More like Modi: Hindu nationalists nurture the next generation

Why We Wrote This

To understand the current crisis in Kashmir, many observers have highlighted increasingly bold Hindu nationalism. Here’s a look at an academy where Hindu nationalists are leveraging political power to foster new leadership. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Vivek Chouhan studied for nine months at the Indian Institute of Democratic Leadership. Mr. Chouhan, seen here in New Delhi on June 14, 2019, deferred entering law school to take the leadership program in Mumbai.

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India’s Hindu nationalist movement is taking the next steps in building a new generation of leaders – especially among educated, urban youth.

In creating new higher education programs, it’s drawing upon the popularity of India’s first Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi. He surprised almost everyone with a convincing reelection victory in national elections in June. At the same time, his ruling party reinforced its hold on parliament. It’s that kind of political dominance that emboldened Mr. Modi this month to revoke the Indian Constitution’s article granting special autonomous status to majority-Muslim Kashmir.

Mr. Modi has not only boosted the image of the nationalist movement but has also been central to the movement’s growth among a key segment of the population. “You could map the growing interest of educated youngsters, doctors and entrepreneurs and professionals, in entering politics and improving governance to the rise of Narendra Modi,” says Ravindra Sathe, dean of the recently established Indian Institute of Democratic Leadership.

To put his law studies on hold for a year wasn’t a difficult choice for Vivek Chouhan. His nation and political party, as he saw it, were calling on him to serve.

So, Mr. Chouhan took a nine-month leadership course for college graduates, part of an expanding effort to develop a new generation of leaders for the Hindu nationalist movement.

“I want to do what I can to help India take its place among the world’s great countries,” says the social worker and native of Bhopal.

Called the Indian Institute of Democratic Leadership, the Mumbai program Mr. Chouhan completed aims to “attract and develop the educated youngsters from across India who feel they can contribute in a new environment of politics and governance,” says Ravindra Sathe, dean of the IIDL.

The IIDL is, partly, a reflection of the growing self-confidence within the Hindu nationalist movement. But it’s also a recognition that to govern effectively and to stay in power, the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, needs to develop a talented, young, urban bench.

India’s prime minister, the BJP’s Narendra Modi, surprised almost everyone with a convincing reelection victory in national elections in May that gave him a second five-year term. At the same time, his BJP reinforced its hold on parliament. It’s that kind of political dominance that emboldened Mr. Modi this month to revoke the Indian Constitution’s article granting special autonomous status to majority-Muslim Kashmir.

The IIDL is also intended to address what Hindu nationalists see as a governmental ethos of corruption and secular intellectual elitism.

Mr. Modi’s arrival on the national political scene has not only boosted the image of the nationalist movement but has also been central to the movement’s attractiveness to an increasingly educated and globalized youth population.

“Modi communicates this certain sense of India that speaks to many educated Indians, he makes them feel that India will matter to the world,” says Snigdha Poonam, a prominent Indian journalist who writes extensively about Indian youth. “That matters especially to the young people.”

Adds Mr. Sathe, the dean of IIDL, “You could map the growing interest of educated youngsters, doctors and entrepreneurs and professionals, in entering politics and improving governance to the rise of Narendra Modi.”

Modi as the model

That would certainly appear to be true in the case of Mr. Chouhan, who cites Mr. Modi as his inspiration for pursuing a career in public service.

“Prime Minister Modi puts the nation first, and I too want above everything else to serve the nation – with first, nation; second, society, or the people; and then only third, oneself – being the order of priorities I hold for myself,” he says.

What he learned from his IIDL course is that India’s corrupt and self-serving political class must be replaced with a new class of educated nation-servers if India is to fulfill its promise, he says.

Mr. Chouhan says he seeks to emulate Mr. Modi, who is widely perceived as a clean politician unsusceptible to the temptations of corruption and eschewing the comforts and pleasures of a palatial home, personal wealth, or even having a family.

“We know that the prime minister gets up at 3:30 or 4 every morning to get to work for India, and he has no family to distract him from his duties. I admire that,” he adds. “I’ve decided I also will not get married and have a family, but I will dedicate my life to the nation.” (Mr. Modi had an arranged marriage as a teenager, but never lived with his wife. He only acknowledged his marriage and estranged wife when he ran for national office in 2014.)

A shift to higher education

Education is not new to India’s Hindu nationalism, but elements of higher education and political professionalization are.

The movement has had educational components since well before independence and the partition of majority-Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan in 1947. Since the 1950s the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS – the ideological progenitor of India’s Hindu-nationalist ruling party, the BJP – has built a network of nearly 60,000 shakhas, or local, daily academies aimed at inculcating a virile and militant sense of spirituality and service to nation in Hindu boys. The RSS also maintains India’s largest private school system with 3.5 million students.

Ajit Solanki/AP
Volunteers in the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh perform self-defense exercises at a ceremony concluding their training camp in Ahmedabad, India, June 1, 2019. The RSS, parent organization of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, combines religious education with self-defense exercises.

Those efforts have produced squads of young men, especially in India’s rural expanses, who aggressively defend the Hindu faith: The “cow vigilantes” who protect the sacred bovine population against meat-eating Indians, for example, or the “anti-Romeo” squads who patrol parks to thwart mixed-religion romances. Last year saw 93 hate crimes motivated by religious bias, the most in a decade, according to the Indian project Hate Crime Watch. 

But the shakhas have come up short in building a leadership class.

Enter the IIDL.

“Urban and middle-class Indians especially are attracted to this notion of India taking its rightful place in the world,” says Walter Andersen, a globally recognized authority on India’s Hindu nationalism.

In just over a decade the RSS has developed a network of think tanks aimed at fostering an intellectual “Hindutva,” or Hindu nationalism, and professionalizing Indian governance. The country’s secular elites have long been hostile to Hindu nationalism, says Dr. Andersen, professor emeritus of South Asian studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. That’s why developing a new class of leaders, like Mr. Chouhan, is one way of countering a more traditional intellectualism.

Mr. Chouhan grew up participating in a shakha, has been an RSS volunteer, and is now interning with a BJP member of parliament from his home state of Madhya Pradesh. But he says he was one of the few BJP adherents in his IIDL class of 30.

And he echoes Mr. Sathe, who underscores what he says is the nonpartisan nature of the IIDL, both in its student body and in the variety of government officials and politicians it invites to take part in IIDL seminars.

One thing the IIDL or the other professional training initiatives do not include is much, if any, input from outside India – least of all, it would seem, from established Western democracies.

“The idea of reestablishing India’s greatness by reasserting its identity and reaching back 1,000 years into Hindu culture is a very common argument, and it tends to be vis-a-vis the West,” says Dr. Andersen. “You hear the same thing in China, but instead it’s ‘We have to assert India’s values and culture in this Westernized world.’”

That perspective can be heard in the words of another IIDL graduate.

“Until now India has not been contributing significantly to the world’s progress, but what Prime Minister Modi is saying and what I believe strongly is that with its 2,000 or 3,000 years of spiritual history and culture and with 1 of 7 humans living here, we have a significant role to play,” says Mayank Narayan, a chemical engineer who completed the IIDL course in May.

“We are part of a globalized world, so I wouldn’t want India to turn away from the world like some countries are doing now,” Mr. Narayan says. “But at the same time we have to educate ourselves so we can create our own model,” he adds. “If India is going to progress, India will progress as India, not as the next South Korea or America or anything else.”

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