Several members of India's most powerful right-wing Hindu group were named to positions within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), officials said on Sunday, signalling a more overt role for the party's ideological parent that usually operates in the shadows.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) provides the backbone to the BJP and other Hindu groups in the country, its members are known for their austerity and a life-long commitment to building a militarily strong and economically prosperous India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power in May, joined the secretive Hindu group in his early teens, rising eventually to become one of its propagandists, espousing "Hindutva" or Hinduness as the cultural identity of India.
On Saturday, Modi's handpicked head of the BJP, Amit Shah, named a new team to lead the party into a clutch of state elections this year that it hopes to win after a triumphant national election.
Eleven of the 14 vice presidents and seven of the eight general secretaries have been associated with the RSS or its wings in the past, underlining Shah's trust in the organisation, best known for the morning drills they hold each day across India featuring Nazi-style salutes, patriotic songs and sermons extolling the greatness of Hindu civilisation.
Critics however say the Hindutva ideology masks a deep-seated hostility to India's 160 million Muslims and that the group is a threat to the country's secular foundations. Many leaders of the BJP have had some association with the ideological parent at one time or the other and there was always one or two RSS officials deputed to the political party to act as the go-between and to ensure they were on the same page.
But the new team reflects a far greater control over the BJP that swept to power in the election this year with the biggest mandate any political party has won in 30 years, helped by the grassroots support provided by the ideological parent. "It is the core team, this is about giving representation to youth, and to all regions of the country," said J.P.Nadda, one of the general secretaries, about the new series of appointments. He made no comment on the greater role of BJP's parent body.
Ties between RSS and its political off-spring the BJP have been traditionally close, but differences surfaced during a previous BJP government as its pushed for free-market reforms ran into resistance from hardline RSS members.
The RSS advocates "swadeshi" or economic self-reliance in which domestic industry must be promoted so it can compete with foreign firms.
Co-opting its members inside the political party will ensure greater cohesion on key economic and political issues, say supporters of Modi.
(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Michael Perry)