By Balwinder Rana & Barry Pavier
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Modi, the RSS and the tensions in his regime

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Balwinder Rana & Barry Pavier examine the tensions behind Narendra Modi

The far right RSS play a big role in Modi’s regime. (Photo: Flickr)

In the seven years the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—Indian People’s Party—has been in government, it has changed the face of Indian society. Anti-Muslim pogroms, never totally absent before, are now commonplace in states ruled by the BJP. Conspiracy cases against left wing activists are multiplying by the month. Political assassinations of dissident journalists and academics have increased. There are frequent raids on dissident students in universities. Caste based violence on women goes even more ignored than it was before 2014. The 30 year war on the Muslim population of Kashmir—the occupied border region—has intensified. And the BJP government has achieved the so far unachievable Hindu chauvinist aim of abolishing the special constitutional status of Kashmir. What are the forces at play behind Modi’s project?

The BJP is an alliance between a number of ultra conservative tendencies that have a common core perspective—Hindutva, meaning “Hinduness”. These tendencies operate through an informal network of organisations called the Sangh Parivar – “The Brotherhood of Organisations”. Essentially Hindutva means the idea that the only authentic expression of India –in any context – is Hindu in nature and origin. Anything of non-Hindu origin is alien and inauthentic, and can only remain inside India if it recognises the Hindu nature of Indian society.

The BJP argues that democracy and secularism means the imposition of the will of the Hindu majority on the rest of society. Conversely, any protected minority rights are anti-democratic, or in the Sangh Parivar’s favourite term, “anti-national”. It was this concept of Hinduism that has inspired the most notorious component of the Sangh Parivar, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) –the “National Volunteer Organisation”, formed in 1925. The RSS is a mass membership, paramilitary organisation, with between five and six million members and over 56,000 branches. It is a highly disciplined hierarchical organisation run by a large network of fulltime officials, of whom Narendra Modi has been one since the age of 20.

Far right roots

In most aspects the RSS approaches the classic model of a fascist organisation. Its core perspective is a form of xenophobic ultra-nationalism, based on the identification of contemporary Hinduism with the myth of the Aryan origins of Indian civilisation. This xenophobia is expressed by acts of extreme violence against minorities, particularly towards Muslims but also occasionally to Christians. It is essentially anti-democratic, attempting to suppress any opposition as “anti—national”. It has always had an essentially petty bourgeois—middle class—base including small regional capitalists and small farmers. And it also has substantial representation among professionals in the law and journalism. Despite its formal hostility to caste oppression, for most of its history the national leadership has been dominated by Brahmins from Maharashtra.

It has been argued that the one aspect where the RSS departs from the usual fascist model is that it does not claim to seek state power. But this could change as tensions develop. The ideological aspect of this comes from their analysis of Indian history, in which the state has always had a marginal role in the development of society. The pragmatic angle is that they view normal politics as being irredeemably corrupt. This explains why the RSS notoriously did not take part in the struggle against British rule.

The problem with the attitude to the state became apparent when the RSS was banned and thousands of activists jailed in 1948-49 after one of their ex members assassinated Gandhi. Just before the 1952 general election the RSS joined up with other Hindutva sympathisers to form the forerunner of the BJP, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh. Electorally it only took off after the 1967 election as the impact of the post war boom faded in India. In 1977 it liquidated itself into the Janata Party coalition that won the general election that year after the collapse of Indira Gandhi’s emergency regime.  Her regime was itself a constitutional dictatorship that collapsed when part of her government split after they realised that they were about to be purged.

When the Janata coalition collapsed in 1980, the former Jan Sangh elements reformed as the BJP. The RSS was still not totally committed to it, as became evident when it supported the Congress in the 1984 general election. This came after the Congress made a sharp swerve towards Hindu communalism in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. The BJP was reduced to two seats in parliament. The RSS’s flirtation with Congress did not last long, as by 1986 the Congress reverted to its policy of “appeasement” of the Muslim minority.

An uneasy coalition

Much earlier in 1966 the RSS had realised that in order to make a decisive breakthough it needed to open lines to the Hindu religious establishment. This led to them combining with other Hindutva sympathisers to form the Viswa Hindu Parishad, “World Council of Hindus”. This gave the RSS access to the Hindu temple network and  the ability to influence a huge number of observant Hindus.

As a result the non-RSS Hindutva elements have increased their influence inside the Sangh Parivar and the BJP. A constant state of tension and competition has developed between these two factions. It has also allowed rogue RSS leaders to use the VHP to build an alternative power base.

A central role in this tension is played by a paramilitary group formed in 1984 by VHP figures—the Bajrang Dal. The name defies exact translation, but “The Tough Lads” comes closest. Unlike the disciplined RSS, Bajrang Dal activists are typically a stereotype of petty bourgeois street gangs, conjured by local demagogues. A prime example of such a figure is Kapil Mishra, a non—RSS BJP politician who led the February 2020 anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi. This was facilitated by the Delhi police, who are under the control of Union Home Minister, and long time right hand man to Modi, Amit Shah.

In fact the electoral success of the BJP has increasingly promoted non—RSS figures to prominence. Most notable is Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh—the largest state in India and the key to the BJP’s electoral majority. Adityanath unleashed wave upon wave of anti Muslim actions both by street gangs and the police. The fact that he has got such a key post is a reflection of the influence of non—RSS elements inside the BJP.

