Rajendra Singh

Leader of the Hindu extremist organisation credited with bringing the BJP to power in India
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The Independent Online

Rajendra Singh, political campaigner: born 29 January 1922; leader, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS or National Volunteer Corps) 1994-2000; died Pune, India 14 July 2003.

Rajendra Singh headed the Hindu extremist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or National Volunteer Corps, the parent ideological body of India's nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that presently leads the federal coalition.

Under Singh's six-year stewardship from 1994, the RSS successfully propelled the BJP from relative political obscurity to the centre stage of Indian politics, through a calculated and cynical campaign centred around "Hindutva" or Hindu hegemony.

The Indian prime minister Atal Behrai Vajpayee, deputy prime minister Lal Kishen Advani and other senior cabinet ministers and top party functionaries are staunch RSS members. Several RSS members have also been appointed state governors while numerous "closet supporters" hold important executive positions.

Guided by Singh's political vision, highly disciplined RSS cadres consolidated the majority Hindu vote for the BJP, principally on an anti- Muslim campaign. They engineered an unprecedented fillip to Hindu nationalism that has gradually, but firmly, consolidated its hold over India. Singh realised the importance of grasping political control via the BJP and set about achieving this aim.

In 1996, two years after Singh became the RSS supremo, Vajpayee's BJP-led coalition headed a 13-day government. Two years later and once again in 1999, the RSS ensured that the BJP politically bludgeoned its way to head the 24-party coalition currently in power. The BJP-led administration is also India's longest serving coalition.

Singh was born into an agriculturist family from the warlike Rajput tribe in northern Uttar Pradesh state in 1922. He graduated locally at the age of 21, majoring in physics and was acknowledged as a brilliant student by the physicist and Nobel Prize winner Sir C.V. Raman who examined Singh for his Master's degree. Thereafter, Singh taught spectroscopy at the prestigious Allahabad University, known in the 1930s as the "Oxford of the East".

Attracted by the RSS's ideology at the time of independence from colonial rule in 1947, Singh formally joined the Hindu revivalist outfit as a pracharak (full-time member) in the early 1960s, exchanging his relatively comfortable lifestyle for the asceticism and discipline it imposed on its cadres.

The RSS was founded in 1925 to defend Hinduism by keeping it "pure" from outside influences like Islam and more recently from Christianity. Modelled loosely along the lines of Italy's Fascist Party, it daily imparts basic military drill to its cadres. The assassins of Mahatma Gandhi were educated in such a school and murdered him because of his secular outlook and policy of appeasement to India's minority Muslim community, which constitutes around 13 per cent of the country's population of over one billion. Till the late 1980s the RSS was on the fringes of Indian politics, looked upon with unconcealed derision and irony, but all that has now changed.

In the mid-1980s Singh became RSS general secretary when allied extremist Hindu organisations, aiming to garner the majority vote, fuelled controversy over a 16th-century Babri mosque in northern India, claiming it had been built on the ruins of a temple commemorating the exact birth place of their god Lord Ram. The debate surrounding the mosque propelled the BJP into the political limelight, as they were depicted as the protectors of Hinduism. In 1992 Hindu zealots destroyed the mosque, leading to countrywide sectarian rioting in which more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, died.

In 1994 Singh became the first non-Brahmin RSS head and set about demystifying the secretive organisation and seizing political control. Four years later the BJP emerged as the largest political party following general elections and, though it was unable to sustain itself in office, it re-emerged to form the government in 1998 and has remained in power ever since. Singh stepped down as RSS chief in 2000, lauded widely for his successes.

Although the RSS claims to distance itself from everyday politics, professing to be concerned with loftier issues, its disagreeable influence is evident at all levels of BJP politics, governance, senior appointments and foreign and economic policy initiatives. It is believed to have been involved in the decision to carry out nuclear tests in 1998. The RSS has also been blamed by for its murderous role in the four-month long pogrom of Muslims in western India's Gujarat state, in which 1,000 people died, and a series of attacks on Christians and their institutions over the past four years.

Unlike other RSS leaders, Singh kept in touch with the outside world, especially the media, and kept up with his university contemporaries, two of whom became prime minister for brief periods. Though soft-spoken, he was a master tactician who could be forthright, aggressive and outspoken when necessary.

Kuldip Singh