Every morning at dawn a small group of men and boys dressed in white shirts and khaki shorts meet at a parade ground in the central Indian city of Nagpur to salute the saffron flag of their warrior god, Ram.
With shouts of "Hindustan is for the Hindus," and "Victory to the Motherland" they break into a daily drill of physical and spiritual training that includes using a wooden staff for self-defense, and the singing of patriotic songs.
"We want all minorities to come into the Hindu mainstream, only then can we build a powerful Hindu rashtra [nation]," says Vasantrao Munde after the hour-long routine is over. "We are Hindus, we should be proud of being a Hindu."
Mr. Munde, an unemployed physics graduate, is one of around 4 million members of the secretive and authoritarian Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or National Volunteer Force.
Formed in Nagpur in 1925, the RSS has grown to become India's most powerful Hindu organization with branches in tens of thousands of villages and towns around India. It has also spawned the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which appears to be the front-runner to form the next government based on early results from India's general election.
Most members of the all-male RSS sign up before turning age 12. Munde joined the organization when he was a young boy at the insistence of his father who wanted him to grow up understanding traditional Hindu values in a rapidly changing India.
"The RSS prefer to catch their recruits at a tender and very impressionable age," says Sumit Sarkar, a history professor at Delhi University. "Doubting Thomases are not welcome."
Once brought into the movement, RSS cadres are indoctrinated with the belief that Hindus alone constitute the Indian nation since they are its original inhabitants and the sole creators of its society and culture. Recruits are told that although Hinduism is superior to any other faith, Hindus as a race have suffered because they are too liberal and peaceful. The RSS says only a militant and powerful Hindu movement can counter threats from outsiders.
The RSS campaigns for the BJP
Most of BJP's leadership, including Atal Behari Vajpayee, its candidate for prime minister, are lifelong members of the RSS. Its dedicated network of cadres helped the party grow from just two seats in the 545 member Parliament, the first time it contested an election in 1984, to 162 seats after the 1996 vote.
Ever since elections were called last December, RSS volunteers have once again been busy canvassing support for the BJP. After 70 years of patiently watching from the sidelines, their ultimate goal of an India that reflects the heavenly kingdom of Ram appears closer than ever before.
"The RSS cadres are working overtime to see the BJP get into power and they have a very strong Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] agenda," says Ali Asghar Engineer, the head of the Center for Study of Society and Secularism in Bombay.
The prospect of a BJP-led government has sent tremors throughout the region and beyond. The United States has already warned it would impose sanctions if India declares itself a nuclear power.
Meanwhile neighboring Pakistan has expressed alarm at the BJP's pledge to take back parts of the disputed state of Kashmir.
But it is India's Muslim minority, which makes up around 12 percent of the population, and its even smaller Christian community, that is feeling most threatened by the BJP and its radical right wing.
"They consider both religions as alien to India. Islam and Christianity came with the invaders so they really hate them. Now they want to Indianize them," says Mr. Engineer.
A manifesto for a Hindu nation.
Despite the BJP's attempts to present a more moderate face to the electorate, the ultranationalist aims of the RSS resonate throughout the party's election manifesto.
The document's antiminorities stand, its pledge to build a Hindu temple on a disputed religious site, its aversion to foreign investment, and its promise to develop a nuclear arsenal mirror the RSS's charter for a strong, assertive and self-reliant India.
Five years ago, RSS-trained cadres led the assault on a 400-year- old Muslim mosque at Ayodhya, which pious Hindus believe was built on the birthplace of Ram. Although it sparked a communal bloodbath that left more than 3,000 people dead, the RSS's leaders hailed the mosque's destruction.
"We are proud of what happened there," says Dattatreya Gosavi, an activist from Nagpur who joined the RSS when he was four.
"Like Jerusalem is for the Christians, like Mecca is for the Muslims, so Ayodhya is for Hindus. We get our inspiration from there." he adds.
But unlike the BJP, which confines itself to the demand that a Ram temple be built at Ayodhya, the RSS also wants mosques in the cities of Kashi (Varanasi) and Mathura demolished because they were allegedly built on sites once occupied by Hindu shrines.
"Kashi and Mathura are even more important to Hindus than Ayodhya. We would like our self-pride to be preserved here," says RSS chief Prof. Rajendra Singh.
So far the BJP and its radical right wing have tried to bury differences like these in the interests of securing a pro-Hindu government in Delhi.
Uppermost in the minds of moderates like candidate Mr. Vajpayee is the memory of his party's 13-day flirtation with power after the 1996 election when it was invited to form a government by virtue of being the largest party, but failed to attract enough allies to secure a majority because of its strongly pro-Hindu policies.This time the strategy of influencing voters and winning partners appears to be paying off.
The party has gone into the election with more than a dozen allies and, if the opinion polls are correct, it will eclipse the Congress Party's share of the vote for the first time in India's history.
According Prof. Rajni Kothari, chairman of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, the greatest challenge for Vajpayee if the BJP does comes to power will be curbing the demands of radicals to remove the party's moderate mask.
"For now they are prepared to accept the BJP playing Realpolitik to get into power, but after the election they are not going to remain content with being sidelined any longer," Professor Kothari says.