Bread and circuses kept the people happy and distracted in the twilight of the Roman Republic just before the rise of the Roman Empire. In today’s India there’s plenty of fun and games to distract people even if bread for the needy is drying up because of a new rule that bars tens of thousands from receiving subsidised grain.
But there is spectacle enough to divert attention from the daily reports of starvation deaths on the one hand and massive crony-capitalist scams on the other.
As details of one the biggest banking swindles continue to emerge – a scandal involving one of the prime minister’s charmed circle of business friends – Narendra Modi was putting on another of his rock-star performances in Delhi last week, this time to a stadium full of schoolchildren rounded up for advice on how to beat the exam blues. Amid the glitz, music, freebies and a strong dose of nationalism, the children got barely any tips on how to cope with the stress of upcoming crucial board exams.
Modi’s extravaganzas, designed to charm audiences of usually non-resident Indians with a potent mix of hyper-nationalism and grand promises of a resurgent India, are becoming a regular feature at home too, as his government fails to tackle deepening economic problems. But if there is one thing that his regime excels at it is managing public perceptions and making people believe that it is working for them, instead of actually doing so. After all, Modi was able to persuade most Indians that the disastrous 2016 demonetisation exercise was for their good and in the national interest even though it deepened the economic crisis and inflicted needless hardship on the poor.
RSS: The hand behind the throne
Keeping the citizenry distracted appears to be what the his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, expects from Modi these days while it goes about quietly pushing its agenda of creating a Hindu India. Although it is widely known that the RSS has infiltrated practically every government department, academic and cultural organisation, recent interviews given by Hindu nationalist scholar Shridhar D Damle have revealed the extent to which the organisation is succeeding. In at least one crucial sector – education – the RSS is all set to capture the minds of the young, completing an ambitious project that started with schools several decades ago.
Damle told The Telegraph of Kolkata: “What the media and others are ignoring is how skilfully and sublimely the RSS is working in the field of education. By 2024, it would have raised and readied a new generation of educated Indians who understand and believe in the philosophy of Hindutva [Hindu nationalism]. All the vice chancellors of major universities are partners in this project.”
It’s not as if the RSS went about this task clandestinely. In March last year, the RSS think tank Prajna Pravah summoned 700 academics, including the vice chancellors of 51 universities, to a well-publicised workshop in Delhi to include an Indian perspective and a nationalist narrative in higher education. Prajna Pravah describes itself as “a nationwide intellectual movement rooted in Bharatiya ethos and traditions”. But few analysts bothered to follow up on the RSS’s surgical strike on higher education.
Battleground is the classroom
What is apparent is the tightening noose around universities, where academic freedom is being stifled by rigid controls on what can be taught or even discussed. The student “culture of protests” is frowned upon and so is the innocuous practice of staging cultural festivals since that is supposedly alien to India’s real culture.
Hindu nationalist Damle is co-author of classic “The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism”. The 1987 book provided the first inside account of the parent body of the BJP. A sequel is in the works and Damle has made some startling disclosures about what is happening behind the scenes after Modi swept to power in 2014. Damle says the RSS has now realised the importance of political power, having previously been a purely cultural outfit. As a result, it will not countenance losing power.
The 2014 general elections was only the second time the RSS is said to have actively taken part in the BJP campaign. But the 2014 election was fought not for Modi, according to Damle, but only because the RSS felt the time was right. Modi was only a by-product, groomed by the RSS well in advance because of his mass base.
This appears to indicate that Modi is expendable. Damle says unambiguously that Adityanath, the hardcore Hindutva priest who was made chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state in 2017, will be playing a larger role in the future. What if the BJP loses the 2019 elections because of its poor record? The RSS is making sure all its forces are ready for the next big battle. Every one of its three dozen odd organisations covers important segments of the population, from the tribal folk to the scheduled castes, and it is a formidable line-up. The shakhas, or the daily meeting of RSS volunteers, now number close to 60,000, with the brotherhood having grown exponentially in the last two years. Here highly indoctrinated boys and men practise calisthenics and armed combat, swearing loyalty to the organisation and nation.
When RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat claimed last week that he could mobilise this force in three days flat, unlike the Indian Army which would take six months, the opposition slammed him for defaming the army. They missed the wood for the trees. Bhagwat was merely stating a fact. The RSS presence in various trouble spots over the decades has proved his claim is no empty boast. That should give the opposition food for thought.