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MUMBAI—Vinay Sahasrabuddhe is on a mission that is at once impossibly simple and yet somehow insurmountable: He is training Indian politicians to be competent.
Not just any politicians, mind you—Hindu nationalist politicians.
Sahasrabuddhe, a senior official in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, has for years been admitting election hopefuls to his Indian Institute of Democratic Leadership, teaching them to deliver speeches, debate while staying on message, and promote good governance, all to show them how to work the system and, ultimately, master it. In essence, Sahasrabuddhe and his colleagues are trying to professionalize nationalism.
Such an effort to induct a new generation of leaders into political life is unusual in India, where many elected officials still rely on patrons or lineage to rise to the top. The institute, which markets itself as offering an Ivy League education in politics, offers a window into the BJP’s efforts to educate its cadres and widen its appeal. It suggests a level of strategic calm in a political party that faces tough national parliamentary elections this month and next, but which is nevertheless playing a longer game of investing in youth and expanding party ranks.
The institute’s classes offer a version of Indian history and society that has parallels with narratives pushed by the Steve Bannons and Nigel Farages of the world. India’s political establishment, the IIDL’s lecturers argue, has for years benefited from corrupt excesses, to the country’s detriment. In their telling, Westernization and globalization have caused more harm than good, and India’s path to greatness lies in reviving religious and cultural traditions. The world over, “democracy is failing,” Sahasrabuddhe told me. “If democracy is not in a position to cater to better quality of lives—if after changing government, I can’t see a change in my life, what is the point?”
Housed in a lush, luxury-resort-like building surrounded by large, open spaces; tree-lined roads; and a helicopter landing pad so high-ranking politicians on tight schedules can fly in to make speeches, the IIDL operates much like a fully fledged university. Though it does not award official degrees, it publishes research papers on issues that animate India’s Hindu right, such as al-Qaeda, the War on Terror, and illegal migration from Bangladesh. Fees are steep by Indian standards, at 300,000 rupees ($4,200) for a nine-month course. Classes are structured to cover a range of topics, including governance, social-media skills, and speech delivery. The works of philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes are packed in with practical skills related to electioneering and administering government.
When I visited one recent Friday morning, a guest lecturer asked his class to brainstorm arguments for banning the sale of beef, something of a totemic issue for the BJP and one that has sparked much acrimony between India’s dominant Hindu and minority Muslim populations—Hindus consider cows sacred, but many Muslims rely on the beef industry for their livelihoods. A student called out from the back of the room that India’s majority “doesn’t want it,” as if to say, What’s to debate? The lecturer dismissed that answer, explaining that the rules of democracy equated to “the rule of the majority, and protection of the minority.” He then suggested that a smart politician might sell the policy without mentioning religion at all, and instead focus on milk being a source of protein. “Children in this country,” he told his students, “already are deficient in milk.”
The students in the class were bright, argumentative, and charismatic. Most didn’t have particular attachments to traditional ideologies of the left or right (they offered no strong opinions when I asked about big or small government, foreign-investment policy, or the welfare state, for example), but felt passionately about systemic change, and particularly about reducing corruption. They were deeply suspicious of the mainstream media.
Though the IIDL says it is open to applicants of all backgrounds, no Muslims were in the class, a noticeable absence in a country where about 14 percent of the population is Muslim. The class’s demographics roughly matched the BJP’s core demographic—young Hindu men, mostly from India’s Hindi-speaking heartland. Ravi Pokharna, the IIDL’s deputy dean, said this was simply because there were no suitable Muslim applicants, rather than because the application process was skewed against any religious group. There was also only one woman out of 10 students in a session I sat in on. Students are free to choose any political party they feel aligned to after completing the course, but the slant of lectures tilts toward causes espoused by the BJP. (Though the IIDL does not have a direct relationship with the BJP, and told me it is funded by fees from students, its parent organization and the BJP are both affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a powerful Hindu nationalist grouping that is committed to the principles of Hindutva, or “Hindu-ness.”)
