IT WAS ONCE among the best-known quasi-political organisations in India, but over time, it appeared that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had lost steam. With a new electorate—of which 150 million is in the 18-24 age group—its core message of Hindutva no longer resonated as it did with the previous generation. However, the 2014 election and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) stunning comeback has placed the RSS in the centre of India’s economic debate, given that the BJP has never shied away from declaring its RSS roots.

The question: Will the RSS influence economic policy?
Both have denied this in various forums. At a function in Jaipur, held after the election results, RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav said: “The Sangh is not a political organisation but a social one... There is no way that the RSS would interfere in the government’s functioning and politics.” More recently, he went on record stating that “it is the government of India which should be making the decisions about what economic decisions are good for the country.”

The fact is that a non-political organisation like the RSS can afford to take strong ideological positions, but a political party needs to be pragmatic. For instance, while the RSS has been all about swadeshi and self-reliance, can the BJP afford to keep foreign players away? The party has already taken a stand against foreign direct investment in retail. Will that apply to other sectors too?

Both the RSS and BJP have, at various points, spoken out against the culture of dole that the Congress-led government believed in. Rather than wealth distribution through the Food Security Bill and the like, they speak of wealth creation measures and encouraging indigenous industry. But what does this mean to existing welfare schemes? The new party in power can hardly afford to dismantle all of these. In his speech after he was officially announced the leader of the BJP-led alliance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said “A government is that which thinks about the poor, works for the poor, and lives for the poor. I dedicate the new government to the poor.”

Also, as Arvind Virmani, former chief economic advisor to the Government of India, says no government wants to accept it, but basically each successive government benefits from the good work done by a previous incumbent. “So the Congress government between 2004 and 2009 benefited from the good work done by the BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Today, people want to know how you are going to better their lives. They will vote for anyone who promises a path to prosperity.”

The first hints of how the country will be run will, perhaps, be seen in the new government’s Budget, which it is expected to present in a couple of months. And even if it does reflect an RSS agenda, here’s the thing. The organisation changed direction when nobody was looking, and is now pushing development and economic growth.

Till now, people have seen the RSS as a hardline Hindu organisation, prizing Ram over the rupee. It did not have any distinct economic ideology apart from swadeshi, a Gandhian idea of economic nationalism which was hardly unique. Till 1991, almost every Indian political party had, to varying degrees, espoused swadeshi. What had set the RSS apart was the larger goal of Hindu revivalism.

The reason for this comes partly from the definition of Hindutva itself by the man who defined it back in 1921. The founder of the RSS, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, while imprisoned at the infamous Cellular Jail in the Andamans, wrote, “Hindutva is not a word, but a history. Not only the spiritual or religious history of our people ... but a history in full. Hinduism is only a fraction, a derivative, a part of Hindutva.”

The new-look RSS is changing its pitch, placing the message of jobs and prosperity above Hindu culture, and redefining the thrust of the Hindutva message for the first time in its 89-year history.

TO UNDERSTAND THIS, I spoke to some of the most reclusive strategists of the RSS, starting with Swaminathan Gurumurthy, the organisation’s undisputed economic brain, to B.P. Sharma, one of the senior economic strategists of the RSS, and also newer affiliates like Saurabh Lahiri (popularly known as Lahiri Guruji), an IIT (BHU) Varanasi-trained engineer and risk management expert who heads the Hindutva Abhiyan, an activist organisation under the Sangh Parivar.

Gurumurthy is one of India’s most sought-after, yet low-key, chartered accountants, the sort billionaires consult on a regular basis. He has been called in as advisor to some of India Inc.’s biggest deals, and is famously known as the man who helped the Bajaj brothers, Rahul and Shishir, resolve their differences in 2003. Even before that, he made a name for himself as a financial sleuth; in the 1980s, when The Indian Express newspaper took on the might of Dhirubhai Ambani and Reliance Industries, Gurumurthy helped the paper uncover several irregularities in how Reliance was run. That created an image of a giant-killer.

It’s not just India Inc. that listens to him. For over four decades, he has been a member of the RSS, and was one of the convenors of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an organisation under the RSS to promote economic nationalism. That makes him seem less important than he actually is—the chief economic ideologue of the RSS.

He defines the new RSS as a “return to a model where an individual and his ecosystem, his friends and family, create flourishing enterprises with as little interference from the state as possible. State dependence was never India’s way. We need to empower communities and remove state barriers.”

NOT EVERYONE’S BUYING into the changed organisation, of course. “Economics is a mask for the RSS,” says Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP and former minister of state for human resource development. “In their entire ideology, economics has never been core. Their ideology is about religion and not economics. This economic mask allows them to try and present a benign face, but a mask is a mask.”

Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, agrees. “When you study the model being espoused by the RSS and the BJP, it does not hold. Even in Gujarat, the human development indicators leave much to be desired. The promise of prosperity needs to be examined not just through income but though human indicators like health.” Ghosh adds that the promise of prosperity to all could come at the cost of identity. “This is a homogenising effort towards the goal of a majoritarian [Hindu] nation using neoliberal economics.”

