Pranab Mukherjee at RSS HQ in Nagpur: A look at how Congress jumped the gun and then did a volte face

When former president Pranab Mukherjee accepted the invite to address RSS workers, some Congress leaders expressed jittery nerves asking the veteran party leader to not attend the event at all.

On Thursday, Mukherjee warned that any attempt to define India through "religion, dogma or intolerance" will only dilute the country's existence while adding that Indian nationalism emanated from universalism, assimilation and co-existence. Mukherjee was addressing the valedictory function of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's (RSS) Sangh Shiksha Varg — a training camp for the volunteers — at the headquarters in Nagpur.

Prior to the event, the words of the 'secular patriarch' had created a furore, considering Mukherjee has been a Congressman all throughout his political career and the party's views are ideologically opposite to that of the RSS. Many — such as Kerala Congress member Ramesh Chennithala and senior Congress leader CK Jaffer Sharief — even asked him to reconsider his decision. Some expressed apprehension that the his presence at an RSS event could prove to be "bad optics for Congress and the secular camp". However, a majority of them have not said anything after Mukherjee's speech.

Earlier, there was considerable unease in the Congress, which even put out a video on its official Twitter handle and an article on its website attacking the RSS and its ideology, that coincided with Mukherjee sharing the stage with the RSS chief at its headquarters in Nagpur.

The article titled, "Never forget what the RSS stands for" carried an image with an RSS volunteer spewing fire from his mouth.

"...To start with, the RSS was never part of the freedom struggle against the British. At a time, when revolutionaries young and old were agitating against the British, the RSS leaders of yore took utmost care to ensure that nothing that they did would tick off the Brits," the article said.

However, considering that Mukherjee spoke about nationalism, intolerance and democracy in broad terms, without specifically attacking the RSS or other affiliated organisations, it looks like party leaders may have jumped the gun in their criticism. In fact, many party leaders, including former finance minister P Chidamabaram, hailed Mukherjee's speech that the former president, by saying what was right with the Congress ideology, showed what was wrong with the RSS. Before Thursday, the official Congress party line was that they would give no statements before the actual event took place. "No comments," was Congress spokesperson Tom Vadakkan's response when asked about Mukherjee visiting the RSS headquarters on 29 May.

Former president Pranab Mukherjee at the RSS event on Thursday. Reuters

Former president Pranab Mukherjee at the RSS event on Thursday. Reuters

"The event has not happened. I have come to know about it from media reports and am collecting further details. At present I have no comments to offer till the event takes place," he told reporters at the AICC office. But shortly after Mukherjee's speech in Nagpur, Congress communications-in-charge Randeep Surjewala held a press conference in New Delhi saying that Mukherjee had shown the "mirror of truth" to the RSS at its headquarters. Surjewala also asked whether the Sangh and the BJP would admit mistakes and change their "character, orientation, thought process" after accepting his "sagacious advice".

"Pranab Mukherjee has shown 'Mirror of Truth' to RSS, to follow India's civilisational values. Will RSS and the prime minister change path and accept his sagacious advice?" he asked. According to Surjewala, Mukherjee had reminded the Narendra Modi government of following "rajdharma" founded upon diversity, non-violence, multi-culturalism and assimilation of ideas. He also reminded the prime minister that happiness of people is the happiness of the ruler and their welfare is his welfare, indicating thereby the "unchecked exercise of authority and attack on institutions" in the garb of self-professed definition of pseudo- nationalism.

"Let the RSS and the BJP publicly commit today to change its character, orientation, thought process and path and accept the sagacious advice of their guest Pranab Mukherjee. It is time for (RSS chief) Mohan Bhagwat and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to answer. We await a reply," Surjewala said. He, however, played down Mukherjee hailing KB Hedgewar as a "great son of Mother India" and dubbed it as a mere formality. "As a guest what Pranab Mukherjee ji said should be discussed and highlighted, not the unwarranted formalities," he said when asked about the remark. Senior party leader Anand Sharma, who earlier expressed that "images of Pranab da" at RSS headquarters "anguished millions of Congress workers" and those who believed in pluralism, said on Friday that he "emerged proud and taller from Nagpur".

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Jun 08, 2018 11:57:07 IST

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