Mumbai: Students at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay are holding secret meetings to plan poll strategy before national elections. In Bangalore, the number of “IT-milans,” the weekly gatherings of information technology professionals promoting the ideas of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has swelled to 50. And, increasingly through the Internet, RSS members are reaching out to new recruits on social-networking sites.
Meeting ground: Professionals from the corporate world at an RSS shakha in Mumbai. Ashesh Shah / Mint
The Orkut group alone has 38,272 RSS members.
Meet the new faces of an old idea.
In time for a string of state polls that precede the general election due by next May, and taking advantage of economic uncertainty and the fear of terrorism, the RSS appears to be gaining ground among young students and professionals who are forming communities around its ideology.
Recruitment to the RSS has never been so active, according to members and observers. In many cases, those signing up for the Hindu nationalist group that propagates Hinduism as a way of life are actually moderates. Perhaps they are frustrated with the current government or curious about how to effect change or are trying to apply tech-savviness to politics. “We call some pracharaks (preachers) who explain the RSS philosophy to the group and answer their questions about it. We discuss a current issue and let them get a sense of what it means to belong to the organization,” says Amit Chatterjee, 21, who founded the Orkut group in 2006.
Every other month, the online members are invited to meet the organization’s followers at daily shakhas, or highly disciplined cadres, local offices and schools where Vedic texts are read aloud and strategy plotted. “No one is forced to sign up. But if they like what they see, they start attending the shakhas regularly,” Chatterjee says.
In the years after Mahatma Gandhi’s 1948 assassination, few wanted to be associated with the RSS (Hindu right-wing groups were allegedly behind the killing) and membership of the organization, like a family heirloom, passed from generation to generation.
“It was a way of life for us. Something we grew up with,” said Girish Kulkarni, whose grandfather joined the RSS in 1928, three years after the organization was founded with the aim of promoting cultural nationalism. He says his grandfather, now 84, still attends the shakhas every day.
But the reach into new pockets for membership has become significant at a time that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the organization’s political offshoot, plans to run a “Save India” campaign in its attempt to wrestle back power from the United Progressive Alliance.
The once media-shy RSS is actively engaging with journalists and the public and embracing technology to spur interest. According to the RSS, the number of shakhas has increased from 25,000 in 1990 to 32,686 in 2007.
At once, the RSS and BJP strategy marries the idea of a pan-Hindu nation with safety. It targets people such as Kavita Pandey, a homemaker in New Delhi who says she worries every time her family leaves home. When she travels, at airports, railways stations and on public buses, she is on the lookout for lurking danger. “I look for bags without owners. Constantly. Once I called the airport security because a bulky plastic bag was lying near the dustbin. ...it was only some newspapers and a banana skin or something. But I think I would do the same thing again,” she says.
Days after the Capital was rocked by a series of bomb blasts in popular markets, Pandey says, if the fear remains, the next election will not be about inflation. It will be about who can keep her children safe.
Terrorist bomb explosions in Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and New Delhi have killed 132 people so far this year.
From the elite Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management, or the canteens of companies such as Wipro Ltd and Deutsche Bank AG, the RSS mobilization efforts may not have the sanction of institutions or employers. But the RSS is slowly winning converts.
A member of the organization for the last three years, Chatterjee remembers when RSS promotional efforts outside college campuses used to get a lukewarm response. But now, “a lot of students come over to the stall, ask questions and listen.”
The weekly IT-milan is also gaining popularity among computer programmers in Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chandigarh and New Delhi. “We have about 4,000 members in such groups,” said Suresh Nayak, a member who runs the Bangalore IT-milan s. “We will change to whatever format is needed to help our members remain a part of the organization.” But the message, he and others agree, will largely stay the same.