November 17, 2016

India: Sangh, Simon and the Question of Rationality (Shrikant Wad)

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 47 New Delhi November 12, 2016

by Shrikant Wad

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, had a historic win in the general elections of 2014 in India. It has com-pleted two years successfully. This essay is an attempt to analyse the ideological influence of the BJP on the present-day Indian society, more specifically on an individual Hindu-Indian voter, using the disciplinary knowledge base of Public Administration. In the liberalised, modern economy of India, it is pertinent to understand such an influence through the lenses of an individual’s rationality. For the same, this essay relies on the Herbert Simon’s theories. This is a theoretical exercise that uses secondary data obtained from the official party documents along with the publicly available news and analytical articles.

Election Win and the Smearing Influence

There is more to the success of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 general elections in India along with the impact of the anti-incum-bency vote or that of the economic development agenda exemplified by the Gujarat model. There is definitely a visible support by the corporate lobby as well as a widespread influence of Narendra Modi’s charismatic personality. In some way though, this success belongs very well to the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh)1 and its increasing acceptance amongst the Indian society. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has been a member of the RSS.

The live broadcast of the RSS chief’s speech on the government-owned national television soon after the BJP came to power (Hebbar, 2014), the Prime Minister’s attempts to link a mythical text of the Hindu religion to the so-called science and technological development in ancient India (Modi, 2014), the beef row (Bhardwaj, 2015; Nayar, 2015), and the increasing political control over educational institutions (Hasan, 2015) are some of the conspicuous reflections of how firmly the ideas and values of the Sangh2 are being imposed on the secular and democratic Indian state system.

The reorganisation of state machinery is another example. Making Secretaries of all the Ministries to report directly to the Prime Minister or the abolition of the Planning Commission to establish a centralised pro-market machinery is clearly a step towards concentration of power indicating fascist inclinations. The policies and campaigns of Swachh Bharat, Make In India, Foreign Direct Investment, Sanskrit promotion, and the market-based governance model reflect the government’s attempt to satisfy the corporate lobby’s interest, while also aligning with the ideology of the RSS on ‘nation-building’. The focus is more on the duties of the citizens than that of the state (Varghese, 2014) and development is seen through Right-wing lenses, where the market inequalities grow hand in hand with the social order, cultural pride, and the rhetoric of nationalism.

According to this understanding, citizens form a uniform set of consumers or users. They are not seen as the socially diverse or politically expressive groups. This excessively economic understanding of the citizenship helps to further homogenise a multi-class, multi-culture society. Such a perception towards the Indian society is most conducive for the RSS, as it officially envisions ‘organisation’ of the entire society.

Expressed in the simplest terms, the ideal of the Sangh is to carry the nation to the pinnacle of glory, through organising the entire society and ensuring protection of the Hindu Dharma. (RSS, n.d.)

While it seems like the Sangh Parivar is talking of a nationalistic goal and not of Hindu religion, it is pertinent to observe the thin line in between. For the RSS, the Hindu is one who is a resident of India. However, Hinduism is not what that resident practises. That is, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists etc. are all Hindus. However, their practices and beliefs do not necessarily become Hindu practices. Rather, the religious under-standing of Hinduism is imposed on them. They are compelled to accept one identity of an Indian which is a disguised form of religious Hinduism.

Indeed, the RSS has been largely successful, despite being officially out of the government or apparently at a distance from politically active groups like the BJP, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or Bajrang Dal. The ninety years of history and the organisation’s constant endea-vour to redefine and realign in the modern context rendered the RSS a victory in the 1999 general elections and even a bigger one in 2014. This is definitely not about a mere election win, but the increasing socio-political acceptance of Hinduism that the RSS has achieved.

The recent controversial programme of ghar-wapsi (meaning, ‘home-coming’) by the RSS child, the VHP, is an example. People from Christian, Muslim, and other religions are being prosely-tised and it has become a matter of pride for the VHP-like organisations. Not only the Indian media, but also the youth and middle class tend to call this conversion as ‘reconversion’. It is evident that the individuals converting from other religions to Hinduism have never been Hindu before in their own lifetime. Yet, calling it ‘reconversion’ is a clear acceptance of the Sangh’s ideology that Hindu is the only sacred and original identity. There is little room for choice or rationality in such a society.

