NEW DELHI: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) popularity is on the rise, as evident from the burgeoning number of online applications for membership received by it over the last three years. In 2014, the outfit got 7,000 requests a month for membership, with 50 to 60 of the requests being from women hoping to join the male-dominated RSS. As they cannot participate in shakhas, the women are directed to join the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, a women’s body, which follows the RSS ideology, and has 2,100 shakhas across the country. “The women are encouraged to participate in larger congregations at Sangh functions,” RSS’s national publicity wing in-charge Dr Manmohan Vaidya told The Sunday Standard.
Recently, at a camp of IT professionals arranged by RSS in Bangalore, over 3,000 participated, of which 800 were women; some of whom even stayed overnight, the RSS leader claimed.
An internal analysis of the outfit’s online registration figures reveals how the social media is shaping public opinion. “RSS membership jumped every time there was a controversy revolving around nationalistic or religious themes on the social media. Even Mohan Bhagwat’s statements on Hindutva are keenly debated,” said an RSS source. His speech, telecast live on Doordarshan, was met with an enthusiastic online response. RSS membership trends, sources said, are spread across the country. “We saw online registrations from Kerala, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and IT hubs like Delhi, Noida, Pune and Bangalore. Even places like Assam where say we used to get only 20 registrations per month, the number has gone up to around 40 a month.” SAFFRON REASONS: The “sharp increase” in people joining the saffron organisation online has been attributed to the spindrift of the massive mass contact campaign launched by RSS volunteers ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, in which the Modi-led BJP won an unprecedented mandate. “Our volunteers went door-to-door, taking RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s message of ensuring 100 per cent voting. We did not canvas for the BJP or any particular candidate, but instead created awareness about issues like corruption and mal-governance, and the need to have a nationalistic government. Our interaction with the public removed people’s doubts about us,” a RSS leader explained.
Online registration for RSS is the hot new trend. From May 1-15, it got 4,000 membership requests. After the election results, the number swelled up to 13,000 between May 16-31, an increase which, RSS sources say, could have been due to the Modi factor, but not all of it.
For the RSS, which focuses on creating a nationalistic discourse centred around Hindutva, the real work starts after online registrations are received. Details of each new member are sent to the relevant local unit, which gets in touch with him to explain the issues and impress upon him to join the shakha, where he would participate in physical and intellectual activities.
RSS’s Delhi state unit organised a two-day students’ convention in Sonepat in September. Bhagwat addressed them and former Atomic Energy Commission of India chairman Anil Kakodkar shared his views on what success means. Sources said discussions and presentation competitions on “prevalent topics of the day” like Article 370, Uniform Civil Code and ‘love jihad’ were held among the student participants. The next youth camp will be held in the first week of November in Astha City, Agra, where 5,100 specially chosen youngsters from among 25,000-30,000 youth will be trained in “national values”.
THE IT PUSH: The RSS, which once boasted of close to 48,000 shakhas in 2005, just a year after the NDA’s first regime headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee saw a downward trend as numbers started dropping. Bhagwat took over in 2009, and it was only in the last three years that the number of shakhas started going up at the rate of 2,000 every year, responding to the Sangh’s aggressive pitch and outreach programmes. The RSS has around 40,000 shakhas across the country—an estimated active membership of five million, making it the world’s largest cultural body.
The thought behind the conservative organisation using the social media to engage with young IT professionals is that they may not have the time during the week to attend shakhas. “Those working in IT hubs have varying time schedules and are free only in the weekends. So, online membership is convenient for them,” a RSS leader said. The organisation is aware of the growing importance of the e-factor in all aspects of modern life. A RSS leader feels that people joining online also made good swayamsevaks, and said that many of them have become full-time pracharaks on the ground.
The organisation therefore holds separate shakhas for IT professionals, which are named ‘IT Milans’ which meet during the weekend or once a month. There are currently 220 ‘IT Milans’ in 15 cities which are known as IT hubs.
The Sangh, unlike the NDA government, is opening up to the media, a tribe it had avoided for many years because of the negative publicity it has received. Things have changed. RSS’ prachar vibhag has branches across all the states, apart from having a dedicated website Vishwa Samvad Kendra in each state. It has designated people from across the 600 districts to run its publicity machine and interact with regional media to spread awareness about its activities.
MOUSE FACTOR: The increasing online engagement has forced the Sangh to set up a social media wing in each of its prachar vibhags across the country. In Delhi, the Sangh has hired two young professionals to boost its online presence. Their mandate is also to ensure that web content of RSS media—the Organiser and the Panchjanya which together boast of a circulation of over one lakh—is made available to readers.
As Modi pushed the social media to its limits to create an euphoria around his candidature, a huge army of pro-Sangh young twitterati emerged. After being lambasted by opponents for their hostility towards those perceived to be anti-Modi, a camp to train these youth in the “judicious” use of social media was organised in Madhya Pradesh by the RSS. “They were told that it doesn’t make sense to attack divergent views. Instead, they should counter negative comments with sensible arguments,” a RSS source said.
The new thinking in the RSS is also to create a wider pool of experts. The Sangh has begun to engage with opinion makers, defence experts, journalists, scientists and IT professionals, asking them to give lectures to new converts.
DRESS NO CODE: The signature uniform of the RSS has always been khaki shorts, black cap and white shirts. With more IT professionals and youth joining it, the Sangh has relaxed its dress-code at ‘IT Milans’, where people can come dressed in clothes of their choice. But will the Sangh change its dress code to gain a wider acceptance? Said Vaidya, “I will give a recent example. During a shivir, while Bhagwatji was interacting with IT professionals, a participant asked if wearing shorts was compulsory. Even before the Sangh chief could answer, another member interrupted and sought permission to answer. ‘I have had to buy two new tracksuits this year because of the wear and tear of clothes during activity at the shakhas. Shorts are much better for playing games and doing physical exercises,’ said the member.” He however added that the Sangh has changed over the years. “We don’t have hard and fast rules for a dress code. If the need is felt in the future to make changes, it can be done too.”
With the nation poised in the e-cusp of change driven by Modi, the BJP’s mentor organisation seems to be following its protégé instead of being emulated. At least online.