As dawn breaks in the Delhi suburb of Trilokpuri, more than a dozen men in khaki shorts and black jackets work in the near-freezing air to erect a flagpole in preparation for a military-style drill.
“I want your full attention while you do your exercises,” shouts the leader, Ravikant Khandelwal, as they hoist a saffron flag and wave wooden staffs to warm up for self-defense training.
They are men from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist group that backs opposition leader Narendra Modi’s bid to become prime minister in elections starting next month. For Modi, an RSS campaigner in his 20s and 30s until he joined politics, the group poses a dilemma: While its roughly 6 million members can boost Hindu voter turnout, their call to end laws protecting Muslims that have been in place since India’s founding is alienating parties he may need to form a government.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of “Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.” “At the moment both need each other, but if Modi needs allies to form a government, then he will have to do a delicate balancing act since many smaller parties are uncomfortable with the RSS.”
RSS cadres formed the backbone of past grassroots campaigns for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which is leading in opinion polls as it tries to regain power after a decade in opposition. The Hindu group, founded in 1925 during British rule, is the ideological parent of the party, and has been accused by opponents of fueling religious conflict that has cost more than 2,500 lives in the past decade.
An RSS emboldened by a victory for Modi risks escalating communal violence as the group wants supremacy for the Hindu majority, said Mohan Guruswamy, chairman of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in New Delhi and a former finance ministry adviser. Hindus make up about 80 percent of the population, while 13 percent are Muslim, according to the 2001 census.
“Minorities will be clearly at risk,” Guruswamy said. “The goal of the RSS is a Hindu nation and the agenda of people like Modi is to fulfill it.”
Phone calls to two numbers at Modi’s office in Gandhinagar seeking comment on the RSS were unanswered. During his campaign, Modi has said development and growth are needed to wipe out poverty that affects both Muslims and Hindus.
At a speech in Purnea in Bihar state on March 10, Modi said Muslims in Gujarat have prospered as the state government practices “real secularism” irrespective of religion, unlike the Congress which indulges in “vote bank politics” in the name of Muslim appeasement.
The RSS’s goal is to protect Hindu values “at any cost,” according to Supreme Leader Mohan Bhagwat in a speech last year published on the group’s website. That includes removal of Shariah-based laws governing marriage and inheritance of Muslims, and altering the constitution to allow residents outside of Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir to buy land in the state, said Ram Madhav, RSS spokesman.
“They are our idealogical fountainhead, so ideologically there are certain things that we draw from them,” said Nirmala Sitharaman, a BJP spokeswoman, referring to the RSS.
Support for Modi has swelled as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress-led alliance was caught in a series of graft allegations and the departure of allies. The ruling group has seen its popularity drop after economic growth slipped to the slowest in a decade and average consumer inflation held above 9 percent for the past two years.
Modi’s campaign has pointed to his 13-year role as chief minister of Gujarat, a state that accounts for almost a quarter of the country’s exports and outpaced the national economic growth rate in the last six fiscal years.
India’s benchmark stock index has risen 3.1 percent this year, the best performer among the BRIC nations, including Brazil, Russia and China. The rupee, which has strengthened 0.7 percent in March as polls showed the BJP is gaining support, fell 0.6 percent in Mumbai today. Foreigners bought a net $1.6 billion of shares this year, the most in Asia after Indonesia, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
“The financial markets want Narendra Modi to become the PM,” said Deven Choksey, managing director of Mumbai-based K.R. Choksey Shares & Securities Pvt. “He is the candidate that has been talking most about growth.”
Congress party leaders have accused the BJP of being divisive by stirring up trouble between Hindus and Muslims.
“India today is under threat from those who seek not just to rule but to change India’s very heart, India’s very soul,” said Congress President Sonia Gandhi at a rally in Kochi on Feb. 15. “We believe in an India that unites our people -- they seek to divide us.”
At a rally in Lucknow, Modi said there had not been a single communal clash in Gujarat in the last decade while Uttar Pradesh, the most-populous state and home to about a fifth of India’s 138 million Muslims, had seen 150 in the past year.
The BJP announced last week that Modi will contest the election from Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi, one of Hinduism’s holiest cities. Yesterday it said he would also contest from a constituency in Gujarat, reducing the odds of a surprise defeat.
Modi’s reputation for failing to support the Muslim minority stems from 2002 riots in Gujarat. After Muslims set fire to a train, killing some Hindu activists, about 1,100 people -- mostly Muslims -- died in a backlash, according to a government report by Justice G.T. Nanavati and Justice Akshay Mehta.
Human rights groups including the Concerned Citizens Tribunal say Modi failed to control the mob. He denies wrongdoing and a panel appointed by India’s Supreme Court in 2012 found no evidence that his decisions prevented victims from receiving help.