Modi sits inside this network as an RSS outsider. He rose to as the most effective political organiser the BJP has ever had, engineering electoral success in the 1990s in his home state of Gujarat. In 2002 a crisis inside the BJP government in Gujarat led to him being sent down from Delhi by the RSS to clear up the mess. Almost immediately he had to deal with the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002, started by the Bajrang Dal. The RSS to joined in and forced Modi to order the police to do nothing for two days while the killings took place. Modi had actually wanted to use the police against Muslims—the riot followed the deaths of 58 Sangh Parivar volunteers in a train fire that was blamed on local Muslims. After this Modi was determined that he would never again lose control of any situation. By the end of his period of power in Gujarat in 2014, all local Sangh Parivar bodies were under the complete control of his government.


Modi’s outlook is based on his conviction that Indian capitalism can progress to global great power status through the promotion of monopoly capital in the form of domestic corporates. His tenure in Gujarat was marked by consistent encouragement of monopoly capital to invest in the region. This has put him at odds with much of the RSS’s traditional petty bourgeois base and their affiliate organisations, notably the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) – or “self-reliance awakening forum”. This strategy contrasts with the traditional RSS principles that there was considerable opposition to him becoming their candidate for Prime Minister. It was only when RSS chief Mohan Bagwat became convinced that they could not contemplate a third successive electoral defeat for the BJP in 2014 that he got the nomination.

These tensions have intensified since 2014, despite the BJP’s unprecedented electoral success and the collapse of the parliamentary opposition. Modi has bought time by letting the traditional base loose, with gangs regularly attacking Muslims. The student affiliate, the ABVP, has been unleashed against radical students. This is more politically central as over two decades the ABVP has been instrumental in influencing literally millions of students who have gone to work in the most modern sectors of the economy. The universities have also been a constant source of political campaigning against the BJP and so are a primary target for neutralisation.

Modi has very cleverly played the SJM. The term “swadeshi”—synonymous with the anti—British struggle – refers to opposition to globalisation and the promotion of small scale petit bourgeois enterprises. Modi uses the same concepts to mean self-sufficiency for Indian capitalism inside the global economy. He used the coronavirus crisis to launch the concept of “Atmanirbhar Bharat”, or “self sufficient India”, as a term for the economic stimulus in response to covid 19. Modi and other ministers were at pains to stress that this does not mean isolation or hostility to foreign direct investment, something completely at odds with the SJM.

Modi played to the Hindutva gallery by promoting the locally developed vaccine Covivax rather than Covishield, the licensed and locally produced version of the Oxford/AstraZenica vaccine. Modi sees the huge Indian pharmaceutical industry as a key means for penetrating the global market. His aim is to meet the demand for vaccines that cannot be swiftly met by European and North American producers. In principle, promoting Indian capitalism as a global leader is fine for the RSS. In practice, as shown by the tensions with the SJM and particularly by the recent farm laws crisis, it is leading to serious conflicts with major sections of its traditional base.

This has been magnified by the cult of personality built up around Modi. At a theatrical level, this is illustrated by the Ahmedabad stadium renaming episode—at the last moment named the Narendra Modi stadium—and every certificate for a Covivax vaccination carrying a photo of Modi. At a substantive level, it has led them to recklessly alienate a series of allies who they now think are expendable. This has isolated them in Punjab, lost them control of Maharashtra and could lead to them losing Assam in the upcoming elections. The inspirational farmers campaign exacerbated these tensions.

Modi’s descent into overconfidence has played a central role in the terrible way Covid—19 has ravaged India. By declaring victory in February, he encouraged the relaxation of control measures that allowed the surge in Mumbai and the importation of the “Kent variant” into north India. His desire for a nationalist vaccination programme meant that the government refused to use the 50 million doses of the Covishield vaccine that were available at the beginning of the year. He failed to use the huge sums donated the PM CARES relief programme to create the promised extra oxygen capacity. Finally, for most of March and April, Modi and Amit Shah abandoned Delhi to go campaigning in key states holding elections, hosting huge rallies without any control measures. This should bring a political price, but the ineffectual nature of the opposition means that the BJP may escape.

Cracks in the regime

Nevertheless, the RSS are faced by a serious issue. Modi was allowed to become Prime Minister and call the shots because he delivered electoral success. The RSS have a long track record of discarding senior figures who became liabilities. Modi, being well aware of this, has built an independent base for himself. This is partly through the theatrics mentioned above, but also through alliances with major capitalists like the Ambanis, Adanis and Tatas, and by creating a BJP machine oriented on his own leadership.

Getting rid of him would be very dangerous for the RSS. Objectively this should set up a good opportunity for the working class and the left. The campaign against three labour laws introduced last year included a one day general strike on 26 November of last year, called by eight union federations, that mobilised 250 million workers. Unfortunately the leadership of the federations have reverted to electoral mode to focus on the upcoming state elections. This is a constant problem for the Indian left. In this case it may enable Modi and the BJP to slip the net.

Even so, the core problems for Modi and the BJP won’t go away. The tensions between the interests of the petit bourgeois base and monopoly capital, exacerbated by the continuing expansion of the largest corporations, will continue. Modi’s strategy also intensifies the likelihood of further confrontations with workers and farmers. The conditions deepen for a major crisis of the right. At the moment Modi is delivering for the Indian ruling class. And at the same time the RSS is having success by sticking to its anti—state rhetoric and working within a parliamentary constitutional government by employing illiberal majoritarianism. Whether this develops into a more classical fascist strategy depends on the tensions within the regime, but also the opposition.

As always, crucial to this opposition is the Indian left being able to shift focus from electoral reformism to mobilising the strength of the working class and farmers to confront the political regime. Without an effective intervention from the left, things could get very nasty indeed.


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