Pranab Mukherjee accepting RSS' Nagpur invite could mean he's keeping post-retirement political options open

Pranab Mukherjee consenting to be chief guest at RSS' headquarters should be seen as the Sangh's attempt to broaden its base and appropriate iconic figures.

Rasheed Kidwai June 04, 2018 12:15:33 IST
Pranab Mukherjee accepting RSS' Nagpur invite could mean he's keeping post-retirement political options open

Former President Pranab Mukherjee consenting to be the chief guest at the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh's headquarters in Nagpur on 7 June should be seen as the RSS' attempt to broaden its base and appropriate iconic figures.

Contrary to popular perception, the chequered history of RSS-Congress relations has seen the two cosy up, bringing dividends to both sides.

However, a closer look at Mukherjee's political and personal ambitions is also merited. To do this, it will be instructive to look at the results of a recent mood of the nation survey conducted by CSDS-Lokniti; it indicates that the BJP, on its own, will not manage the number of seats required to come back to power. A fractured mandate, naturally, will present an opportunity for people like Mukherjee to play a part in the tug and pull of power politics in 2019.

Pranab Mukherjee accepting RSS Nagpur invite could mean hes keeping postretirement political options open

File image of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and former President Pranab Mukherjee. Firstpost

Cast back to R Venkataraman's stint as president for reference; he served between 1987-1992. This was the period when voters repeatedly returned a fractured mandate (in 1989 and 1991) and the country reluctantly accepted coalition governments as a means of governance.

During this time, Venkataraman, or RV as he was known, made a conscious effort to propagate a concept of the national government during a fractured verdict. In 1989, VP Singh headed a coalition government with support from both the political right and the left but without opting for a 'national government'. In 1991, PV Narasimha Rao counted on support from the Left to run his minority government.

On both occasions, Mukherjee, who was equally thick with RV, PV and VP, had watched developments from close quarters.

As for the RSS, it is of significance that in early April this year, the head of this organisation, Mohan Bhagwat, had asserted that slogans like 'Congress-mukt Bharat' were mere political phrases. He had remarked during a Pune speech: "These are political slogans. It is not the language of the RSS. The word 'mukt' (free or liberated from) is used in politics. We never use the language of excluding anyone."

Behind the scenes, Bhagwat's remarks had generated considerable interest. The RSS, having developed its deep interest in the "political, social, economic and cultural well-being" of the country, is said to be wary of Sonia Gandhi repeating 2004 to stitch a rainbow coalition and positioning her 'temple-hopping' son as a key political player.

Those who don't track Indian politics closely have little understanding of Congress-RSS ties. Though the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was generally unsparing in criticising the RSS, he occasionally praised the Sangh Parivar, particularly when Pakistan attacked Jammu and Kashmir soon after Independence and Sangh volunteers had gone there to help. During the Chinese aggression, too, Nehru had acknowledged services rendered by the RSS and even invited the RSS to participate in the 1963 Republic Day parade.

After Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984, it was reported that Rajiv Gandhi held a secret meeting with RSS chief Balasaheb Deoras resulting in the RSS cadre supporting the Congress in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections despite the presence of the BJP on the political scene. Rajiv had met Bhaurau Deoras, younger brother of Balasaheb, at least half a dozen times at different locations.

The RSS support for the Congress was evident even before Indira's assassination. It was evident in an article authored by veteran RSS ideologue Nanaji Deshmukh. Published in a Hindi magazine Pratipaksh (titled 'Moments of Soul searching', in the 25 November, 1984 edition), Deshmukh's article ended with a call to bless and cooperate with Rajiv when voting was less than a month away.

Deshmukh had described Indira thus: “…(she) ultimately did secure a permanent place at the doorstep of history as a great martyr. With her dynamism born out of her fearlessness and dexterity, she was able to take the country forward like a colossus for over a decade… she alone had the ability to run the decadent political system of our corrupt and divided society…"

Prior to this, Indira had sought to cultivate the majority community, accepting the invitation to launch the VHP's Ekatmata Yatra, also called the Ganga Jal Yatra.

Throughout his tenure as Congress president and prime minister, Rao was accused of going soft on RSS. In fact, before Babri Masjid fell on 6 December, 1992, Rao was in close touch with top RSS leadership in order to find an out-of-court settlement for the vexed Ayodhya issue. When Professor Rajendra Singh (Rajju Bhaiya) took over as RSS chief in 1994, a joke in a section of the Congress was: "aare Rao sahib phir rah gaye (Oh Rao has missed his chance again)."

A word about Mukherjee's ties with 10, Janpath should provide an indication about the former president's less-than-reverential regard for the present-day Congress party. Many in the Congress feel Mukherjee will go down in history as one of the best prime ministers India did not have. There are those who question Sonia's decision to make him president in 2012. Mukherjee has himself admitted in his memoirs that he was under the "impression" in 2012 that Sonia wanted to move aside Dr Manmohan Singh and crown Mukherjee as UPA's prime minister.

Congressmen attribute Sonia's lack of warmth towards Mukherjee to his uneasy ties with Rajiv. Mukherjee was expelled from the Congress in 1984 for allegedly showing defiance towards Rajiv.

Mukherjee was with Rajiv in Bengal when news of the attack on Indira reached them. The duo returned in the same aircraft. One version is that overwhelmed by grief, Mukherjee went to the aircraft's toilet and wept. He then chose to sit at the back of the aircraft because his eyes were red. But his opponents within the Congress accused him of "plotting and scheming" against Rajiv.

Another version has it that when Rajiv had posed a "theoretical question" about the "caretaker prime minister", Mukherjee had stressed on "seniority", which was later construed as his desire to occupy the prime minister's chair.

Interestingly, sources close to Sonia do not view Mukherjee's five years as president as "remarkable". He was often seen as maintaining the status quo, and who, unlike Shankar Dayal Sharma, KR Narayanan or APJ Abdul Kalam, failed to assert himself or make any significant pronouncements.

After retirement, Mukherjee has seen a lot of visitors at his 10, Rajaji Marg residence. And it is generally believed that a section of the political class, which is unsure of Rahul's ability to either lead a rainbow coalition or make Congress a stronger organisation, is working behind-the-scenes so Mukherjee takes a more "pro-active role in national life".

It is in view of such developments that one must consider Mukherjee's acceptance of the RSS invitation – it could be one of several options the former president has to re-enter public life, including engaging with third front protagonists like Naveen Patnaik and restless Congressmen unsure of Rahul's prowess.

Kidwai is an Observer Research Foundation visiting fellow, and author of the recently released Ballot: Ten Episodes that Shaped India's Democracy. 

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