LUCKNOW, INDIA – Standing with Narendra Modi as he was sworn in as prime minister was a cabinet made up almost entirely of ministers whose careers started in a hardline Hindu nationalist movement.
After the stunning majority won by Modi’s party in the general election, the movement that believes multi-faith India should be recognized first and foremost as a Hindu nation feels closer than ever before to achieving its goals.
Hundreds of thousands of volunteers from the movement led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) actively campaigned in the election.
Many are recruited into the RSS as children and stay in the movement through their lives.
“It is thrilling,” said RSS campaigner Prabhu Narain Srivastava, wearing the group’s uniform of pleated khaki shorts and a white shirt as children under his tutelage exercised and played school-yard games in Lucknow, the capital of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.
“We have been working for years for an absolute majority and now support is overflowing.”
The defeat dealt to the Congress party and its secular politics that have dominated independent India has given some nationalists hope that the world’s biggest democracy is shifting permanently to a Hindu-first majoritarianism.
Of the 23 cabinet ministers sworn in on Monday, 17 have their roots in the RSS and affiliates. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is effectively the political wing of the RSS. Many of the 22 junior ministers also are linked to the movement.
Modi, who joined the RSS as a child and spent his formative years working full-time for the organization, shares its belief.
“Modi, the BJP and the RSS, it’s not right to treat them separately. His is a leaf from the same branch. They can’t be separated from each other; they complement each other,” said Dinesh Sharma, a BJP leader and RSS member in Uttar Pradesh.
Still, Modi’s government is unlikely to pursue an aggressively Hindu agenda. His election campaign focused on economic revival and good governance and those goals are likely to take priority over divisive aspects of the RSS platform that critics say fan religious hatred, especially against Muslims.
The RSS has told Modi it sees the main challenges for the new government as “security, economy, governance and social fabric”, said the group’s spokesperson and national executive member Ram Madhav.
However, “social fabric” is code for minorities, which the RSS feels receive special treatment through positive discrimination policies aimed at economically depressed sectors of society.
“When I say social fabric, it means from the government side no majority-minority politics. Justice to everyone. Equal justice to all,” said Madhav.
The BJP kept three of the RSS’s key demands in its manifesto, including a promise to explore building a temple on the disputed site of a 16th-century mosque razed by Hindu zealots in 1992, but sources in both organizations say these issues will not be a priority in the near future.
The other two are withdrawing the special status given to Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim majority state, and doing away with civil laws that set different marriage and divorce rules for different religions.
The change the RSS seeks to bring about may be more subtle.
It runs schools, and where the BJP is in office often revises textbooks to include a romantic view of India’s past. It also campaigns against conversions to Christianity and Islam.
One example is party president Rajnath Singh who, during a spell in the Uttar Pradesh state government in the 1990s, introduced Vedic Mathematics to the school syllabus, which proponents say is based on ancient Hindu texts and academics say is fraudulent.
Modi himself has been tarred by critics as a Hindu extremist after religious riots in his home state in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. Courts have found no evidence to indict him and years of peaceful and successful economic management in Gujarat have changed his image.
Critics say the RSS and its Hindutva, or hardline Hindu, philosophy hardens divisions in society.
“Plan A for Modi is to succeed on the economic front, and if that does not work then emphasizing . . . Hindutva politics may be an important Plan B. It’s more a plank the BJP uses when it wants to conquer difficult (parliamentary) seats or fears electoral defeat,” said Christophe Jaffrelot, a scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of a book on Hindu nationalism.