New Delhi. -- About three dozen men and boys, all dressed in the same khaki shorts, stand in martial lines in a quiet compound. Their right forearms are held level across their chests with their outstretched palms facing downward in a stiff salute to the Indian flag. In unison, they recite a long prayer that begins:
"Today we salute our motherland. You have given us everything and, for that purpose, my one desire is to be useful to you."
Hundreds of such groups across India gather in much the same fashion early every morning for an hour's worth of martial arts, study and prayers -- an hour aimed at instilling a collective loyalty, a desire to serve India and a concept of nationalism based on India's main religion, Hinduism.
These groups are called "shakhas," meaning "branches." And they are one of the main ways in which the National Volunteer Corps -- an organization known here as the RSS, from the Hindi name -- has built a committed membership of more than 800,000 followers in India.
Founded in the 1920s, the RSS came to the larger world's attention only once before, in 1948 when a one-time member assassinated Mohandas K. Gandhi, the leader of India's independence movement.
But now the organization has returned to the limelight with the growing prominence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party led by RSS members and heavily reliant on the RSS for its grass-roots campaign organization.
Before India's national elections were delayed by the assassination May 21 of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the BJP already was posing a serious threat to Mr. Gandhi's long dominant Congress Party.
And though Mr. Gandhi's murder may yield some sympathy votes for his party when elections resume this Wednesday and Saturday, Congress leaders' inability to settle quickly on his successor has played right into the BJP's plan to hijack Congress' long-held image as the only party representing stability for India.
Riding a widespread Hindu cultural revival here, the BJP's Hindu nationalist message has drawn increasing support over the last few years from India's burgeoning middle class, particularly from small traders, civil servants and retired military officers. More recently, the well-financed party has expanded its reach from north India into the nation's south and from its urban strongholds rural areas.
The BJP's representation in India's 543-seat lower house of parliament soared from two seats in 1984 to 86 seats in 1989. It now is widely perceived as having a good chance to double that parliamentary strength.
"Three or four years ago, if you sat in a living room in the capital and said you supported the BJP, people would think you were a Neanderthal," a New Delhi-based Western diplomat said. "But now the party's ideas have become socially acceptable."
While the BJP is not expected to come into power with this election, the party's leaders admit they are more than willing to sit in opposition while a ruling coalition of the Congress and other parties falls apart -- opening the way for a second national election in which the BJP could end up running the government.
The BJP stands for an Indian nation based on a single identity provided by Hindu religious values and culture.
This translates to a hawkish stance on defense, including developing a stronger nuclear capability; protectionism when it comes to foreign investment and trade; and deregulation of the vast country's heavily controlled, socialist economy.
But it is the party's position on pluralistic India's longtime adherence to secular policies that threatens to change permanently the Indian political landscape.
India is 80 percent Hindu, but it has about 110 million Muslims and perhaps another 35 million followers of other religions -- minorities protected by special laws from potential dominance by Hindus.
The BJP's leaders deny they want to create a Hindu theocracy in India. They insist that they want only to do away with what they call "pseudo-secularism," in which they claim India has overly catered to its minorities at the expense of its Hindu majority.
The party, for example, would like to abolish the separate civil code governing Muslim marriages and other matters in which Islamic customs differ from those of Hindus.
The BJP believes such policies have divided India. It wants to create national unity around concepts of strength, justice and compassion symbolized by the popular Hindu god Ram.
Its political opponents in the Congress and other parties, however, believe that this and other BJP proposals would bring to a flash point already tense Hindu-Muslim relations. And some BJP opponents claim the party's brand of nationalism is nothing more than a Hindu form of fascism -- an allegation underscored, for some observers, by the uniforms, drills and group-oriented character training at the RSS's daily meetings.
Whatever the case, the party's message is catching on, in large part because of its extremely effective use of political symbolism and modern media technology, such as vans equipped as video theaters, which have brought the BJP's ideas to thousands of rural Indian villages.
Indian Hindus have been described as a majority that feels like a minority. The BJP clearly has tapped into a strongly felt sense of grievance that dates back to at least Islamic Pakistan's 1947 partition from India -- if not even farther back to Indian Hindus' domination for hundreds of years first by Muslim invaders and then by British colonizers.
The BJP's leader, RSS member L.K. Advani, catapulted himself into the world's view last fall when, dressed as the god Ram and propped on a Toyota van decorated as a chariot, he led a 5,000-mile procession across India to the site of a Muslim mosque built on the spot where Ram himself is supposed to have been born.
The unachieved goal of Mr. Advani's road show was to tear down the mosque and replace it with a Hindu temple on the same spot. Hundreds died in Hindu-Muslim clashes along the procession's route. Mr. Advani and thousands of his followers were arrested before reaching the temple.
In the current national election campaign, Mr. Advani, a 63-year -old former journalist who comes across as more of an academic than a politician, has markedly toned down his rhetoric. He hopes to broaden the BJP's support and head off Muslim opposition. The BJP still aims to put up a Hindu temple to mark where Ram was born, but it now proposes to move the mosque rather than demolish it.
Neverthless, the party's grass-roots supporters, such as those attending a recent RSS meeting in New Delhi, seem to have already absorbed the party's earlier, stronger line.
"I support the BJP because they are the only party that's for the original citizens of this country, the Hindus," said a 34-year-old New Delhi lawyer named Pravesh. "It doesn't matter if people go to a church or a mosque or a temple, only patriotic persons should live in this country, people who accept that this is the Hindu holy land and that Hinduism is its culture."
RSS members, such as Pravesh, have provided the BJP with a disciplined, selfless core of campaign workers whose single-mindedness stands in stark contrast to the infighting among various factions of the Congress Party -- factional strife that immediately rose to the forefront with the absence of a Gandhi family member at the head of the party.
Congress spokesmen still are predicting that their party will end up with a clear majority after this week's elections. But even then -- given that Congress's new interim president, 69-year-old P.V. Narasimha Rao, has no political base and is in poor health -- a messy, intra-party battle over who would become prime minister would almost certainly ensue.
A more likely outcome of the voting is that Congress would fall short of a majority and, along with other, smaller parties, form a coalition aimed at keeping the BJP out of power. Under this scenario, the current caretaker Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar -- until recently given little hope for retaining office -- has surprisingly emerged as a possible compromise choice for prime minister.
These prospects seem to bode well for the BJP, for more political infighting and horse-trading at the highest levels of power in India may only underscore the BJP's claim that it is the only Indian party with a vision beyond getting elected.
"There is a sense of disenchantment with the common run of politicians," Mr. Advani said. "The feeling is that is they are ill-disciplined, and that the BJP seems to be free of that. It offers change. The BJP has emerged as the party with a difference."
Robert Benjamin is a foreign correspondent for The Sun.