A year and a half ago, a senior functionary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) confided that the organisation was facing a major existential crisis. They were having difficulty in drawing the younger generation. Education had changed, students were too busy to come to shakhas early morning and career aspirations came first. Emphasis on 'Hindu culture' and 'nationalism' seemed like an anachronism to many. "We need to change. We need to reinvent," he said, sitting in his room at the Sangh headquarters in Nagpur.
Last week, the mood had drastically changed. The conversation was now about expansion and consolidation; reaching out to newer segments of society; influencing government policy and moving towards the goal of 'uniting and organizing Hindu society' by 2025, the centenary of the Sangh's founding.
The numbers were there to back the new confidence. In the middle of 2005, the number of Sangh shakhas (branches) were 48,794 but there was a rather drastic drop in the following years to around 35,000 shakhas. RSS Delhi spokesperson Rajeev Tuli told HT that in July 2012, the Sangh had 34,761 shakhas and by the middle of 2013 the figures had increased to 37,125 shakhas. By July 2014, the numbers had increased to 39,396 shakhas. And now, Tuli said, there are over 41,000 national shakhas (the final figures will appear in March). Through its website , more than 10,000 people every month express an interest in contributing to the outfit.
The Sangh has even more ambitious plans: setting up a model school in every village, making a rural push, reaching out to social groups like Dalits and OBCs, aggressively using technology to dominate social media and project its worldview.
What explains the change? Three factors appear to have helped: the resilience of the RSS organisation and the deep penetration it has in society; access to political power; and increasing visibility.
In its quest to reach out to different elements in society, the RSS has multiple affiliate organisations. These have functional autonomy in theory, but ultimately, report to the Sangh bosses. As a Sangh office-bearer put it, "The Sangh does nothing but the swayamsevak leaves nothing."
Children are tapped early by bringing them into Saraswati Shishu Mandir schools. Those who study in government or private schools are tapped by encouraging them to join neighbourhood shakhas to 'inculcate values'. For wooing college students, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad has units in all key campuses across the country. If you are a worker, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh could well be your preferred trade union. The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram has worked extensively in tribal areas to 'bring back' tribals to the Hindu fold and 'countering Christian missionaries'. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal cater to the more ideologically aggressive and belligerent elements of society.
The scale of activities may differ but the very presence of these outfits reveals that at any moment, an element of the broader Sangh Parivar is not far away from your sphere of activity. By picking issues that may appeal to one's location, class interests, emotions, and through a network of pracharaks, swayamsevaks and sympathizers, the RSS reaches out.
But while their activities may have seen a spurt, these institutions have been around for long. What has changed is the arrival of a BJP government with a full majority. To understand the organic link between the Sangh and the party, do recollect that the BJP itself was a result of the controversy over 'dual membership' within the Janata Party in the late 1970s. Those who had come from a Jan Sangh background were given a choice: they could either remain a part of the Janata Party or the RSS. Those whose primary loyalties were to the Sangh walked out. As a functionary of an RSS affiliate organisation said, with a touch of condescension, "We don't need the media to convey our point of view. Our pracharak is the PM."
Access to political power has resulted in a major transformation. Most ministers in the Narendra Modi government have served in one or the other affiliate organisations and are in tune with its worldview. Take other examples. Those involved in education now meet the HRD Minister Smriti Irani directly and can influence her in a range of areas: be it textbook revision, the place of Sanskrit in the curriculum, the appointments of those with a right wing worldview in key institutions.
The VHP and Dharam Jagram Manch's 'ghar wapsi' religious conversion programme unleashed a controversy and stalled parliament. If there was another government, there could well have been a crackdown on the organisations, but the presence of BJP meant that the issue was used to reiterate an old Sangh position demanding a ban on all conversion.
This is if course not a black and white situation. And Sangh affiliates do not have a free run. The Sangh toned down a bit and removed a key activist , Rajeshwar Singh, who was heading the 'reconversion' program from his responsibilities. Tensions are expected between the government's pro industry moves and the aspirations of Sangh's farmer or labour affiliates. But the relationship as of now is marked more by synthesis and convergence than tension and conflict.
And finally, the Sangh has got a renewed push because of increasing visibility. Contrary to its image of a geriatric organisation, out of date with modern times, it has been adept at using technology and aggressively capturing the social media space. The Lok Sabha elections also brought back the focus on RSS and its mode of functioning and its agenda. TV devoted it more time; newspapers reported on its activities.
A Sangh functionary recounted to HT that he once took an auto from Central Delhi to the organisation's HQs in Jhandewalan. The auto-driver asked him if he was going to the RSS office. "Yes, but how do you know about Sangh?" the Sangh office-bearer replied.
"I have been thinking of joining it. I have read about love jehad . And I think there is a real threat and you are countering it," the driver responded, referring to the claim made by Hindu groups that Muslims were attempting to abduct, seduce and elope with Hindu girls across the country for the sole purpose of conversion.
The Sangh official drew a lesson from the episode. "Even if you write critically, by highlighting the issue, society gets polarised and one section gets increasingly drawn to us." Publicity, political power, and penetration in society have clearly given a new lease of life to the Sangh.