The vision presented by the IIDL and, by extension, the BJP stands in marked contrast to that offered by the founders of modern India. For much of its seven decades of independence, India was governed by the Congress Party, which had long been controlled by Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, and now his descendants. After independence from British rule, Nehru and his counterparts sought to build a state that was free for people of all faiths and deeply socialist, and throughout most of the 20th century, that Nehruvian ideal held sway here. Over the years, though, Congress has suffered corruption scandals, claims of elitism, and episodes of poor governance. Critics on the Hindu right accuse it of pandering to minorities to win votes.
Modi’s party presented an alternative in 2014, putting Hindu values at the core. Yoga would be integrated into national health-care systems, the cow would be protected, and textbooks would be rewritten to aggrandize Hindu leaders while minimizing Muslim literary and historical contributions. Underpinning those efforts was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. (Sahasrabuddhe and Modi are both RSS veterans.)
Founded in 1925, the RSS aims to strengthen India’s Hindu population with what it says are activities that focus on “character building” through training academies known as shakas—where young men learn about the Hindutva ideology, do volunteer work, and participate in physical exercises. But those claims to be a service-oriented organization clash with a litany of cases in which its members have espoused divisive rhetoric or participated in acts of violence. Its critics describe it as an Islamophobic paramilitary organization, and it has been banned three times since India’s independence, including after one of its members assassinated India’s founding father, Mahatma Gandhi.
With Modi’s rise and the recent dominance of the BJP, the RSS’s own role has gained prominence. Long a fringe political outfit, the RSS is now composed of a network of Hindu nationalist groups that represent various sections of Indian society, from farmers to women to students. It has substantial support in small towns and cities because its volunteers take on tasks that municipal and local governments have failed at, such as cleaning public areas or building toilets.
Yet despite its growing numbers, the RSS has not found firm footing in India’s academic establishment. Some of India’s most renowned intellectuals are vehemently critical of the organization’s nationalist rhetoric, and its policies are disparaged for being ideologically driven. The BJP, which tries to portray itself as a well-oiled machine, has struggled with an array of controversies involving its politicians, too. One issued a death threat against a Bollywood actress for supposedly misrepresenting a legendary queen in a movie. Another appeared in photographs offering garlands of flowers to men convicted of participating in a lynch mob. A third reportedly had a man beaten up in prison after he accused the politician of raping his daughter. That is where the IIDL comes in.
“The RSS has long come across badly [in the mainstream media], and they know that,” Walter Andersen, a professor of South Asia studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, told me. “It’s interesting that they’ve identified and are addressing the issue.”
Sahasrabuddhe, the IIDL’s founder, in many ways personifies the party that he wants to create. His neat comb-over and starched shirt seem to be habits of a childhood spent following rules, not breaking them. He is focused, peppering his remarks with references to political crises in Europe and the United States. He doesn’t make jokes, and doesn’t go off on tangents. The IIDL, he told me in his office in New Delhi, “is serving the cause of democracy, of governance, of leadership.”
For years, the RSS gave young men from outside the elite a path to office through its shakas, but politics has traditionally been shunned by India’s middle class because of its association with corruption. The IIDL offers educated men a respectable route in. “I was rejected from 80 government jobs before I applied here,” Anand Singh, an IIDL student, told me, before going on to describe an intense argument with his father when it came time to pay the fees. A classmate who had joined an RSS-affiliated student movement, Shashank Raj, told me that he hoped to pioneer a new kind of Indian politics, where corruption and profiteering were shunned. “I’m not here for my bread and butter,” he said. “I’m here to serve.”
With elections now under way across India, the class of 2019 has begun cutting its teeth on the ground, doing internships with political heavyweights, organizing demonstrations, and helping canvass voters. Singh was made the rally coordinator for Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, for Amit Shah, the BJP’s president, just weeks after graduating. It is a huge job, with perks and prestige.
To many Indians, Singh, Raj, and their classmates represent a generation of future leaders that seems disconnected with India’s founding principles. To Sahasrabuddhe, they will be the country’s saviors—or, at the very least, the BJP’s. “It all boils down to these young leaders,” he told me. They’re “properly motivated and ideologically driven.”