Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday reminded the country about India’s 9/11, which, according to him, happened in Chicago in 1893 when Vivekananda delivered the famous speech at the Parliament of World Religions. The Modi government is celebrating the 125th anniversary of the lecture which the Prime Minister described as 9/11 of peace and brotherhood.
“Seldom is a speech celebrated in this manner,” said Modi, speaking to a young noisy crowd in Vigyan Bhawan chanting ‘Vande Mataram’. Swami Vivekananda has been an iconic spiritual figure who is idealised by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) as a role model. It is not surprising that the government has gone all out in celebrating Vivekananda’s famous speech in the US. Prime Minister Modi himself is inspired by the saint and spent his early years in spreading RSS ideology in Gujarat.
Modi’s rise from RSS pracharak to Prime Minister is significant for the RSS and rightwing Hindu nationalists more than even Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time as Prime Minister of a BJP-led government for six years. One reason for this is his huge mandate, and the importance of his prime ministership stems from that – because for the first time, the top three constitutional positions are occupied by those from the RSS – apart from Modi, President Ram Nath Kovind and Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu. All three have risen through the ranks and make no secret of their RSS connections, a reflection of the new turn in the mood of the nation in which Modi has had a hand.
When Vajpayee was Prime Minister, both he and his Deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani – for the record, there is no constitutional provision for a Deputy Prime Minister – the top two positions in government were being occupied by those who had risen through the RSS. However, with an alliance of 23 political parties, it was evident that the RSS would not have the whip hand in that government.
Few will argue that the BJP's emphatic victory in the 2014 general elections was essentially due to the popularity of one man – Narendra Modi. But behind the dominating personality was the well oiled machinery of the RSS that helped the BJP consolidate its position at the grass roots level.
The RSS is the fountainhead of an ideology that now occupies the prime political space after remaining on the periphery for several decades. It has made inroads into the society that brought electoral dividends for the BJP. Despite his obvious vote catching abilities, Modi has had to depend on the Sangh’s network to win elections. In short, while the BJP has always been dependent on the RSS for winning election battles, in 2014, the scale of the mandate touched historic heights.
“One of the key reasons for expansion of the RSS is that it practises social equality and that gives a sense of empowerment to many marginalised sections. In the RSS shakhas and camps as well as in all its programmes, all volunteers play together, eat together, train together and work together. In fact in daily shakhas every one calls the other person by first name only. Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar went to RSS camps and were all praise for the organisation for breaking the caste barriers so effectively without making a hue and cry,” said Arun Anand, author of ‘Know your RSS’.
“The RSS volunteers have been on the forefront of social service attracting many new recruits and earning lot of goodwill from a cross section of society. Be it war, conflict, natural calamity or even a situation like the historic traffic jam at Gurugram sometime ago, the RSS volunteers are out there in no time to help the people without expecting any accolades in return,” he said.
The back-bone of the RSS is its daily shakha which the young attend as part of their daily morning ritual. There are 60,000 RSS shakhas in the country. So even if two new swayamsevaks join a shakha every year, you have more than a lakh new volunteer, said Anand. The RSS network has spread rapidly and in the current political set up, its functionaries occupy highest offices. Not just the President, Vice President and Prime Minister, but others too have an RSS background like Union ministers Manoj Sinha and Nitin Gadkari and Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.
Such a rise of the RSS was not witnessed even during Vajpayee’s Prime Ministership. In fact, RSS had a run in with veteran BJP leader L.K Advani who in 2005 praised Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah for his secular outlook. With Prime Minister Modi coming to power, the spread of RSS has been steady and it now has firm hold over power. The organisation is placed well to spread its ideology further and strengthen its hold.
The RSS has been known to step in whenever there has been a leadership crisis. This it did when old timers, wary of Modi, opposed his nomination as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and talked to Advani on the issue. It also did so when party veterans like Murli Manohar Joshi and Advani appeared to be targeting the Prime Minister in public. With a visible chief in Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS is expected to increasingly have a say in party matters and be less coy about such a role. India has had Hindu nationalist proponents in constitutional positions earlier.
India’s first President, Dr Rajendra Prasad, had decidedly Hindu rightwing views. Apart from turf war, this was also one of the reasons for his run-ins with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, on the issue of a uniform civil code. They also clashed over the Hindu Code Bill, the draft of which had been presented by Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar.