It’s the persona that draws in most of his followers, not the office or the party.
Behind the extraordinary transformation of India’s landscape promised, but not yet delivered, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a parallel development is taking place. It is an alteration in what might be called “the common-sense of the republic”, and if not exactly presided over by Modi, it has been greatly enabled by him.
The relationship is one of mutual convenience, for the forces behind this transformation, in turn, believe strongly – even fanatically – in Modi’s government. But the paradox is that they have no investment in the character or constitution of the state over which Modi presides – or indeed in democracy itself, except as a mechanism for majoritarianism.
The organisation that is behind this holy war – it is nothing less than that – is called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group established in 1925. Some sense of the kind of conservative, patriarchal order the RSS wants to bring into being in India is implicit in the kind of order it already has: membership is restricted to Hindu males.
But the RSS is no ordinary “cultural organisation”, although it describes itself as one, and it enjoys extraordinary access to the current regime. It is the parent body of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and many ministers of the present government – and most prominently, Modi himself – have a history of working for the RSS and continue to call themselves “swayamsevaks”, or functionaries of the organisation.
The RSS is profoundly suspicious not just of Muslims and Christians, but of democracy itself.
The RSS’ sense of mission is rooted in a profound sense of grievance. In the RSS’ worldview, India always was – and should remain – the home of the Hindu faith and the homeland of Hindu people. Whatever the currents that run through Indian history, the widest and strongest of them is Hinduism.
The members of the RSS believe that, for nearly a millennium, Hinduism has been under siege from sinister forces, such as Muslim invaders from the northwest and then British colonialism – and even by the Indian government after independence, which showed that it was “anti-Hindu” by establishing rights and protections for religious minorities as it “gave up” a part of the motherland for the formation of Pakistan.
It is an article of faith for the RSS that even though India is now a free nation, it is in need, after so many centuries of contamination by foreign religions and ideas, of realignment. In an ideal world, “Hindu” and “Indian” should be virtually interchangeable terms. Hindus are proudly and naturally and originally Indian; others earn their Indian-ness through good behaviour and submission to the Hindu consensus.
A revealing glimpse into this Hindu-centric worldview was revealed last week by India’s culture minister Mahesh Sharma when he remarked of the former president of India, nuclear scientist A P J Abdul Kalam, that he was a great nationalist “despite being a Muslim”.
What is remarkable about this judgement is not only its pernicious logic, but the speaker’s presumption of his right to make it. This reflexive prejudice and unearned authority are part of the very DNA of the present government. It is a prejudice that, if allowed to pass uncontested, risks becoming the new normal of the Indian public sphere.
There are also a number of interesting ways in which the RSS’ worldview is in denial: Although one of the main currents of modern Hinduism is the battle, by democratic means, of underprivileged castes to overturn centuries of privileged-caste oppression, the RSS prefers to ignore caste prejudice. That would destroy its construct of a united Hindu society assailed only by external forces.
Another word that that barely exists in the RSS’ vocabulary is “state”, which refers to a political form that has a definite point of origin (in the case of India in 1947) and is bound by definite rules and commitments, such as those of the Indian Constitution of 1950. Rather, the RSS seeks at all times to substitute that prosaic word with the more poetic and pressuring “nation”, which allows for a far more invasive and inflammatory set of demands.
Last, the RSS is profoundly suspicious not just of Muslims and Christians, but of democracy itself. For the RSS, democracy is not a profoundly liberating new force in Indian history and a catalyst for a new order of freedoms. Rather, democracy is only desirable as long as its own logic ratifies the rule of the Hindu majority.
The RSS ideologue M S Golwalkar, whose 1966 book A Bunch of Thoughts is to the foot-soldiers of Hindu nationalism what the Little Red Book was to Chinese communism, argues that “under independence, the rule being of majority, to speak of ‘majority communalism’ is opposed to logic, truth and justice”.
It is this resentful universe – a little India that sees the rest of the country as not being Indian enough – from which the present prime minister has emerged, even if Modi took great pains in his election campaign last year not to bring up Hindu nationalism or the RSS. Earlier this month, though, the RSS announced that it was going to conduct a review of Modi’s government’s performance over the last 15 months. Among the dignitaries attending the three-day programme was the prime minister himself, along with several current ministers.
It is as if the prime minister doesn’t quite trust his own declared vision of a new India of high economic growth and jobs for all, smart cities and solar power, banking access for the poor, and a crackdown on corruption. A first-time parliamentarian, but a long-time swayamsevak, sometimes he too wonders when the citizenry will come to see the real truth about India.
Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and columnist based in New Delhi. His work on Indian politics appears regularly on Bloomberg View and in The Caravan.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.