New Delhi: A nationalist group behind the rise of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is opening up to critics and supporters through a first-of-its-kind outreach programme in New Delhi, preparing the ground for his re-election bid next year.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the fountainhead of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that believes in a Hindu-first ideology, provided thousands of campaigners for Modi's landslide victory in 2014, and could help energise its cadre to fend off rising criticism of the government. A general election is due by May.
A three-day lecture session the RSS started on Monday in the capital - rare for a mainly male group that typically broadcasts its views from its headquarters in the western city of Nagpur - is also being seen as an attempt to mainstream the movement that Modi joined in his youth.
"We want to connect with a larger section of society, those who want to understand us, those who want to know us," Manmohan Vaidya, one of several RSS general secretaries, told Reuters.
"We are experiencing a growing curiosity among a large section of society." The RSS has been banned several times since its inception in 1925, once after a former member of the group assassinated independence hero Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.
Bollywood stars, athletes and ministers attended the first day's event at a government convention centre as the RSS sought to shed what its chief called a "dictatorial" image to an audience of about 1,300 people.
Its leaders and volunteers wore traditional Indian clothes, but the group's trademark attire of khaki trousers and white shirts was missing. A couple of years ago the RSS gave up its old-fashioned khaki shorts to raise its appeal among young people.
"Narendra Modi is a good man, works hard and leads a life of values, so the world has saluted him," Indresh Kumar, a senior RSS leader, told a gathering of supporters to discuss India's "global march".
"I keep saying that you gave 50 years to those who looted the country, now give 10 to 15 years to those who will make the country. That much patience you can have."
India's Congress party ruled the country for much of its independent history, but a big loss to the BJP in the last general election has forced it to seek partnerships with other opposition parties in a bid to stall Modi's march in 2019.
Record-high fuel prices, low crop prices due to oversupply and a lack of jobs have given the opposition a chance to reconnect with voters ahead of state polls in three big BJP-ruled states, ahead of the general election. Kumar urged his audience to use social media and other ways to convince voters that Modi was a better bet than any candidate for prime minister the opposition could offer. In the last general election hundreds of thousands of volunteers of the RSS, which has about 585,000 committed members, used technology and sheer manpower to mobilise voters.
Kumar said there was a need to mobilise young people, women, and rural people to ensure Modi's victory. "A lot of things have been done and lot may have been unfinished. There's no magic wand," he said.
"If we want to march ahead on the world stage, we will have to be in Delhi. If we trip in the bid to come back to Delhi, our global ambitions will also slip."