Amit Shah’s cooperative ministry, widely panned as an infringement of states' rights, is a crucial move on this political chessboard.

RSS workers who are part of a Men's Self Help Group in Kerala, under RSS affiliate Sahakar Bharati's Akshayashree NGO.
news Politics Tuesday, October 26, 2021 - 14:58

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Around 20 kilometres away from Thiruvananthapuram city, near Pottankavu in Malayinkeezhu, is a small tea shop at the bus stop, which is run by 19 men. The men work shifts, and also own a pick-up van and two Jan Aushadhi medical stores. This business group named Pottankavu Devi Purusha Sangam, is a cooperative society registered under Akshayasree. “It has been three years since we formed the society, and work like a men’s Self Help Group,” says Rajesh KS, the secretary of the Pottankavu Devi Purusha Sangam, “Since then, all our initiatives have been going well. We share the profits and keep a percentage of it for the activities of our unit. We help each other when our members are in need and also spend on charity regularly.” The Sangam also owns a service called Agnidahanam that helps families with funerals. They arrange for cremation in the property of the deceased, at a cost of Rs 5,000.

“We all are RSS workers,” Rajesh says. The society is part of the Akshayasree Mutually Aided Sustainable Development Mission — an NGO established by Sahakar Bharati, an organisation working on cooperatives across the country. Sahakar Bharati was started by Rashtriya Swayam Sevaks. And while Akshayashree doesn’t openly mention RSS, its political wing BJP, or its Hindutva politics, the Self Help Groups, cooperatives and other institutions being built in Kerala under the NGO are being used to build a political base for BJP in the state. The groups help people with microfinance and livelihoods — and also make members part of their discourse using prayer groups singing bhajans, and discussing politics, facilitated by RSS workers.

Using SHGs and the cooperative movement to make political inroads is not new in Kerala. In fact, the Left parties in the state gained prominence on the back of cooperative societies that came up during the peasant uprisings. However, the RSS’s plan through affiliates like the Sahakar Bharati includes using the Union government machinery to manoeuvre political gains out of the cooperative movement in the state, which is essentially built on the principles of decentralisation. In fact, the idea for Amit Shah’s new cooperative ministry — which has been widely panned for infringing on state rights — was first floated by Sahakar Bharati.

So how does the RSS-BJP model work? What are its current gains and future plans in Kerala, which has a culture of cooperatives? TNM took a deep dive into RSS-BJP’s Kerala model to find the political motivations of the scheme — and we found there are four parts to the plan. Self Help Groups and cooperatives under the Akshayashree NGO; Gramin Samrudhi stores with the help of Sahakar Bharati’s agricultural cooperative programme BAMCO; ‘Hindu banks’; and Mahila cells.

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Sahakar Bharati’s blueprint in Kerala

Cooperative societies, or simply cooperatives, are groups where individuals come together for common economic goals. So a Self Help Group is a cooperative where the members may want to build a small enterprise selling homemade products. Another example of a cooperative society is Amul, which is the umbrella organisation of dairy cooperatives across Gujarat. Members of cooperatives share profits and costs, and are accountable to each other.

The structure of the SHG-cooperatives political plan of RSS-BJP stems from Sahakar Bharati, which was started in 1978 by RSS activists including Laxmanrao Inamdar and Madhavrao Godbole. “RSS has had a strong track of cooperative initiatives in Maharashtra and Gujarat through Sahakar Bharati,” says D Dhanuraj, Chairman, Centre for Public Policy Research, a think tank based in Kochi. In these states, RSS and BJP have a track record of gaining political power using the cooperatives movement, he explains. “In fact, Amit Shah is a leader who came out of the cooperative movement. Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra also had his entry through cooperative society — he is still the leader of Sugar Cooperative Mill Owners Society,” Dhanuraj said.

P Sudhakaran, President Sahakar Bharati, Kerala, says that the organisation has been working in the state since 2001. “Akshayasree units were started in 2015, but they started gaining momentum in 2018,” he says. “In Thiruvananthapuram, the Ananthapuram Cooperative Society has been working in cooperation with us. This society has almost Rs 650 crore deposits, which is one of the highest deposit cooperative societies in the capital,” he adds.

The organisation works on multiple fronts, seemingly towards a common goal of improving the BJP’s voter base in Kerala, experts say.

The surge of Akshayashree

Firstly, Sahakar Bharati uses its NGO Akshayashree to form Self Help Groups of women and men across the state. The individual groups form clusters at the taluk, district, and state level, and come together to form cooperative societies. Today, Akshayashree has 7,300 SHG units that contain 10 to 20 members each, and a membership of 1,40,000 in the state.

Close to Thiruvananthapuram International airport, in a house near Karikkakom, around 20 women gather every Thursday. “We are gathered here for women’s empowerment,” says Manju, a member of the group that makes home-made masala powders, flours, and packed food to sell locally. “We find a living for ourselves by selling these products. We are a self help group,” she adds.

These SHGs produce homemade products, run small tea stalls and kitchens, tailoring units, small scale farms, Jan Aushadhi medical shops, vehicle rentals, small scale production units, contract works, skilled labour, and are generally involved in many kinds of small scale entrepreneurship. The groups also participate in bhajan meetings and political discourse.

An Akshayasree unit can be formed with minimum 10 and maximum 20 members. The meetings of these groups happen at members’ homes usually, and in these meetings, members discuss not just business but also politics. “After we formed our group, we were active in the elections,” says Manjula, secretary of the Karikkakom Akshayasree unit. “Since 2015, our ward member has been an NDA candidate. Until then CPI(M) used to win from here,” she says.

An Akshayashree meeting in Kerala

“I was not part of any cooperative,” says Sobha, an Akshayashree member from Thrissur. “But after the Akshayasree unit was formed here, I decided to go there,” she adds. Explaining her decision to support Akshayashree, she says, “You know what happened in Sabarimala. We know what is happening with the younger generation — they are losing our culture. For many reasons, we need to be mobilised. Political awareness is also good for women’s empowerment.”

“We gather together to discuss holy books, sing bhajans, and also talk about things happening around us,” she explains, adding that the cooperative movement had helped enrich their politics.

Sahakar Bharati wants to place Akshayashree as a competitive alternative to Kudumbashree, which is the Kerala government’s SHG movement, according to political observers. Kudumbashree has over 45 lakh members in the state.

Samrudhi stores: A supermarket franchise

Sahakar Bharati’s second front is setting up supermarkets across Kerala under the brand Gramin Samrudhi Store, with the help of Bharath Agro Processing and Marketing Cooperative Ltd (BAMCO), a project of Sahakar Bharati. The ownership of these stores varies; initially, the Samrudhi stores were set up to sell the products made by Akshayashree’s SHGs, and usually, a group of SHGs came together as a cooperative to start a Samrudhi store. By August 2020, there were 24 such stores in the state.

However, as a reaction to anti-CAA anti-NRC protests in Kerala, the RSS — and Sahakar Bharati — decided to add more firepower to the Samrudhi brand. When traders in Kerala downed their shutters in places where BJP wanted to conduct meetings in support of CAA, RSS decided to start more supermarkets, this time with the help of business persons aligned with the RSS acting as franchisees. Today, there are 36 Gramin Samrudhi stores in the state, and according to The Signal, which did a detailed story on the same, the mission is to have 1,500 such supermarkets in Kerala over five years. Anyone who wants to franchise a Samrudhi store can apply to do so, according to sources.

A Samrudhi store located near the Pettah metro station in Tripunithura of Ernakulam — a prime location — is one of the busiest in the area. The shop has all necessary products, groceries and vegetables. It is just like any other provision store, with no hint of any political association.

Inside a Gramin Samrudhi Store.

Unnikrishnan, Secretary of the Akshayasree Missions' Regional Federation in Maradu says, “The store in Tripunithura runs through community participation. First, we form clusters of 10-12 SHGs, who can raise money. Five such clusters form one Federation. Under each federation, there will be one single store. Depending on the amount of the funds raised, like, Rs 25 lakh, Rs 50 lakh or Rs 1 crore, the stores will be classified as A, B and C.”

