Ex-president attends RSS event: For Opposition, 'Modi vs Mukherjee' may sound better than 'Modi vs nobody'

The hair-pulling over Pranab Mukherjee's visit to the RSS sanctum sanctorum has proved once again that Congress is a ‘bandwagon’ party.

Bereft of any perceptible ideology and driven by the whims of a dynasty, Congressmen have proved time and again that the only thing that keeps their adrenaline going is what psychologists call “bandwagon effect”. Before the former president went to the RSS event, it was enough for one Congress busybody to tear him apart for undermining secularism, and others just followed suit. And after the event, they sang his praise one after another for upholding secularism.

But they were so busy jumping onto — and off — the bandwagon that they missed the track. They were so preoccupied with reading the non-existent meanings of Mukherjee's address to the RSS cadre that they didn't see the challenge that the event could eventually pose to the Gandhi dynasty.

There is little doubt that, by design or happenstance, Mukherjee has now turned up as a possible, if not probable, choice as a prime ministerial candidate of a combined Opposition in case of a hung Lok Sabha in 2019.

The Opposition grouping can be without both Congress and BJP. Or it can be one with either Congress or BJP in it. Mukherjee’s Nagpur visit has to be seen in the background of the confabulations he had in Bhubaneswar earlier this year with Naveen Patnaik, HD Deve Gowda, LK Advani and Sitaram Yechury.

It's also difficult to dismiss outright the talk that RSS-BJP may back Mukherjee as the consensus prime ministerial candidate just in case Narendra Modi falls far short of majority next year. The images from Nagpur of Mukherjee and RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat shaking hands must also be seen along with those of the impressive array of hugging and smiling Opposition leaders on the stage where HD Kumaraswamy of Janata Dal (Secular) took oath as Karnataka chief minister in Bengaluru last month.

The Bengaluru gathering presented the inevitability of a Modi-versus-the-rest fight in 2019 in the absence of a leader. Many interpreted it as nothing but a Modi-versus-nobody battle which the prime minister couldn’t lose with his famed vote-catching magic, even if it has faded a bit. But the Nagpur event throws up the possibility of a Modi-versus-Mukherjee encounter, if a pre-poll arrangement excludes BJP. It may still be that, whether it has Congress in it or not, and that must sound better than Modi-versus-Rahul to many parties.

Speculation on permutations

All this is still in the realm of speculation. Everything, of course, depends on which parties come together and how many seats they win. But if the grouping includes Congress, Mukherjee could be a problem for the party. Having already made public his ambition to become the prime minister if Congress turns out to be the single largest party, Rahul may have a competitor in Mukherjee. The prospect of competing with a man in his own party whom his father Rajiv and later his mother Sonia had mercilessly tried to politically finish off will be nothing short of a slap in the face for Rahul, whose family has never seen a challenge of this kind before.

File image of former president Pranab Mukherjee. PTI

File image of former president Pranab Mukherjee. PTI

Depending on what happens in the election, Rahul may also have to face an equally ignominious prospect of letting Congress support a front led by Mukherjee. For many parties like Trinamool Congress (TMC), Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) and Telugu Desam who may favour a non-Congress, non-BJP front against Modi, Mukherjee could emerge as a consensus candidate whom they could back without a problem.

How Pranab makes his friends

Again, either deliberately or otherwise, Mukherjee framed his 2,000-word speech at the RSS meet in a way that pleases both the protagonists and enemies of Hindutva. The minority and Dalit vote banks of regional parties will be told that he talked of pluralism and inclusiveness in Nagpur. Hindus will be informed that Mukherjee can chant shlokas with the same ease of quoting the Constitution’s articles.

In Nagpur, he eulogised RSS founder Kehsav Baliram Hedgewar as “a great son of Mother India” and talked of inclusive secularism as well. He dangled carrots with one hand and sticks with the other at both Congress and RSS. For their own reasons, both Congress and RSS are talking only of the carrots.

And you can’t forget how, as president, he raised queries about some ordinances of the Modi government, but he never returned any of them like Abdul Kalam once had. But he later lavished praise on Modi. That’s how Mukherjee makes friends and influences people. And that's how he was once the Congress party's most successful trouble-shooter. That's also the reason why Rajiv and Sonia should not have treated him in the nasty and spiteful way they did.

A year is a long time in politics, but the chances are that if there is no agreement among the regional satraps, the 82-year-old non-controversial, highly experienced Brahmin from Bengal could be a choice they could veer round to with little difficulty.

His silence says it all?

Mukherjee has not let out even the tiniest clue about his own intentions, but even if he wants to be in the race for the top job, he is not a Rahul Gandhi to commit the foolish mistake of making a public announcement of it. What really was on his mind when he traveled to Nagpur may be known only when, and if, he reveals it in the next volume of his memoirs.

As a result, it's still not clear whether he attended the RSS meet with the deliberate design of attracting attention to himself and projecting himself as a candidate for South Block. But even if it wasn't intentional, he has allowed his name to be dropped well and truly into reckoning. When the time comes, he can depend on his friend and admirer Mamata Banerjee to propose his name and muster support.

So that's how Mukherjee cocked a snook at the current heirs of the Gandhi family without uttering a single word against them. But that’s how the man, once known for his short fuse, works. He has made himself a threat to Congress by simply attending an RSS meeting and reading out what could as well have been a prize-winning essay on secularism in a college competition.

Mukherjee wrote in his last year’s memoir: “Rajiv’s defeat in the Lok Sabha elections of 1989 brought us close together again…” But after his death, Sonia not only denied Mukherjee the prime minister's post in 2004 but also nearly deprived him of the president’s job later. It'll be nothing short of a miracle if he ever builds bridges with the family.

At least for now, Mukherjee has declared war on the dynasty in his own way. And three days from now, Rahul is likely to gnash his teeth over what Mukherjee has done, as he attends a Maharashtra court to face the defamation case filed by RSS.

Author tweets @sprasadindia

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Updated Date: Jun 09, 2018 22:04:50 IST

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