Lenses of Rationality

The same Indian society is simultaneously modernising; there is increase in the literacy level and average per capita income. The media has a wide reach across the nation and there is increasing political awareness amongst the public. The immediate question, therefore, is: Why do diverse Indians of today’s modernising world accept the traditional identification and Hindu norms—what Paulo Freire calls ‘wound’ on their freedom? Why is there a strong intellec-tual support despite India being a secular, demo-cratic, republic? How does a rational Indian citizen accept the RSS propaganda? How did the RSS succeed in disseminating its ideology and garner acceptance?

A part of the answer can be probably found through Herbert Simon’s theories on behavioural administration and bounded rationality. On the grounds of Simon’s theories, it can be argued that the modern Indian voter is yet rational and the Sangh as an organisation has succeeded in influencing his bounded rationality. The sustain-ability of this success in the Indian context is, however, questionable, as Simonian rationality also steps towards greater social harmony and inclusiveness by virtue of social docility and altruism—the very characteristic of tolerance present in the Hindu religion.

Sangh as an Influencing Organisation

An organisation cannot be understood through its formal structure, but it exists and flourishes inside the human beings who are part of it. (Simon, 1946) This is precisely why the acts of the VHP, Bajrang Dal, BJP and other entities in the Sangh Parivar, founded and nurtured by current or former RSS members, cannot be viewed in isolation but as a part of the Sangh itself. The influence of the RSS, therefore, not only lies in their overtly inclusive interpretation of Hindu umbrella or the nationalistic goals, but in the acts and teachings of its members.

The RSS is essentially a paramilitary organi-sation since its inception. (Horowitz, 2001, p. 12) Discipline and physical strength are integral parts of an RSS member’s participation. Dr Hedge-war—the founder of the RSS—was previously a member of the Anushilan Samiti, Self-Culture Association, an armed movement against the British rule. The Anushilan Samiti, like its sister organisation Jugantar, operated a fitness club—the disguised form of their anti-British army. (Bijert, 1999, p. 320) The claim by the RSS and its children organisations, like the VHP and Bajrang Dal, that they train themselves for ‘self-defence’ is not far from such camouflage.

The fascist inclinations of the RSS are well known. The RSS supremo, Mr Golwalkar, was an open admirer of Adolf Hitler. It is interesting that the RSS admired Hitler as well as supported the formation of a Jewish state, Israel. (Oza, 2007, pp. 158-159) Common in both, the RSS actually stood for the ethnic exclusivity, not nationalism. The RSS was formed in 1925 against the back-drop of the rising communal divide in India, increasing influence of the then Muslim League, and the colonial government’s attempt to polarise and divide the Indian population. The very existence and growth of the RSS marks the success of the colonial government’s attempt to divide the Indian society.

The design of organisation is not merely about drawing the lines of authority, but the lines of influence. (Simon, 1944) The RSS is designed so that its socio-political influences are strengthened throughout the organisation. Unlike any formal organisation, the RSS does not have an official enrolment process. It neither grants nor withdraws the membership officially. It builds its human capital through the shakha (meaning, branch)—a daily gathering of RSS members for various activities—physical exercise, self-defence training, indigenous sports, and prayers. Shakhas are officially open to all, although the members are all Hindu men. The prayers are in Sanskrit and all the special celebrations happen on the occasion of Hindu religious festivals. Salute to the saffron flag and strict discipline are common features of any shakha. They train the human psyche, not just the physique.

Shakhas are not democratic units, but are strictly run by a locally appointed leader based on the teachings of the RSS chief and imparted through the centralised training camps called Sangh Shiksha Varga. One becomes a member of the RSS by partaking in a shakha and his regularity, seniority, and dedication determine his rise in the official hierarchy. In other words, one’s complaisance is a merit that can raise him to the higher level of discretion in the organisational hierarchy of the RSS. The highest possible official position is that of the Sarsanghchalak—the RSS Chief. There is no democratic process or transparent evaluation of one’s appointment or promotion. The successor to the chief is appointed by himself.

Such a patriarchal structure of the RSS, although apparently simple, brilliantly combines the five key ways in which Simon (1944) claims that an individual can be influenced. They are: authority, identification, the criterion of efficiency, advice and information, and training. The RSS succeeds in casting political influence through all the five ways. It exercises authority and strict discipline through the RSS Karyakarini (that is, executive body) and various shakhas. All the members are supposed to comply, rather it’s an unwritten criterion to join the RSS. There is a uniform Hindu identity. The patriarchal structure and emphasis on the social order insists for the value of efficiency, also much achieved through its support for the pro-market policies on the grounds of efficiency. There is a systematic training process that is centrally designed and controlled. Moreover, the advice and information are manipulated to match its political agenda. Implying, the RSS is designed to impact on the individual values and the interpretation of facts both, thus ultimately influencing one’s bounded rationality.

Sangh to Shape Bounded Rationality and Polarisation

Although former or existing members of the RSS are found to be involved in violence, the RSS success-fully proves itself legally innocent and at times disowns itself of such members. The distance between the RSS and its children institutions paves the way for its acceptance amongst the white-collar intellectuals and the dominant middle class. Limited understanding of the RSS and narrow exposure makes a rational indivi-dual accept and even join the RSS ideology without losing his rationality.

A bounded rational individual making decisions does not necessarily choose the best alternative, but the best available one within his knowledge, belief, and capacity. These decisions involve ends and means. One’s end goals are guided by values, whereas means are guided by facts. Once the goals are set, a rational individual selects appropriate means to achieve them. The selection of means is based on facts. (Simon, 1947) The politically wise RSS builds values and manipulates the facts. The RSS redefines nationalism and imposes its idea of Hinduism. While it claims a liberal and inclusive definition of who is a Hindu, it acts opposite. An individual who is a Hindu by citizenship is made to identify to the religious beliefs of the Hindu religion as well. Now, the goals of nation-building can be achieved through various means known to the individual—a possible leeway since the RSS goals are of not just nation-building, but essentially building a Hindu nation. The RSS limits these means by rewriting history. The manipulation of history and science, the communalisation of education is a deeply penetrating measure taken by the RSS to impact the facts—hence the means. (Delhi Historians’ Group, 2001) A Hindu individual accepts such advice and information, because the comforting and Hindu-sympathising history and science are amateurishly accepted as reliable sources without questioning their content. (Simon, 1998)

Thus, an individual accepting the RSS and acting through the RSS, VHP or Bajrang Dal-like institutions of the Sangh Parivar cannot be called indoctrinated, but a self-convincing Simonian rational individual. The overarching control of the RSS over values as well as facts acts as a self-justification for Hindu extremism, violence against other religions, rejection of scientific thinking, and promotion of fascist interests through the Indian polity—although all these are never directly preached by the RSS itself.

The abstract model of optimisation makes it a little difficult to understand an individual from a socially diverse and politically inclusive background as a rational individual accepting or joining the RSS. It is necessary to remember that rationality is selection of appropriate means for the goals that are determined by one’s value framework. The connections between goals and behaviour are determined through one’s factual knowledge and beliefs about the relation of ends and means. (Simon, 1995) That is, the RSS member or a former member finds himself thinking and acting rationally as his idea of achieving nationalistic goals is conditioned and there are limited alternatives to choose from. Still, the question can be: how does a rational individual, who is part of today’s market economy, subscribe to the Hindu identity and communal goals? The answer lies in the fact that such an optimising individual perceives benefits or welfare differently. The homogenised economic identification of an individual aligns with another homogeneous identity called the Hindu.

