In Nagpur, Pranab Mukherjee shows Congress how to challenge RSS' Hindu rashtravad with grace
The Congress should be proud of Pranab Mukherjee. Even its criticism and distrust of Mukherjee could not take the Congress out of the former president in his speech at the RSS training programme in Nagpur
You can take Pranab Mukherjee out of the Congress. But can you take the Congress out of Mukherjee? You would know the answer if you noticed two things about former president Mukherjee’s speech at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) training programme at its headquarters in Nagpur on Thursday.
One, except for mentioning the name of its functionaries at the beginning of his speech, the former president did not mention the word RSS at all. Two, while he quoted several Congress leaders — including Jawaharlal Nehru — extensively, he did not have a single word to say about any of the Sangh leaders or their ideologues. No (Vinayak Damodar) Savarkar, no BS Moonje, not even the other Mukherjee — Syama Prasad Mukherjee.
Talking about Nehru especially in front of future pracharaks of the Sangh who are generally taught to treat the first Indian prime minister and Nehruvianism as an anathema is like singing paeans to Diego Maradona at a dinner hosted by Pele in Rio. But, the beauty of citizen Mukherjee’s speech was that he slammed home his point so beautifully — almost like Maradona’s famous 1986 goal — that even the hosts appeared grateful for it.
Mukherjee’s address to the Sangh was a masterclass in getting across his point with grace, dignity, and decorum without compromising his core ideology of tolerance, pluralism and steadfast loyalty to the Indian Constitution. And he did so by cleverly softening his hosts with some fulsome praise of Hedgewar, whom he called a great son of India, and then completely leaving the RSS out of the narrative.
Optics matter in a public spectacle. For those looking for clues to read the former president’s mindset, there was a key moment at the very beginning. As the RSS flag — the bhagwa — was hoisted at the headquarters to the chants of its anthem, a swarm of men in white shirts, broad belts, and khaki trousers stood in deference, their hands on their waists in the trademark RSS salute. Amidst this crowd of men in a uniform inspired by the West, the former president appeared to be in the minority of one not only sartorially — Mukherjee wore the more Indian dhoti and achkan — but also ideologically by just observing the flag-hoisting dispassionately, his hands hanging by the sides.
That should have been a clear indication that Mukherjee had a different flag and a different anthem — though both were not played — in his mind; that he was not a participant but a guest with his own mind; and that he would be polite and gracious, but not deferential.
So, it wasn’t surprising that Mukherjee spoke about the idea of India, nationalism, and patriotism, that is slightly at variance with the Sangh worldview. Mukherjee reminded his audience that India was a result of a confluence of cultures.
"India’s national identity emerged from a long-drawn process of confluence and co-existence. The concept of modern India was articulated from various Indian leaders and it was not bound by race or religion," he said.
To the votaries of the Sangh brought up on the staple of Hindu rashtravad, hearing about the virtues of a nation born through the process of assimilation in the headquarters of the Sangh must have been a new experience. He also talked about pluralism and tolerance being the soul of India, rejected the idea of defining India on the basis of religion, and talked about the welfare of the people being the welfare of the ruler. These thoughts were clearly enunciated with the RSS and its affiliates in mind.
If the Congress leaders have political maturity, they should be kicking themselves for their initial outrage over Mukherjee’s decision to accept the RSS invite. In the end, Mukherjee actually acted as a messenger of the very ideas — secularism, pluralism, and tolerance — that the Congress claims to stand for. If they can spin it right, the Congress should go to town talking about the courage and conviction of a Nehruvian leader to speak his mind even in the rival citadel. Like Randeep Surjewala argued, the Congress should exhort the RSS to follow the former president’s advice in word and spirit.
The Congress is wrong in assuming that the optics of the event — a former stalwart of the party “endorsing” the Sangh — would harm the party. The president’s daughter is also mistaken in her belief that the RSS would use the event to argue its idea was endorsed by a Nehruvian leader.
In the age of wall-to-wall coverage and tweets, the only image that would endure is that of a lone man in a white dhoti standing tall while hundreds around him in khaki trousers genuflected to the bhagwa at the RSS headquarters; the only words that would resonate would be that of Mukherjee talking passionately about an idea of India inspired by Nehru.
The Congress should be proud of Mukherjee. Even its own criticism and distrust of Mukherjee could not take the Congress out of the former president.
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