Indian Decade

The Great RSS Image Makeover

One particular political party in India appears to be moderating its positions ahead of the 2014 election.

It is fairly uncommon for the chief of the main right-wing nationalist Hindu group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to talk to Indian media outlets much less foreign ones. But last week in New Delhi, Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS, spoke to more than two dozen foreign journalists. Furthermore, he spoke in English when conversing with reporters despite the RSS's disdain for the language which it sees as alien and anathema to Indian tradition.    

Founded in 1925, the RSS has been advocating militant Hindu nationalism and claims to represent the majority Hindu community in India. During the freedom struggle its main focus was opposing Muslim separatism and its radical ideology is blamed to be behind the killing of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Although it claims to be a social organization engaged in running different educational and charitable institutions, the historian Aditya Mukherjee claims the RSS uses these institutions “to promote communal ideology.”  

Bhagwat's press conference implies that the RSS, which is the parent organization of the opposition party, Bharitya Janata Party(BJP), is trying to remake its image by adopting a softer tone and by reaching out to international audiences. For instance, during the recent press conference Bhagwat deviated the RSS's hardcore stand against Pakistan in not being overly critical of the current government's decision to initiate peace talks with Pakistan. He only said that the dialogue should not happen at the cost of self respect and that Pakistan should move against terrorist groups located inside that country. The RSS as a whole has been softening its anti-Muslim and Hindu Nationalist stances as of late.   

This 'soft power' campaign directed towards foreign media cannot be disassociated from Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi’s Prime Ministerial ambitions or the upcoming election in 2014. Modi, a member of the BJP, is known for his hardliner rightist beliefs and alleged involvement in the killing of roughly 1000 deaths of mostly Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.  

Nonetheless, Modi too has been trying to revamp his image and disassociate himself with the 2002 anti-Muslim riots by emphasizing the economic development his territory has enjoyed since he came to office. In fact, just last March he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.  By portraying himself as an economic reformer that is friendly towards business Modi is seeking the type of recognition and acceptability that he has failed to get at home from international audiences.   
Indeed, at a time when the ruling Congress-led alliance is in disarray and losing international credibility due to the slow pace of economic reforms at home, the Hindu right-wing group is positioning itself to take the next elections by winning greater acceptability. Whether they succeed is something else altogether.