rules for different religions.

The change the RSS seeks to bring about may be more subtle.

It runs schools, and where the BJP is in office often revises textbooks to include a romantic view of India's past. It also campaigns against conversions to Christianity and Islam.

One example is party president Rajnath Singh, a lifetime RSS worker who helped deliver victory to Modi and was sworn in as Modi's home minister on Monday. During a spell in the Uttar Pradesh state government in the 1990s he introduced Vedic Mathematics to the school syllabus, a controversial subject that its proponents say is based on ancient Hindu texts but that many academics say is fraudulent.

HISTORY OF TENSIONS, VIOLENCE

About 975 million people in India are Hindus. Muslims account for 15 percent of Indians but, numbering 175 million, theirs is the third-largest Muslim population in the world. Centuries of rule by medieval Muslim invaders drove a wedge between Hindus and Muslims. Tensions have grown since Pakistan was carved from Muslim-majority areas of India in 1947, a violent partition in which hundreds of thousands were killed.

Modi himself has been tarred by critics as a Hindu extremist after religious riots in his home state in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. Courts have found no evidence to indict him and years of peaceful and successful economic management in Gujarat have changed his image.

Critics say the RSS and its Hindutva, or hardline Hindu, philosophy hardens divisions in society in order to unify Hindu opinion and votes.

"Plan A for Modi is to succeed on the economic front, and if that does not work then emphasising ... Hindutva politics may be an important Plan B. It's more a plank the BJP uses when it wants to conquer difficult (parliamentary) seats or fears electoral defeat," Christophe Jaffrelot, a scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has written a book on Hindu nationalism, said in an interview on Scroll.in.

The BJP's resounding victory in Uttar Pradesh, India's biggest electoral battleground, was partly won by tapping into voter anger at positive discrimination schemes and alleged favouritism towards Muslims by the state government. That anger boiled over into Hindu-Muslim riots that killed some 60 people in Muzaffarnagar district in the west of the state in September.

The BJP member of parliament from Muzaffarnagar, a man police charged with inciting the violence last year, was inducted into Modi's team as a junior minister on Monday. The party says the charges are politically motivated.

(Additional reporting by Sruthi Gottipathi in NEW DELHI; Editing by John Chalmers and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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