Pranab Mukherjee in Nagpur: Ahead of speech at RSS event, past statements hint at what ex-president may say

Sharmishtha Mukherjee, former president Pranab Mukherjee's daughter and Congress leader, cautioned her father ahead of his valedictory speech at an RSS event in Nagpur on Thursday. The Congress leader said that while his speech might be forgotten, visuals of him speaking from the RSS podium will remain etched in everyone's mind. Sharmishtha, it seems, is worried that Pranab is giving the BJP and the RSS "full handle to plant false stories" and "spread falls rumours." While the quote (" speech will be forgotten, visuals will remain") is commendable, it's not entirely true.

As the country awaits Pranab's speech at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur later on Thursday, it is pertinent to note that several media reports, especially TV channels, are replaying the former president's earlier speeches (as the President of India) which discussed the themes of 'diversity', 'plurality' and 'tolerance'. Pranab, who has been described as "a secular patriarch" and an "intellectual giant", and a devout Congressman, being invited to an RSS event would of course raise a few eyebrows, but barring the intial shock over the event, the media brouhaha over the past couple of weeks has been a bit exhausting. The speculations over what the former president would say, or suggestions of what he should or would say, or theorising why was Pranab invited in the first place, or postulating that Pranab might have "political ambitions" were quite ridiculous.

Pranab's last speech as the President of India in 2017 reflected the thoughts and concerns that had engaged him throughout his over five-decade-long political career. Unlike his 2012 speech when he took over as the president in which he made a passing reference, pluralism and tolerance dominated the 2017 address.

Former president Pranab Mukherjee arrives at Nagpur Airport. PTI

Former president Pranab Mukherjee arrives at Nagpur Airport. PTI

"I want to share with you some truths that I have internalised in this period. The soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance. India is not just a geographical entity. It carries a history of ideas, philosophy, intellect, industrial genius, craft, innovation and experience. Plurality of our society has come about through assimilation of ideas over centuries."

"The multiplicity in culture, faith and language is what makes India special. We derive our strength from tolerance. It has been part of our collective consciousness for centuries. There are divergent strands in public discourse. We may argue, we may agree or we may not agree."

"But we cannot deny the essential prevalence of multiplicity of opinion. Otherwise, a fundamental character of our thought process will wither away," said the lifelong Congressman on the last day of his career." In his last speech as the president, Pranab had expressd his concern about increasing violence and how darkness, fear and mistrust was at the heart of this violence. Power of non-violence has to be resurrected to build a caring society to ensure participation of all sections of the people, he said.

While pluralism along with environment and inclusion engaged Pranab last year as he readied to hang up his boots after a very successful career, his first speech as president in 2012 was markedly different and focussed mainly on poverty, terrorism and corruption. He talked on education both the times. The first topic Pranab touched in his 2012 speech was poverty after making the same overarching statement on basic fundamentals for a modern nation - democracy, secularism and equality. Real development is when the poorest feel they are part of the narrative of rising India, he said.

"There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger. Trickle-down theories do not address the legitimate aspirations of the poor. We must lift those at the bottom so that poverty is erased from the dictionary of modern India."

However, then, too, Pranab's faith in secularism is reflected in the solitary line on the topic when he said: "Our social harmony is the sublime co-existence of temple, mosque, church, gurudwara and synagogue; they are symbols of our unity in diversity."

Interestingly, in 2017 Pranab spoke at an event organised by an RSS body and IGNOU where the then president said that tolerance for pluralism, compassion for all and love for the motherland are core civilisational values of India where hundreds of languages and all major religions live under one system. "The idea of Bharat flows from eternal wisdom of our rich traditions. Our core civilisational values, which are equally relevant today - speak of love for motherland, performance of duty, compassion for all, tolerance for pluralism, honesty in life, self restraint in conduct, responsibility in action and discipline," Pranab was quoted as saying.

Pranab has been a copybook president throughtout his tenure — the man hardly spoke out of turn and despite being a former Congressman, did not embarrass the ruling NDA government or even send back a Bill for reconsideration. Pranab also through his tenure tried to maintain balance between the ruling government and the Oppposition. For instance, in 2015 while Pranab criticised the NDA government's use of ordinances to sidestep opposition to controversial bills, he also rapped Opposition parties for continuously disrupting the Parliament.

In October 2015, when the case of Bisada lynching was making headlines, Pranab, who was addressing an event at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, spoke extensively on the importance of preserving the 'diversity' and 'plurality' in the country and the need for the spirit of 'tolerance'. Using the phrase "core civilisational values" several times.

In fact, Pranab in October of 2015 spoke out against waning tolerance that was raging across the country, not once but thrice in three weeks. In an interview to a Jordanian newspaper (PDF) ahead of his Amman visit in October, Pranab had said, "We should not permit religion to be used as a mask to satisfy hunger for power and control of some individuals. I completely agree that leaders of every country, every belief, every neighbourhood need to take a clear and public stand against intolerance of any kind."

"Tolerance and co-existence are basic tenets of our civilisation. We hold them very dear to our hearts. Our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru propounded the five principles of peaceful co-existence amongst nations. I agree with His Majesty King Abdullah that the world is confronted with a third world war to which we must respond with equal intensity. I also agree that we must go back to the essence of our respective faiths and creeds. Hate speech and fear mongering should come to an end. Our values should become part of our daily life. We must amplify the voice of moderation. We should not permit religion to be used as a mask to satisfy hunger for power and control of some individuals. I completely agree that leaders of every country, every belief, every neighbourhood need to take a clear and public stand against intolerance of any kind, as called for by His Majesty," the interview quoted the then president as saying.

Same week, the president had expressed apprehension “whether tolerance and acceptance of dissent are on the wane”, according to a Rashtrapati Bhavan statement. In the same month, when BJP leaders and Union ministers like Arun Jaitley were busy criticising writers and artists for award wapsi and called it a "manufactured revolt", Pranab spoke in support of tolerance and the right to dissent and against hate speech and divisiveness. "The recent protests by writers, artists, scientists and academics have made the issue of intolerance a matter of nationwide debate," the former president was quoted as saying.

"They should ensure that the ethos of tolerance, mutual cooperation, respect for plurality and difference, scope for dissent and dialogue, freedom of expression are all ensured and given full and free expression both in deeds and words," the release said.

FirstCut by Manjul

FirstCut by Manjul

In April 2017, addressing the 52nd annual convocation of Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, Pranab reiterated that Indians can be argumentative but "never intolerant" referring to the caustic air of violence that had engulfed the country at that point of time. "If our feet are firmly on the ground, we will not be blown off by ideas from outside. India is a land of tolerance. We adopt, embrace and absorb but never reject. Let there be debate, disagreement and dissension, but not intolerance. Indians could be described as argumentative, but never intolerant. In ancient India, seats of higher learning such as Nalanda, Vikramshila and Taxila attracted mighty minds from all over the world and truly became a confluence of civilisational thoughts and ideas."

As the former president takes stage today in Nagpur to address several Sangh workers with the country watching, one thing seems to be for certain — Pranab will uphold his status as a statesman and continue to talk against polarising and divisive entities in the country, thus not wavering from his earlier stands.

Click here to follow LIVE updates on Pranab Mukherjee's speech in Nagpur at RSS Event

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Jun 07, 2018 15:10:38 IST

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