The influence of the RSS leads one to identify closely with Hindus, to think of Hindus as ‘we’ and others as ‘they’. If the claim is that an individual has economic motivations, his decisions then fall in favour of the economic group—the Hindu class—with which he associates himself. (Simon, 1995) His votes and actions become a matter of group loyalty. The group loyalty—here associated with the ethnic group of Hindus—determines the entire manner in which he thinks about himself, the situation and choices he has to make. That is why he often finds a pro-Hindu version of various events in news and news debates and it still looks rational. The communalised edition of history and science still looks acceptable. He views the world from the standpoint, the vantage point of Hindu identity. Only the facts that are conducive to bolster this identity are found worthy of his attention. This highly selective perception engendered by identifying one’s self as a Hindu and translating the goals into those of Hinduism helps him to get away from the complexity of the world, ignore the wide range of facts, and ‘rationally’ narrow his vision. It is probably for this reason that the secular tradition of India, contribution of Muslims and other religions to society, and the rich socio-cultural diversity of the country are conveniently neglected by the RSS-influenced individuals. There is no signal that such a narrow vision and loyalty to Hinduism can produce optimised results or socio-economic benefits, unless such an evidence of bounded rationality is politically provided and people are made to simplify and reach the decisions based on the artificial attachment—that of the Hindu identity.

The political campaigning of the BJP has some peculiar characteristics. Similar to the Indian National Congress-post the 1984 Sikh massacre, the BJP has often won elections after riots, after conflicts. However, its strategies— very close to the political agenda of the RSS— do not really work on the general political wisdom of shifting public attention. A political campaigner tries to turn the people’s attention to the issues on which the majority views favour him. (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet, 1948) He doesn’t generally try to change the people’s values or beliefs. However, the co-existence of the RSS, entire Sangh Parivar along with the BJP offers it a unique opportunity to influence the people’s values and beliefs and not only turn their attention but also effectively polarise the vote-bank.

Given the fact that a majority of the Indian voters are Hindu by religion, the wide nexus of the BJP, RSS and hence the Sangh Parivar, relies on an individual’s propensity to identify with Hinduism. This provides a powerful cement to attach private motives to the goals of the RSS and offers the context in which the decisions are shaped in its favour. A majority of such private individuals tend to favour the RSS. This is bolstered by socio-political conflicts. Riots, issues of religious sentiments raised over forms of art, literature, cinema, idols, titles, and public display of rituals create ample room for the politically desirable polarisation. Hence, it becomes easier for the BJP to mobilise public opinion. The Sangh Parivar provides an alternative form of insti-tution—the Hindu institution—and aspires to create a unitary Hindu society or at least benefit from the majority class in the Hindu versus non-Hindu binary conceptualisation of the Indian society. This becomes possible because of the fact that the Constitution of India does not prohibit expression or propagation of religion, but maintains an intimate bond with the domi-nant religion through its democratic structure. The current Prime Minister being able to grab a whopping win in the general elections 2014 with mere 31 per cent vote-share explains a lot. (TNN, 2014)

Conclusion and the Sustainability Question

The purpose of this essay is not to place a value- judgement on the RSS or its ideology. Nor does this essay attempt to comment on the political agenda of the BJP and current government. What it has tried to observe and appreciate is the application of Herbert Simon’s theory of bounded rationality and behavioural adminis-tration exemplified brilliantly by the RSS’ spread in India and to examine the sustainability of such an influence theoretically.

It is interesting to note that the RSS and, more broadly the Sangh Parivar, does not form an organisation that is limited to its members. Instead, the entire country becomes the platform of this organisation and all the residents— defined as Hindus—are ideally its members. Here, the Simonian rationality helps to under-stand why the sustainability of the RSS ideology is, however, questionable. An individual ceases to be a member of the organisation if his rationality escapes the boundedness of the organisation’s rationality. Such an individual experiences coercion from the organisation. (Barnard, 1938) The rising tension between individual’s rationality and organisational rationality prompts for the collapse or reform of such an organisation.

The inherent value of tolerance in the Hindu religion comes in conflict with the RSS agenda. The idea of tolerance and altruism also brings about the fact that docility is rather in the interest of Hindus. One accepts certain cons-traints in the larger interest of the society, because the diversity rather adds further benefit to the majority class itself.

