To judge by the scene on a sweltering, dusty parade ground shortly after dawn, you would never know that India's Hindu nationalists had just suffered a monumental defeat in the national elections that ended last month.
Dressed in T-shirts and baggy khaki shorts, more than a thousand young men sweat and grunt their way through a series of lunges, leaps and yoga exercises. They are participating in a training camp run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, a vast, well-organized Hindu nationalist group whose paramilitary style and tense relations with religious minorities have prompted comparisons -- unfairly, its followers say -- to the Fascist movements of pre-World War II Europe.
When the trainees graduate on June 13, they will disperse to cities and towns across India as swayamsevaks, or volunteers, whose mission is to protect the country's dominant Hindu culture from the multiple threats of Westernization, Islamic fundamentalism and other outside influences.
"It's growing by leaps and bounds," K. Santosh Kumar, 26, a trainee at the camp, said of the movement he serves as an orthopedic surgeon at an RSS-affiliated hospital in the state of Andhra Pradesh. "I've seen a number of people in the RSS who have been working selflessly, thinking only of the future of this nation. This inspires me."
But for all the patriotic fervor displayed by Kumar and other participants in the camp, which is held every year in this city where the RSS was founded in 1925 and still maintains its headquarters, these are troubled times for Hindu nationalists in India. In the recent parliamentary elections, an alliance led by the secular Congress party unexpectedly defeated the coalition government headed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a onetime swayamsevak whose Bharatiya Janata Party is an offshoot of the RSS.
Many analysts have ascribed the BJP's defeat to the government's failure to spread the benefits of India's economic boom to rural voters. But some have also interpreted the outcome as a sign that the Hindu nationalist movement -- blamed by its critics for the anti-Muslim pogroms that swept the state of Gujarat in 2002 -- may have reached its high-water mark in India.
At a minimum, the elections have dealt a serious blow to the movement, depriving it of the primary instrument -- control of the central government and especially the Education Ministry -- by which its leaders planned to spread their message throughout this nation of more than 1 billion people.
"It's a very, very serious jolt," said Mahesh Rangarajan, a prominent political analyst in New Delhi. "I think they're a little shell-shocked."
Given the uncertainties of coalition politics in India, it is far too early to write off the BJP, and the movement from which it sprang, as a major force. Vajpayee last week blamed the election outcome on overconfidence and complacency, rather than any broad rejection of the party's core values. L.K. Advani, Vajpayee's deputy in the defeated government and now the leader of the opposition in Parliament, vowed, "We shall continue to wage an ideological battle against those who portray Hindutva" -- a reference to movements advocating Hindu nationalism -- "as communal for their narrow political ends."
Spokesmen for the RSS voiced indifference to the election result, describing their movement as a social and cultural phenomenon of which politics is but one component.
"Our destiny is not dependent on any government," said M.G. Vaidya, a spry, mustached 81-year-old who sits on the RSS executive board. "We feel the best antidote against all invasions -- political, economic, religious or cultural -- is the spirit of nationalism, pride in your culture and history, and we are trying to ingrain that among the Hindu people."
Since its founding here by physician K.B. Hedgewar, the RSS has espoused Hindutva, which translates literally as Hinduness. Its followers contend that Hinduism has been the region's dominant cultural feature for thousands of years and that only by recognizing this can Indians protect themselves from the kinds of humiliation they suffered at the hands of Muslim and British rulers. Religious minorities are welcome in India, they say, so long as they accept the primacy of Hindu traditions.
At the grass-roots level, the RSS spreads its ideology by means of 48,000 shakas, local chapters that meet every morning for an hour of exercise, patriotic songs and indoctrination. Affiliated groups run more than 20,000 private schools -- many in impoverished tribal regions -- that help recruit new foot soldiers to the cause.
Many Indians consider the RSS an extremist group, a reputation that stems in part from the assassination of independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi by a former swayamsevak in 1948, five months after India became a secular democracy. The assassin, Nathuram Godse, was enraged by what he saw as Gandhi's pandering to Muslims and blamed him for the partition agreement that led to the creation of Pakistan.
Although it has been banned several times, during the 1980s the RSS began to make its presence felt in national politics through the BJP, which derived its leaders and organizational strength from the group. In 1992, Advani and other BJP leaders helped incite the Hindu mob that destroyed a 16th-century mosque in the town of Ayodhya that allegedly was built on the ruins of a Hindu temple.
Since the BJP-led coalition came to power in 1998, the party has sought to promote its ideology through the Education Ministry, which revised history texts to play up the role of Hinduism and omit any mention of Gandhi's assassination. In 2002, human rights groups accused the BJP-led state government in Gujarat of helping to orchestrate the killing of more than 1,000 Muslims by Hindu mobs after Muslims set fire to a train carrying Hindu activists and their families, killing 59.
Vaidya, of the RSS executive board, described the killing of the Muslims in Gujarat as "a public upsurge, public rage," adding, "It was natural."
Particularly after the Gujarat violence, Vajpayee sought to project a more moderate image for the BJP, playing down Hindutva themes in favor of an emphasis on development and economic liberalization. In the aftermath of the party's electoral defeat, hard-liners in the movement now say that was a mistake and are urging party strategists to return to their ideological moorings.
"Hindus . . . felt betrayed, insecure and disillusioned" as a consequence of the party's efforts to distance itself from Hindutva causes such as the Ayodhya temple, Pravin Togadiya, the general secretary of the RSS-affiliated World Hindu Council, said in an e-mail response to questions. "Many so-called pseudo-secularist media reports say that BJP's defeat was a Hindutva defeat. The fact is exactly the opposite."
Here in Nagpur, a city of 2.5 million people about 520 miles south of New Delhi, the RSS is focusing not on political postmortems but on what Kumar, the orthopedic surgeon and trainee, earnestly describes as "a man-making process."
Hailing from all over India, the 1,140 trainees -- most of them college-educated and many with advanced degrees -- have each paid the equivalent of about $14 to spend at month at the camp, where they live 10 to a room in a massive concrete dormitory. They rise each day at 4 a.m., exercise from 5 to 7:30 a.m. and attend lectures on Hindu nationalism in a vast tin-roofed shed decorated with an "om" symbol and a statue of Mother India. The camp also instructs its trainees in disaster-relief operations, an RSS specialty, and recently added public relations to its curriculum.
Some of its graduates will return to their towns and villages not only as swayamsevaks but also as pracharaks, full-time RSS organizers who are expected to remain celibate and who receive no compensation for their work other than living expenses.
"We are not so interested in elections," said Gopal Yeotikar, 67, a grizzled pracharak from Bhopal who was helping to oversee the camp. "The society is the base, so if the society is built up and organized, then everything will be all right."
Added Vigyananand, 41, a muscular trainee who studied rocket engineering at one of India's most prestigious scientific institutes and uses just one name: "We are like a flowing river. It is a continuous process."