But, says Gurumurthy, this is not true; rather than a homogenous big industry, the RSS vision is of empowered entrepreneurs taking the nation ahead. He says that the fundamental flaw of Nehruvian socialism is that it made more people dependent on the state through large social welfare schemes. “The more people become dependent on the state, the more their inherent entrepreneurial capability shrinks,” he says.

This entrepreneur-driven model is what Modi used to great effect in Gujarat, leading to the rise of what’s being called the ‘Gujarat model’. And to those who believe the RSS will be pulling the strings, BJP insiders point out that the ‘Gujarat model’ had no space for hardline RSS members such as Pravin Togadia or for the extreme positions of another Sangh member, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. This led to some friction between Modi and the RSS in the early days, says economist and historian Meghnad Desai. “The RSS-Modi relationship has been difficult because he has really pushed the envelope in transforming what the whole Hindutva politics meant.”

Had Modi’s model not been successful, the Lok Sabha elections would likely have seen a different outcome. But “what if” history, while fascinating, is nothing like the real thing in this case. The RSS saw the force of the argument Modi was making, and realised that to reduce the disconnect with the marginalised, the economic argument was a winner. The BJP believed that Modi’s formula would take it to power, which was apparent in the 2014 manifesto. Unlike in past elections, the manifesto does not have a special section on the long-held dream of the RSS—building a Ram temple in Ayodhya—nor does it devote pages to the propagation of Hindu culture. It mentions the temple once, and spends far more space spelling out the party’s stand on the economy and industry.

THE RSS AND the Sangh Parivar burst into public discourse in the early 1990s, demanding the tearing down of a mosque in Ayodhya and replacing it with a Ram temple. The BJP, then just over a decade old, was active in this movement, which, for a period, overshadowed the huge shift taking place in the Indian economy. Till then, India had been largely closed to the world, although a process of modernisation had begun under Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and later, under her successor (and son) Rajiv Gandhi. Coupled with many years of a snail-like pace of growth, it meant that the economy was floundering. By 1991, the country was facing a balance of payment crisis, and appealed to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for a loan. The loan came with strings, including opening up of the markets, which then finance minister Manmohan Singh announced in 1991.

The Sangh Parivar, at that point, was more concerned about the Hindutva message. There were noises made about selling out to foreign interests, of course, and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch claimed that indigenous industry would be eroded by cheap foreign goods. A report in late 1991 in The Hindu newspaper (then widely seen as an apolitical observer) stated that the BJP had argued that Singh’s plans were “far too radical and “in the name of liberalisation and globalisation, foreign banks and unscrupulous elements are benefiting”. But these were whispers compared to the roar for the Ram temple.

The other burning issue of the time that was identified with the RSS was of caste-based reservations in educational institutions and government jobs, as recommended by the Mandal Commission and implemented by Prime Minister V.P. Singh in 1989. There were widespread protests by student groups against such reservations, and the Sangh’s student organisation, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, was among the groups responsible for organised protests.

But all that’s in the past. Today, with the ideological manoeuvrability of all political parties, the RSS has morphed into an organisation that claims to be inclusive and development oriented. Does the thrust on development and jobs for all mean that the Sangh is giving up its dreams to build the Ram temple? There’s nothing to indicate that. What is clear, however, is that the RSS is framing itself as a political player—albeit a backroom one. It is pushing the same agenda that Modi and the BJP did in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections—that of growth, development, and jobs.

There’s logic behind this shift. The message of Hindutva resonated with a generation seeking identity at a time when the “idea of India” was shaken by the entry of global players. A strong nationalist message went down well. Three decades on, that message no longer appeals. The new demographic has grown up with open markets, and aspires for material success; it has no patience with debating solutions, preferring to do something about its problems. And the RSS is talking to them.

“Building the temple is important, but just building the temple means nothing unless you can give people livelihood,” says Lahiri, who used to work at IBM as a risk assessment analyst. “Hindutva has been seen through a very narrow prism. How can we talk about bringing back the cultural and spiritual glory of India when there are no jobs, no food, no roads, no electricity, and no prosperity?”

Modi realised this early on. While he started off as the poster boy of Hindutva (up to and including the communal riots in 2002, soon after he became chief minister of Gujarat for the first time), he realised the message of religion was not going to be enough. Development—job creation, infrastructure, and increased investment—was his platform. And despite much of the world seeing him as the man who failed to stop the riots, his state voted him back to power three times. Says economist Bibek Debroy, author of Gujarat: Governance for Growth and Development: “Modi showed how the governance and development discourse could rise above sectarianism, he showed the common ground and how it could work as a bridge.”