One of the underlying arguments behind all actions and ideology of the RSS, especially advocating for building the ‘strength of Hindus’ in Indian society, is that of the survival of the fittest. However, it cannot stand with the plurality and inclusiveness of Indian society. The neo-Darwinian framework suggests that an individual tries to maximise his own fitness, the fitness that qualifies him to survive. Prima facie, it becomes difficult to accommodate an altruist Hindu in this model. It may be argued that his altruism can at most be extended to his family or in reciprocation—when he expects returns from being altruistic. Whereas Simon (1990) proposes a robust mechanism to understand that the genuinely altruistic behaviour gets added rather positively to one’s fitness.

Docile individuals, individuals who are intelligent and who are dispositionally inclined to respond positively to the influence of their social environment, will attain higher levels of fitness, on average, than others who are less docile. A society can use this fact to influence its members toward altruistic behaviours that are of net advantage to all, although immediately disadvantageous to the altruist. By reason of bounded rationality, the influence cannot be avoided without losing the benefits of docility.

In our context, the docile individuals are the privileged ones in the society, who have an ability to lead the social influence, that is, the Hindus—who have absolute majority and cultural dominance in the Indian society. It can be successfully claimed that not the rising strength and domination of Hindus, but their altruism will lead to their greater fitness. Simon (1990) explains how.

Society can impose a ‘tax’ on the gross benefits gained by individuals from docility by inducing docile individuals to engage in altruistic behaviours. Limits on rationality in the face of environmental complexity prevent the indivi-dual from avoiding this ‘tax’. An upper bound is imposed on altruism by the condition that there must remain a net fitness advantage for docile behaviour after the cost to the individual of altruism has been deducted.

Thus, the concept of tolerance in Hindu religion is the tax accepted by them. A bounded rational Hindu individual accepts tolerance as a value. Although this tax looks like an initial burden on the Hindu individual, it results in net gain for him. Simon argues that such an individual will accept tolerance (tax) as long as his gains in society are greater than the restric-tions he accepts. The very secular framework of India, despite having a clear majority of Hindus, is in the interest of such gain. The value of inclusiveness is constitutionally accepted, and this results in a harmonious society beneficial to all.

The upper bound imposed on such tolerance is the threshold beyond which Hindus will cease to be tolerant. That is, Simonian rational Hindus will not accept secularism when they perceive their gains being lesser than the accepted restrictions. Precisely here, the ideology and actions of the RSS make a constant attempt to pull this threshold down. If Hindus perceive themselves as being deprived of the basic rights and benefits in a secular society, if secularism is shallowly portrayed as appeasement politics, they will lose their tolerance as a majority religion and exercise force on others. Thus, a low threshold set by constantly portraying the Hindus as victims of the secular society. (Jha, 2013) and insistence on showing ‘Hindu strength’ over others makes the environment conducive for polarisation.

The utter disregard for tolerance is, therefore, a key to the political agenda of the RSS. This is where the sustainability of the RSS becomes even more questionable. Tolerance forms an indivisible part of the Hindu philosophy. The RSS cannot claim to be Hinduistic without tolerance. Its attempt to impose the Hindu identity on all the residents of India takes away their religious and cultural diversity. Moreover, a rational Hindu individual realises that there is no greater advantage in propagating Hinduism forcefully, but accommodating other believers or non-believers in the society.

Rational human beings, even while believing in survival of the fittest, do not gain fitness through coercion and conflict, but through peace and harmony. Thus, the polarising politics of the RSS tends to contrast with the rationality of a tolerant Hindu individual and does not hold the promise to sustain over a long time. However, building on conflicts and polarisation, the Sangh neglects the fact that the rational human beings, even while believing in survival of the fittest, do not gain fitness through coercion and conflict, but through peace and harmony.


Barnard, C. (1938), The Functions of the Executive. Cam-bridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bhardwaj, A. (2015, October 18), ‘RSS mouthpiece defends Dadri lynching: Vedas order killing of sinners who kill cows’. Retrieved from The Indian Express: http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/rss-mouthpiece-defends-dadri-vedas-order-killing-of-sinners-who-kill-cows/

Bijert, V. (1999), ‘Nationalism and Violence in Colonial India: 1880-1910’ in J. Houben, and K. V. Kooij (eds.), Violence Denied: Violence, Non-Violence and the Rationalization of Violence in South Asian Cultural History, (p. 320), Boston: Brill.

