For the last three months, Ravi Tewari, a 22-year-old engineering student, has been waking up at 5am, putting on his white shirt and khaki shorts and rushing to a nearby park for the morning shakha of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). His family is surprised. No one in the Tewari clan has ever been with RSS. So, the family can’t quite figure what is driving Ravi to adopt this punishing morning drill.
“I believe in Hindutva,” says Ravi. “The country needs reforms. Who other than Narendra Modi can make it happen? The youth needs something to look forward to. They also need to take up more responsibilities to change things and the shakha is the best place to learn how to do it.”
Ravi speaks with a sense of purpose that only a new convert can have. He had never dabbled in politics before he joined ABVP, BJP’s student wing, a few months ago. And there are thousands like him, he says, neo-converts who have breathed new life into RSS after Modi was named the BJP’s PM candidate on September 13 last year.
Suddenly, the organization which was becoming moribund and seen to be out of tune with the times, is growing. In less than three months, more than 2,000 shakhas have sprouted across the country. By the end of 2013, there were 44,982 shakhas in India, of which 8,417 were in UP alone.
The numbers had peaked in 2004, when there were around 51,000 functioning shakhas. They shrunk during the UPA tenure, hitting a low of 39,283 shakhas in 2010. But as scams broke out, and UPA 2 went from one low to another, there was again a renewed, interest in shakhas, with a sudden burst in post-Modi months.
Kripa Shanker, who heads the RSS publicity wing for UP and Uttarakhand, however, says that it is not a seasonal upsurge. He claims the number shakhas did not decline after 2004. “It’s just that people are becoming more aware of our work.”
“More and more young people are coming forward and joining shakhas,” says Atul Singh, who heads a newly established shakha in Lucknow. What do the shakhas do? “They focus on character building, idealism, discipline and, of course, Hindutva. We are creating awareness among people to vote for a ‘suitable’ political candidate,” he said; ‘suitable’ of course being shorthand for Modi.
“The surge clearly shows how the attraction of power is working for RSS,” says a Sangh activist who did not want to be named. “Students associated with ABVP have joined in large numbers over the past six months. Besides, people who were inactive in the past few years have become active again.”
“Shakhas are now much more organized,” says an ABVP leader. “Most shakhas now have ‘gan nayak’ — a functionary who is supposed to wake up swayamsewaks in the morning and bring them to the park — and ‘gan shikshak’ (group teacher), who trains the members. This was not the case some time ago.”
Ashok Sinha of the RSS’ publicity wing says the Lok Sabha elections are like a national festival for the Sangh. “Our activities increase during elections but this doesn’t mean we do not work at other times. Shakhas focus on personality development and social inclusiveness and what better than the involvement of young,” he says.
Associated with the RSS since his childhood, 76-year-old D P Singh, at present the sarsanghchalak (head) of west UP, says, “Shakhas are not meant to bring in a revolution. They help in the character-building process. The participation of youth in shakhas is like fresh flowers being offered to God. One doesn’t offer dry flowers while worshipping, no?”