THERE’S ANOTHER REASON for the change of image. The RSS (and by extension the BJP) has always been viewed as an organisation for upper-caste Hindus. Even though it has shunned caste, the opposition has almost always painted it as being dominated by Brahmins and baniyas (traders).

The RSS could, conceivably, have played the Hindu card to get in these castes (‘We are all Hindus’ or a similar message of inclusion), but the fact is that many Dalits (the catch-all term for scheduled castes) refuse to be identified as Hindu. Lower castes, including the scheduled tribes, make up 23% of the electorate; of this, Dalits alone account for 16%. Muslims, meanwhile, make up 14% of the population. For a party with ambitions to wrest power at the Centre, gaining the support of the 23% was vital. Moving jobs and growth to the forefront got the BJP support and votes from lower castes.

The RSS leaders who met me explained that caste, for them, is about expertise in a particular skill or trade, with complete social mobility and no discrimination. It’s almost the law of Manu all over again—with an economic twist. “Caste plus economics makes a great nation, caste plus politics destroys it,” says Gurumurthy.

This is something that Badri Narayan Tiwari, author of Fascinating Hindutva, and teacher of social history and cultural anthropology at the Govind Ballav Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad, attempts to explain. Having studied caste, economics, and Hindutva closely in Uttar Pradesh for many years, he says: “It is wrong to look at the Dalit voter as different from any other voter; the aspirations are the same. The promise of jobs is very powerful; every party promises this but no one with more vigour than Modi. That is an attraction.”

The RSS is marrying this aspiration with its own political expediency, says scholar and writer on Dalit economics Chandra Bhan Prasad. The defeats in the 2004 and 2009 national elections taught the RSS and the BJP that without winning over lower castes they could not hope to win. “The BJP lost in 2004 because the aspirations had been unleashed and the benefits had not reached fast enough,” says Virmani.

Prasad says though the lower castes have always been seen as one monolithic voting bloc by politicians, two things have happened in the last few years. Many younger people from lower castes define their life in terms of economic success because they have seen that making money breaks a lot of prejudices—and so think more in terms of empowered career, not caste power. “They want someone who is talking about those things and are attracted to the kind of pitch that Modi has,” says Prasad. The RSS, he adds, realises that these two forces coming together gives it the best chance to expand its base.

Some of this focus on enterprise to bridge the gap between castes came when Nitin Gadkari, a long-time RSS man, was assigned as the president of the BJP. He formulated a plan to increase the BJP vote share by 10%. Part of his effort has been through his Purti Group, which works in energy and agriculture and was embroiled in financial disputes last year, though the Maharashtra income tax department has since stated that there was no probe against the group. “Not even 100 people who work with me [his companies employ some 15,000 people in all] are from my [upper] caste,” Gadkari says. “My focus has always been to provide employment to lower castes and tribals. Economics is the answer.”

To critics who say that the RSS focus on growth and development is a cynical way of increasing the BJP’s vote share, the RSS talks history. Its own history to be precise. In 1973, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, the second sarsanghachalak or chief of the RSS, said: “There need not be any rigidity about the patterns of industrial ownerships. There are various patterns, such as, private enterprise, nationalisation, co-operation, municipalisation, democratisation, self-employment, and joint-industry. For each industry, the pattern of ownership should be determined in light of its peculiar characteristics and total requirement of the national economy.”

This means the RSS has manoeuvring space to define its message, as it has done through Lahiri and the Hindutva Abhiyan. The Abhiyan has focussed on taking the jobs message to some of the most deprived districts in the country since 2008, with hundreds of workshops on everything from computer training to English language classes.

This is what has attracted followers like Prashant Rokade, a Dalit social worker and Indian Revenue Service officer. Inspired by Lahiri, Rokade runs a dozen coaching centres with his own money across Nagpur for Dalit students. “The only bridge that Hindu nationalism or Hindutva can have with the Dalits and lower castes is the equity that economic prosperity brings,” Rokade says, when we make a late night visit to the Ambedkar monument in Nagpur. “People forget that Ambedkar was also a great economist. He asked us to become prosperous. Without roti (bread) and rozgar (income), there is no respect.”

THIS FOCUS ON wooing the Dalit and lower caste vote has paid off in spades. The BJP has won 93 seats across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which were the strongholds of leaders such as Mayawati (a Dalit), Mulayam Singh, and Sharad Yadav. By means of smart alliances and by projecting Dalit leaders, the BJP ran away with the majority of seats. Tiwari points out that the Pasis, a Dalit sub-caste which makes up about 16% of the Dalit vote in Uttar Pradesh, have largely voted for the BJP.

Would it be fair to say that Modi changed the RSS, I ask Desai. “I would argue that the change was already happening but Modi hastened its pace. It is now a symbiotic equation where each cannot survive without the other: Modi needs the RSS network to enter national politics, and the RSS needs Modi as the embodiment of this new narrative of economics.” That symbiosis was seen when millions of RSS volunteers hit the streets to campaign for Modi. Which, as it turned out, worked very well for both.