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Hindu Nationalism's Rise: Narendra Modi's Impact on Indian Politics

Once on the fringes of Indian politics, Hindu nationalism has now firmly entrenched itself in the mainstream. Few have been as instrumental in its ascent as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a figure both revered and divisive in Indian politics.

At the heart of Modi's ideological framework lies the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary right-wing organization founded nearly a century ago. Ambalal Koshti, now 76, reminisces about introducing Modi to the political wing of the RSS in the late 1960s in Gujarat, their home state. Back then, Modi, still a teenager, immersed himself in the RSS ethos, learning the tenets of marching, self-defense, and the protection of Hindu interests.

While Mahatma Gandhi championed Hindu-Muslim unity, the RSS advocated for a forceful transformation of India into a Hindu nation. This divergence of ideologies was tragically underscored by Gandhi's assassination in 1948 by a former RSS member.

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Experts assert that Modi's tenure as prime minister has been profoundly shaped by his upbringing within the RSS. His leadership over the past decade has witnessed India's ascent as a global power and economic heavyweight, but also a troubling surge in attacks against minorities, particularly Muslims. Critics argue that India's democratic fabric is fraying under Modi's rule, as press freedom, political dissent, and judicial independence face mounting challenges, with an increasingly blurred line between religion and state.

As Modi campaigns for a third term in the upcoming general election, he remains a towering figure in Indian politics, his popularity buoyed by his ability to make Hindu nationalism not just acceptable, but desirable, to a populace of 1.4 billion, 80% of whom are Hindu.

"He is 100% an ideological product of the RSS," says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a biographer of Modi. "He has delivered their goals."

Forging Unity

On a moonlit night in western India, a group of boys recites an RSS prayer, underscoring the organization's emphasis on Hindu solidarity and protection. More than six decades ago, Modi was among them. Born into a lower-caste family in 1950, Modi's introduction to the RSS came through local units known as shakhas, where religious teachings were intertwined with self-defense drills and communal bonding activities.

By the 1970s, Modi had become a dedicated campaigner for the RSS cause, canvassing neighborhoods on his bicycle to rally support.

During its early years, the RSS, founded in 1925 with the aim of bolstering the Hindu community, operated on the fringes of Indian society. Accusations of inciting violence against Muslims and its association with Gandhi's assassination tainted its reputation. Critics argue that its philosophy is steeped in Hindu supremacy, while the RSS asserts that Indian civilization is inseparable from Hinduism.

Today, the RSS has burgeoned into a network of affiliated organizations, ranging from student unions to vigilante groups, all ultimately linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which emerged from the RSS fold.

"For the RSS, it is unprecedented," remarks Christophe Jaffrelot, an expert on Hindu nationalism, referring to Modi's transformative impact on the BJP's electoral fortunes.

Political Ascendancy

Modi's political ascent gained momentum when he assumed office as chief minister of Gujarat in 2001. The state was rocked by anti-Muslim riots shortly thereafter, which claimed thousands of lives. Though allegations of Modi's complicity in the violence persisted, he emerged from the tumult with heightened political capital.

Capitalizing on the rhetoric of Hindu nationalism, Modi embarked on an economic agenda focused on attracting investment and fostering development in Gujarat. His close ties with business magnates helped solidify his grip on power, even as his governance grew increasingly authoritarian, consolidating control over institutions and bypassing traditional media channels to connect directly with voters.

The "Gujarat Model" pioneered by Modi served as a blueprint for his subsequent tenure as prime minister, characterized by a populist blend of Hindu nationalism and economic growth.

"He gave Hindu nationalism a populist flavor," observes Jaffrelot. "Modi invented it in Gujarat, and today he has scaled it across the country."

Vision for the Future

As Modi campaigns for a third term in office, he has set ambitious targets, aiming not only for victory but also for a resounding mandate. Propelling India to the status of a developed nation by 2047, eradicating poverty, and positioning the economy as the world's third-largest are among his lofty aspirations.

With approval ratings exceeding 70%, Modi enjoys widespread popularity, surpassing even that of his party. His strongman image, coupled with his pro-business policies and welfare initiatives, has endeared him to a diverse cross-section of Indian society.

Despite criticism from opponents and rights groups, who decry his government's discriminatory policies, Modi's narrative of a resurgent India under Hindu leadership resonates deeply with many Hindus, transcending traditional right-wing circles.

For supporters like Satish Ahlani, Modi represents not just a political leader but a beacon of hope for a prosperous, Hindu-centric India.

"Being Hindu is our identity," says Ahlani. "For the progress of the country, Muslims will have to be with us. They should accept this and come along."

In conclusion, the trajectory of Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's leadership has transformed from a marginal ideology to a dominant force shaping Indian politics and society. Rooted in his upbringing within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Modi's tenure has witnessed a fusion of Hindu nationalism with populist politics and economic development initiatives.

Despite criticism for his government's handling of minority rights and democratic institutions, Modi remains a formidable figure on the Indian political landscape, poised to secure a third term in office. His vision for a Hindu-centric India, coupled with ambitious plans for economic growth and global prominence, has resonated with a significant portion of the electorate.

As India navigates the complexities of identity, pluralism, and governance, Modi's legacy as a torchbearer of Hindu nationalism will continue to shape the country's trajectory in the years to come, leaving a profound impact on its socio-political fabric and international standing.

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