BJP. (n.d.), ‘The Fountainhead: The BJP and the RSS’. Retrieved January 25, 2016, from the Bharatiya Janata Party: http://www.bjp.org/en/about-the-party/history?u=bjp-history

Delhi Historians’ Group (2001), Communalisation of Education: The History Textbook Controversy, New Delhi: Delhi Historians’ Group, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Hasan, Z. (2015, May 20), ‘No Acche Din for Higher Education’. Retrieved from The Hindu: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/no-acche-din-for-higher-education/article7224444.ece

Hebbar, N. (2014, October 4), ‘Doordarshan Faces Criticism for Broadcasting RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat’s Speech’. Retrieved from The Economic Times: http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2014-10-04/news/54626540_1_mohan-bhagwat-bhagwat-speech-rss-chief

Horowitz, D. (2001), The Deadly Ethnic Riot, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jha, P. (2013, October 18), ‘RSS Plays on Majority-as-Victim Card’. Retrieved from The Hindu: http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/rss-plays-on-majorityasvictim-card/article5244838.ece

Lazarsfeld, P., Berelson, B., and Gaudet, H. (1948), The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign, New York: Columbia University Press.

Modi, N. (2014, October 25), Text of PM’s address at the ceremony held to rededicate, Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre, in Mumbai. Retrieved from PMINDIA: http://pmindia.gov.in/en/news_updates/text-of-the-prime-minister-shri-narendra-modis-address-at-the-ceremony-held-to-rededicate-sir-h-n-reliance-foundation-hospital-and-research-centre-in-mumbai/

Nayar, K. (2015, October 24), ‘Debate on Beef’, Mainstream Weekly, LIII(44). Retrieved from http://www.mainstreamweekly.net/article6032.html

Oza, R. (2007), ‘The Geography of Hindu Right-Wing Violence in India’ in G. Derek, and A. Pred (eds.), Violent Geographies: Fear, Terror, and Political Violence (pp. 158-159), New York: Routledge.

RSS. (n.d.), ‘Shakha’. Retrieved January 2, 2016 from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh: http://www.rss.org/knowus/static/shakha.aspx

Simon, H. (1944, Winter), ‘Decision-Making and Administrative Organisation’, Public Administration Review, 4(1), 16-30.

Simon, H. (1946, Winter), ‘The Proverbs of Administration’, Public Administration Review, 6(1), 53-67.

Simon, H. (1947), Administrative Behaviour: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organisation. London: Macmillan.

Simon, H. (1990, December 21), ‘A Mechanism for Social Selection and Successful Altruism’, Science, 250 (4988), 1665-1668.

Simon, H. (1995, March), ‘Rationality in Political Behaviour Political Psychology’, Political Economy and Political Psychology, 16(1), 45-61.

Simon, H. (1998, January), ‘Why Public Administration?’ Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 8(1), 1-11.

TNN. (2014, May 19), ‘BJP’s 31 per cent lowest vote share of any party to win majority’, retrieved from The Times of India: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/news/BJPs-31-lowest-vote-share-of-any-party-to-win-majority/articleshow/35315930.cms

Varghese, G. (2014, December 27), ‘A Leader and His Narrative’, retrieved from The Hindu: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/a-leader-and-his-narrative/article6730588.ece


1. The Bharatiya Janata Party is today the most prominent member of the family of organisations known as the “Sangh Parivar” and nurtured by its parent body- Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (BJP, n.d.)

2. Unless otherwise specified, the words RSS, SanghParivar (meaning, Sangh Family), and Sangh have been used interchangeably in this essay to indicate the overarching family of Hindu organisations in India. The reasons for doing so become clear through the discussions in course.

Shrikant Wad is a Master of Public Policy (MPP) graduate from the National Law School, Bangalore. He is currently working as a Research Associate at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He takes keen interest in issues related to education, especially higher education policy and sociology of education. He may be reached at e-mail: shrikantwad.education[at]outlook.com