It may be an 89 year old organisation, identified as representing a more conservative set of values. But the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is witnessing steady growth. With more shakhas, online recruits, and mainstreaming of their agenda, the Sangh - ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - is on the upswing.
In July 2012, the Sangh had 34,761 shakhas; this number swelled to 37,125 shakhas the following year; and this year - by July 2014 - RSS was holding 39,396 daily shakhas. There has also been a spurt in the number of volunteers registering on the Join RSS link on its website. If there were around 1000 such people every month in 2012, 2500 possible volunteers in 2013, this number has swelled to an average of around 7000 online recruits this year.
The increase in membership must comes as a shot in the arm for RSS - for there was a perception that they were facing a crisis in attracting the young. There was a time in the last decade when the number of shakhas were over 43,000. And the Sangh's number 2 in command Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi admitted last year that there were challenges - educational patterns, lifestyle, working hours had changed leaving people with little time, energy and inclination to attend morning or evening shakhas. Other Sangh officials say there had been a spike in numbers when they celebrated Guru Golwalkar's Birth centenary in 2006-07, but then as happens after an intensive period of public outreach and expansion, there was a period of consolidation. All agreed on need for flexibility and innovation.
Can the increase in RSS strength be attributed to the rise of the BJP and Narendra Modi in this period? Sangh officials do not believe there is any direct link, and it is in fact the RSS' own organic strength which may have helped BJP.
RSS, they insist, does not depend on political or government support. Manmohan Vaidya, chief spokesperson, told HT, "Look at Kerala. The RSS is very active in the state but there is barely any BJP presence. Our growth is autonomous."
But there may have been indirect impact. The incessant coverage of the Modi campaign led to greater curiosity about the RSS and more media visibility. Private television channels in the past few months have done dedicated shows on sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat's birthday, on the life of founder Dr Keshav Hedgewar, and discussions on Sangh's work.
There has also been more discussion on Hindutva related issues - be it the desirability of a Hindu Rashtra, the place of Muslims in India, whether there is anything called 'Hindu terror', or 'love jehad'. All of this divided society and drawn criticism, but its mere discussion drew some segments to the Parivar ideology.
During the elections, the Sangh was out there in full force backing the BJP. They visited homes, and this increased their interface with society. Pracharaks and swayamsevaks are known to maintain such relationships, and the public outreach too would help in spreading the message.
But Vaidya believes the core reason for growth is because of an increasing 'hunger among people to assert their cultural identity' and a desire to 'serve society', wherein RSS is seen as synonymous with social service.
The use of new technology provided a channel to tap into this sentiment. Vaidya explains the modalities of online recruitment. "If a person from Rohtak has registered on the join RSS site, we pass on the name to the Haryana in charge who passes it on the Rohtak in charge. Someone from the area would then visit this person's house and judge how he can contribute best to Sangh and how much time he can give - either by attending shakhas, or through social media, or participating in our festivals or getting engaged in service activities." In bigger cities where meeting each possible recruit may not be possible individually, they organise a bigger interaction at a common place on a monthly basis.
The Sangh has also reached out directly to students in colleges and universities and in fact there is currently a three day camp of Sangh affiliated students in Delhi underway in Sonepat, attended by Bhagwat himself. They also organise IT Milans - for busy professionals in cities like Bangalore who cannot attend morning shakhas daily.
Almost 90 years after it was established, a product of the Sangh is now PM with a full majority. As it expands, its political and social impact is bound to increase.