This supermarket in Tripunithura is classified as grade C. This store comes under Akshayasree Mission's Regional Federation in Maradu. Many products like grains, and flours are supplied by the Self Help Groups, similar to the government's Kudumbashree. “The SHGs are in the flourishing stage only, we procure items from outside as well,” Unnikrishnan says.

“The members of the cluster take only a nominal profit from the revenue as yearly dividends. Rest of the profit, we use for welfare measures, through units lile Seva Bharati. Through Seva Bharati, we identify families that need help and aid them in various needs like education, health and financial needs. We raise money through various means; for instance, we have asked our members to bring scrap newspapers from their homes. We will sell them to scrap dealers and raise a small amount which can be used to help someone,” he explains.

The ‘Hindu banks’ plan

The third plan of action is using Nidhi Companies — or Mutual Benefit Societies — to attract voters in the name of ‘Hindu banks’, say political observers. Nidhi companies are small societies allowed under the Companies Act, that can lend and borrow money, but only from its members. These companies cannot accept deposits. They’re non-banking financial corporations. Starting a Nidhi company is fairly simple, as it requires only a minimum of seven members, does not require RBI registration, and needs a starting capital of just Rs 5 lakh. Large financial institutions like Muthoot and Manappuram are also Nidhi companies.

The discussion around ‘Hindu banks’ in Kerala started after an article by BJP Kisan Morcha Vice President Venganoor Gopakumar, that he posted on his social media accounts in 2020. In this article, he proposed that more Hindus should come together to promote ventures from people in the community. Gopakumar tells TNM that the ‘Hindu bank’ is just an idea he mooted, and claims he never meant that these financial institutions will discriminate against people from other communities. He however adds that in the last few months, Nidhi companies have been floated by people aligned with the sangh. Many observers TNM spoke to said that in the months to come, these Nidhi companies may become a central point for funding SHGs and other cooperatives operated by RSS affiliated bodies.

Former Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, in an interview to TNM, alleged that these Nidhi companies are being used by the RSS and BJP to communalise lending in the state. “The BJP is trying to make inroads in Kerala by setting up Multi State Cooperatives, by setting up Nidhis under Companies Act. They call it ‘Hindu banks’. They want to communalise even this,” he said.

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Reaching out to women through Mahila Cells

The fourth point of action of Sahakar Bharati is direct outreach to women. Sahakar Bharati is on a mission to establish one cooperative society each in every local self government limit, for women. “We aim at the development of women at the local level and make them self sustainable. We also plan to provide loans and other support for women’s empowerment,” says Manjula, who is Karikkakom Akshayasree unit secretary and Thiruvananthapuram district coordinator of Sahakar Bharati Mahila cell.

The members expect a revolution after the formation of Mahila cells, one each in the 1200 local body limits. “Our aim is to strengthen our grassroots. We are powerful in many of the local bodies. With the spread of cooperatives, we are sure to bring a big gain here,” says Sandhya, a retired school teacher, and a member of Akshayasree in Palakkad district.

Playing the long game

D Dhanuraj, Chairman, Centre for Public Policy Research, a think tank based in Kochi says, “BJP has got a long term plan here. They have prayer groups, women’s empowerment societies, SHGs — they also mobilise people through celebrations of Krishna Jayanti. They are entering into many other sectors too — they own many schools, hospitals and so on.”

The RSS-BJP is not looking for short-term gains, he explains. “In Assam, BJP started their work in the 1980s and they came into power in 2016. In Tripunithura municipality, BJP has been working at the ground level for the last 25 to 30 years. Now they are in the opposition.”

“Seva Bharati and Sahakar Bharati are very strong in Kerala,” Dhanuraj explains, “When they go on the field, initially they won’t even hint at their association with RSS or BJP. In Kerala, unlike many other north Indian states, they have to think differently to get a foothold, as the indices here are high. Giving food to the poor kind of charity will not help here. In that sense cooperative societies are a part of higher level thinking,” he says.

“Money that is coming to cooperative societies can influence voters evidently,” he says, “BJP already has a strong cooperative structure in many other states. With a separate Union ministry for cooperation, many central government schemes will be brought under the Cooperative Societies Act. Currently the money goes to the public only through the state government. But with this Act, the Union government can provide funds directly to these societies. There will be no role for state governments.”

With inputs from Neethu Joseph.

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