With the swearing in of Narendra Modi as prime minister on May 26, India will have a government led by a man whose political education was acquired not in a democratic, secular and often rambunctious national parliament but in an intolerant, disciplined Hindu nationalist organization unashamedly influenced by 1930s European fascism, complete with theories of a master race.
The potential danger to Indian democracy and minority rights has never been this acute since the country’s independence in 1947. Indira Gandhi’s suspension of civil rights in the 1970s silenced critics but did not threaten fundamental institutions in the long run, and voters were able to reverse what she had done in one decisive trip to the ballot box.
In today’s India, promoters of the most radical fringe of Hindu nationalism within Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) want to constrict Indian diversity and enforce an imagined civilizational purity they call Hindutva. Their campaign has already demonstrated its power to oppress and kill Muslims, destroy their mosques, force the “reconversion” of Christians and Buddhists, wade into censorship, limit critical or analytical scholarship and police the arts. Hindu zealots drove the country’s most celebrated painter, M. F. Hussein, into self-imposed exile in London, where he died in 2011.
At the center of secular Indian concern is the largest of the Hindu nationalist groups, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), founded in 1925. In 1947, independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, sent a letter to political officials in Indian states, asking them to beware of the movement. “We have a great deal of evidence to show that the R.S.S. is an organization which is in the nature of a private army and which is definitely proceeding on the strictest Nazi lines,” he wrote. Rajiv Gandhi, his grandson and prime minister from 1984 to 1989, reiterated the fear of Hindu nationalism in an interview with me just before his assassination in Tamil Nadu in 1991. He was at the end of a grueling campaign to return the Congress party to power, and he said his hope was that he could block the political rise of Hindu fundamentalists.
William Dalrymple, the eminent British writer on South and West Asia, who lives in India, brought the story up to date in an article in the London publication The New Statesman as India voted this year. “Like the Phalange in Lebanon,” he wrote, “the RSS was founded in direct imitation of European fascist movements, and like its 1930s fascist models, it still makes much of daily parading in khaki drill and the giving of militaristic salutes: the RSS salute differs from that of the Nazis only in the angle of the arm, which is held horizontally over the chest. The RSS sees this as an attempt to create a corps of dedicated paramilitary zealots, who, so the theory goes, will form the basis of a revival of a golden age of national strength and racial purity.”
The RSS is the organization that took Modi in as a young man and nurtured him. Critics will be watching to see if he can, in national office, rise above the narrow RSS vision of what India should be. Much of his troubling history is glossed over inside India and abroad in the rush toward economic growth in a climate designed to please corporations and international investors and boost the economy for all, an attractive prospect for India’s restless young people.