Traditionally, the RSS focused on the transformation of society by “reforming” people at the grassroots level. This is what the shakha technique is all about: Dr K.B. Hedgewar, the founder of the movement, introduced it in the 1920s in order to attract children, to shape their mindset according to the “right” samskar. Hence the key role of the pracharaks who dedicate their life to the organisation and appear as the role models swayamsevaks are supposed to emulate. This variant of the guru-shishya relationship made no room for the state and politics at large. M.S. Golwalkar, the successor of Hedgewar, claimed that the RSS aimed to “mould the ‘inner man’ after an ideal”, something only ground work at the social and psychological levels could do. As a result, Golwalkar focused on the shakha network and refused to support any political party till the 1950s. When he resigned himself to do so with the creation of the Jana Sangh, this party remained very reluctant towards all kinds of statism.

The chief ideologue of the Jana Sangh — and of the Sangh Parivar at large — Deendayal Upadhyaya, opposed the socialist agenda of Nehru primarily for this reason. In his book Integral Humanism, he argued that in the Indian tradition, social relations prevailed in which “the king and the state were never considered supreme”. That was partly due, in his view, to a deep rooted sense of decentralisation: “The mightiest of the kings did not ever disturb the panchayats. Similarly there were associations on the basis of trade. These two were never disturbed by the state; on the contrary, their autonomy was recognised”.


Jaffrelot’s core research focuses on theories of nationalism and democracy, mobilization of the lower castes and Dalits (ex-untouchables) in India, the Hindu nationalist movement, and ethnic conflicts in Pakistan.
Christophe Jaffrelot

Nonresident Scholar
South Asia Program

More from this author...

Such a viewpoint had affinities with the Gandhian repertoire since Mahatma Gandhi was also eager to promote a stateless India, where villages would live in semi-autarky. But it was diametrically opposed to Nehru’s policy. In his critique of the first five-year plans, Upadhyaya adopted a Gandhian tone: “By taking up programmes of heavy industries”, he argued, “the (Planning) Commission intended to bring about a structural change in our society. Their aim is to build an industrial in place of an agricultural society. But we cannot build a pyramid from the top downwards”.

Today, the BJP is probably more Nehruvian than Gandhian, not in abstracto — because it fundamentally followed none of them — but in the sense that it believes more in the state-oriented top-down modus operandum than in a bottom-up philosophy. Certainly, Narendra Modi has called on the Indian citizens to behave properly, something Gandhi did repeatedly in his own way. That was the sub-text of the Swachh Bharat scheme — whose symbol, unsurprisingly, has been the Mahatma’s spectacles. Similarly, his 2014 Red Fort speech requested parents to make sure that their sons respected girls and invited them to adopt non-selfish conduct: “Brothers and sisters”, he said, “can someone please tell me as to whether he or she has ever introspected in the evening after a full day’s work as to whether his or her acts have helped the poor of the country or not, whether his or her actions have resulted in safeguarding the interest of the country or not, whether the actions have been directed in country’s welfare or not?”

But the promotion of virtuous citizenship, beyond this kind of rhetoric, has not been as strong as that of an assertive state. Not only has politics become pervasive in a new manner, with the prime minister saturating the public space — not necessarily on moral subjects — but policies have epitomised a new kind of dirigism.

While the election manifesto of the BJP claimed, in 2014, that India had wasted 70 years because “Governance in these decades was marred by lack of trust, leading to excessive controls and lack of people’s participation”, till today, the Modi government has adopted a state-dominated logic in key domains.

First, the liberalisation of the economy has not proceeded more quickly than under the Congress-led UPA regime. Not only have privatisations not been more numerous, but India has not made very significant progress according to the World Bank’s ease of doing business index — it now occupies rank 130 (out of 190). This month, the Heritage Foundation, an American think tank, has even downgraded India in its yearly report on the basis of its Index of Economic Freedom. India has slipped from 123rd to 143rd rank and joined the “mostly unfree” economies category.

More importantly, the demonetisation measure has been justified by RSS ideologues in quasi coercive terms. S. Gurumurthy, for instance, declared about this move: “Nothing happens in India through persuasion, which is why determined action by the government is justified.”

Certainly, the moral discourse inherited from the socio-psychological repertoire of the RSS showed some resilience, since the PM himself justified demonetisation by the fight against corruption and congratulated Indian citizens for the sacrifice they were doing for the nation, standing in long queues with no slogans or protests. But the dominant idiom was statist and top-down. Venkaiah Naidu explained, in a piece in this paper, that demonetisation was “a part of the grand ‘cultural revolution’ that the PM is working on. The entrenched old order needs to make way for a new normal. This cultural revolution, impinging on all walks of public and private life, amounts to shaking up the system”. These words echo those of Golwalkar who wanted to build a new man too.

The project presented by Gurumurthy and Naidu is equally ambitious, since it intends to reshape public and private life, but it does not use the same route. The RSS of yesterday worked at the grassroot level and tried to rally people around the absolutist plan of a perfectly unified society. Today, the state is the relevant agency. Hence the use of communist notions, like “cultural revolution”, a Maoist invention. China has also been presented as a model by another heavyweight of the government, Nitin Gadkari, who said in the Davos World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, that India aspired to be “a global economic superpower and (that) it would need to work at the same speed as China in terms of policies, administration and decision making processes” to fulfill this ambition.

Whether such developments are compatible with democracy remains to be seen, but an important shift has occurred in the Sangh Parivar towards a statist style, which is now supplementing the groundwork of the RSS.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.