The most significant aspect of RSS’ growth is the increasing role of its affiliates, which have penetrated virtually all parts of the country.
Significant social and economic changes have taken place in India — and in the RSS — over the past three decades.
The RSS and its family of affiliated organisations, collectively referred to as the Sangh Parivar or the RSS family, have expanded significantly, especially since the mid-1990s, roughly coinciding with the expansion of the Indian economy after the introduction of market reforms.
These affiliated organisations have penetrated virtually all parts of the country, growing rapidly especially in the east and northeast where they had previously been weakly represented. Perhaps, the most significant aspect of this growth is the increasing role of the affiliates. These affiliates shape the RSS’s views on the issues which they address. A second change is the greater transparency in the RSS and its affiliates, a reflection, we believe, of their greater self-confidence as legitimate actors on the Indian stage.
The expansion has brought increasing diversity because the affiliates address different groups often with conflicting interests. The RSS itself has become more inclusive, accepting Christians, Muslims and other non-Hindus as members. The current RSS head, Mohan Bhagwat, has even referred to all Indians as Hindus to underscore the inclusivity.
There is now a greater involvement of the RSS affiliates in the policy process — a development rooted in the impact of the government on the interests of their members. For example, the farm affiliate is keenly interested in farm support prices, the costs of inputs, and the curriculum content in rural schools.
The RSS is also using the mediation process to try and work out policy differences within and between members of the RSS organisations. Several of our case studies analysed these mediation efforts. As we analysed internal differences among them over policy issues, we were frankly surprised at the degree of cohesion among the affiliates.
For this reason, one of our case studies addressed a rebellion in one of the state units – and the failure of that effort to gain significant traction. We concluded that the major reasons for this continued unity are related to the things that have not changed:
(a) The administrative heads of larger and more significant of the dozens of affiliates, and of course the RSS itself, are full-time RSS workers, referred to as pracharaks.
There are currently around 6,000 pracharaks and most of them have undergone a rigorous training following an internship and then an assignment to a calling meant to be for a lifetime. Some writers have compared them to an ascetic, casteless Hindu monastic order. In addition to them, there are several thousand full-time workers trained by the various affiliates.
(b) The second unchanging element is the training that takes place daily, weekly and monthly in the local shakhas, numbering over 70,000 units. Lakhs of people have undergone this training, referred to as character building, and our meeting with hundreds of them suggest that they view the cohesion of the RSS family as a critical element in building national strength.
In our recent book, we selected nine case studies to shine a spotlight on the various challenges facing the RSS as it meets a changing India — and how it has gone about addressing these challenges. We also wanted to demonstrate the degree of internal debate there is within the RSS family.
Two case studies analysed the RSS approach to Muslims and Islam as a religion. Two focused on economic issues (the FDI and India’s economic relations with China). Three are related to the RSS manoeuvring between the sacred and the profane: cow protection, a Ram Temple at Ayodhya and religious conversion. The final two case studies addressed issues of political process: one analysed a crisis in the Goa RSS due to internal disagreements over the BJP government’s language policy in the state; the second analysed the RSS help to the BJP campaign in the 2015 Bihar assembly election.
No issue elicits as much internal debate within the RSS family as foreign direct investment. The RSS, for most of its history in independent India, was adamantly opposed to investment from abroad and regularly delivered diatribes against it. But Mohan Bhagwat gave a hint of a more neutral stance in 2013 when he stated that the “RSS was not bound by dogma”.
RSS mediation on this issue is necessary because of the deep differences among the affiliates on this question. In 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India had become “the most open economy in the world for FDI”. Two years later at Davos, he identified his government with globalisation and opposed trade protectionism.
But not all members of the RSS family share this enthusiasm. Some are vehemently opposed to it. The Swadeshi Jagran Manch has made reducing the level of FDI a basic element of its mission on the grounds that massive infusion of foreign investment brings with it alien values of consumerism, cedes economic sovereignty to multinationals, leads to further poverty, and widens the gap between rich and poor. The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the labour affiliate, has threatened to take their disagreements over FDI to the streets.
So, how has the RSS reacted to these opposing views? Mohan Bhagwat, in his April 2018 speech to business leaders in Mumbai, suggested a role for balancing interests when he said that the RSS, not wedded to any economic “ism”, would judge any economic policy on whether it benefits the poor. He noted the RSS’ traditional support for a more egalitarian society and for government programmes that help marginal elements of society and for more efficient delivery of such programmes. Much to the chagrin of libertarian elements in the RSS family, the RSS has backed a number of expensive populist programmes, such as farm loan waivers and an expansion of the health insurance scheme.
On the matter of FDI, our interview data suggests that the RSS leadership, while no longer likely to respond instinctively in the negative, would nonetheless judge such investments on whether they create jobs and provide substantial Indian involvement in the new enterprises.
The RSS faces several significant tensions in society that will almost certainly grow in intensity and potentially undermine its ability to bring about the unity that it claims to be the reason for being. The test of its effectiveness will depend on how it addresses these issues. Three come to mind:
(1) The persistence of caste and caste hierarchies – if not the very notion of caste –undermines the long-term RSS goal of Hindu unity, and the RSS seems in a quandary about how to handle this challenge. The contentious debate over expanding equal opportunity is only one aspect of the issue.
(2) Extremists on the Right clearly feel empowered by the BJP victories and they have engaged often in violent pursuit of their cultural goals. The RSS, perhaps in conjunction with the BJP, will need to get far more assertive to put a stop to practices that embarrass both the BJP and the RSS at home and abroad.
(3) How to address the economic and cultural divide between rural and urban India is a challenge to the goal of Hindu unity that the RSS seeks, and the Sangh has yet to shape a comprehensive resolution of this growing problem.
Walter Anderson is a faculty of the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. Sridhar D. Damle is an independent scholar resident in the US. The authors have written a new book titled “The RSS: A View to the Inside”. Their earlier book was titled “RSS, The Brotherhood in Saffron”.