Always favourite “Hindu Nationalist Leader-Modi” for Hindus

downloadVRINDAVAN (India) — Men dressed as Hindu deities, with tinsel crowns and tridents. Teenagers sauntered by trucks carrying effigies of mythological heroes and listened to speeches.

Yet a closer look revealed elements that were less picturesque. The speakers at this recent meeting in Delhi of the Bajrang Dal — a youth organisation dedicated to advancing a rigorous and revivalist version of Hinduism — were repeating well-worn slogans common among hardline elements of India’s religious right.

The young men were armed, some with ceremonial swords of little use, but others with combat knives and heavy-bladed hatchets.

“The others are always showing their strength. Now it’s our turn,” said 18-year-old student Nala Kumar Thakur, demonstrating slashing strokes with his sabre. “All Hindus should know that their culture is under threat.”

With the multi-phase Indian election moving into its final weeks, the favoured candidate of the Bajrang Dal teenagers appears set to take power.

That candidate is Mr Narendra Modi, 63, who leads the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Bajrang Dal is among the most militant of the many nationalist and religious organisations active in India that come under the umbrella of the Sangh Parivar, or family of associations, which has been linked to a variety of violent acts over the decades. The BJP is perhaps the most moderate. Positioned somewhere between the two is the vast Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or National Volunteer Association, which Mr Modi joined at around the age of 10.

Many in India — and some observers overseas — are concerned by the possibility that an RSS veteran might soon run the country. Critics say Mr Modi stood by when 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, died in sectarian violence in the western state of Gujarat in 2002, shortly after he became Chief Minister there.

But a Supreme Court investigation did not find sufficient evidence to substantiate allegations against Mr Modi relating to the 2002 riots, which he denies.

An unprecedented operation has been launched by groups from the Sangh Parivar to maximise Mr Modi’s chances of victory. In Indian elections, the first-past-the-post system combines with long-standing traditions of voting in blocs for community interests to give a small number of swing voters a massive impact. This means the work of the giant but highly disciplined RSS, as well as smaller fringe groups such as the Bajrang Dal, can be critical.

“Their significance varies from place to place but … they can have a very high impact,” said Mr Varghese George, political editor of the Hindu newspaper.

The region on the margin of the vast northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which includes the small temple town of Vrindavan, is the Hindi heartland. Political strategists know the road to federal power lies through the rough, poor state’s cities, towns and multitude of villages. It is here that the BJP has made its biggest effort, with the RSS in the vanguard.

Every morning, a score of local men gather at 6am in Vrindavan for the drill session that is the principal ritual of the RSS, formed in 1925 to encourage a resurgence of Hindu culture during British colonial rule. Simultaneously, across the entire country, another 40,000 such meetings are taking place.

The RSS leadership controversially decided to mobilise its cadres for the election. For the BJP, this is a huge boost, giving it the organisational firepower to take on the local networks of the Congress party, in power for all but 13 years since independence in 1947.

“This election is about change. And that means bringing Mr Modi to power,” said Mr Padam Singh, head of the RSS in Vrindavan, which goes to the polls this week.

Source: Today