Modi’s U.S. visa was revoked over his handling of the unrest. U.S Ambassador Nancy Powell met Modi last month, and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Feb. 27 that he was free to apply again.
Modi’s BJP would win as many as 213 of 543 seats up for grabs, according to an opinion poll published on March 7 by CNN-IBN and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. That would leave the BJP needing to court minor parties to form a government under its National Democratic Alliance.
Smaller regional parties, many of which canvass support from Muslim voters, accuse Modi of discrimination. Potential allies such as the All India Trinamool Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party and Janata Dal (United) are concerned cooperation with Modi may cost them Muslim votes.
The Janata Dal (United) party, which has 20 lawmakers in the lower house of parliament, quit the opposition alliance last June after Modi’s promotion.
“There is no question of supporting BJP under any circumstance, not even in heaven,” said K.C. Tyagi, secretary general of Janata Dal (United). “The RSS is conducting these elections and operating the BJP, which is now full of fascists and reactionaries.”
Tyagi’s party was an ally in the last BJP-led government from March 1998 until May 2004, under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. During that time, Vajpayee avoided addressing RSS goals to maintain the coalition, he said.
“Modi’s emergence is unfortunate as he has been chosen by the RSS,” said S.Q.R. Ilyas, general secretary of the Welfare Party of India, which focuses on improving the lot of Muslims. “The anti-Muslim approach of the RSS will dominate if he becomes prime minister.”
RSS leaders say they aren’t anti-Muslim. “We say let there be uniform laws which extend the same rights to all people across communities,” said RSS spokesman Madhav.
For Modi, the Hindu group offers a means of increasing voter turnout. In addition to its members, the RSS commands respect among other Hindus for its non-political work, such as charities, disaster relief and a network of 18,000 schools, especially in the north and west of the country.
“I’m not a sympathizer but the RSS does a lot of good,” said Ashish Chandan, 62, a retired accountant in Delhi. “They’re the first to help people during floods, earthquakes, train accidents and other calamities.”
At a school in South Delhi run by RSS affiliate Vidya Bharati, students toil below a map of Akhand Bharat, or united India, which includes Pakistan and Bangladesh, Muslim-majority countries once ruled by the British that saw hundreds of thousands of people killed during independence struggles.
The school’s almost 2,200 students take an annual test on Indian culture, such as the deity Lord Ram, hero of the epic poem, the Ramayana. A statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, adorns the reception area. Fees are 2,500 rupees ($41) a month and most children are from the middle class or ethnic minorities, said Principal Kuldip Chouhan.
Modi started his career as a volunteer for the RSS in the 1970s. Impressed with his organizational skills, his leaders recommended him to the BJP in 1987.
“He was always very clever and his speeches on the RSS ideology were always very sharp,” said Pravin Ratilal Maniar, 79, a general secretary for the RSS in Gujarat for 13 years, who promoted Modi to pracharak, or campaigner, in the late 1980s.
“His relationship with the RSS is definitely there. He is still in touch with everyone.”
Modi helped organize a campaign in 1990 for then BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani to gather support for construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque in Uttar Pradesh, according to his website. A Hindu mob later razed the mosque, despite “feeble requests” by Advani and others to halt the destruction, according to a 999-page report from a government committee, released in 2008. Advani disputes the report.
Subsequent riots killed hundreds of people and catapulted the BJP into the national spotlight.
Modi’s campaign suggests that, while the RSS may influence some policy decisions, his word will be final, according to Milan Vaishnav, an associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“Modi may adopt the preferred policies of the RSS on certain issues but he will not want to appear as if he is doing their bidding,” said Vaishnav, who researches the political economy of India. “He is sensitive to the real concerns that minorities in India have about him and his record in Gujarat.”
RSS chief Bhagwat said the group is more focused on policies than personalities, Press Trust of India reported on March 11.
Modi “is not our issue,” Bhagwat said in a speech to cadres in Bengaluru, formerly known as Bangalore, PTI reported. “Our focus is highlighting the issues before the nation.”
The RSS has been blamed for inciting violence for decades. The group was banned after a former member, Nathuram Godse, shot Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 to protest the leader’s appeasement of Muslims. Investigators found no evidence that the RSS was involved in the assassination and the ban was lifted in 1949.
In August and September last year, about 50 people were killed in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh and 50,000 were moved to refugee camps after religious riots, according to a report by the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Analysis. Muslims blamed Hindu youths for starting the violence. Hindus say the trouble began when a girl was sexually harassed.
“We will not keep quiet if provoked,” said Khandelwal, after the morning “shakha” drill in Delhi. As the sun begins to lift a thick blanket of fog and the volunteers file out of the park, chatting among themselves, he shouts after them: “Remember, the RSS is about discipline.”
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