Former president Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) headquarters has kicked up a big row. So-called secularists, a section of the Congress party, communists and assorted political pundits have attempted to paint this as a misdemeanour because he had shared the stage with the RSS leadership. Mukherjee, a veteran Congress leader prior to becoming President, delivered a statesman-like and measured speech at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur. Politely, but firmly, he put his views across boldly before the RSS, which he was wont to do. Perhaps aware that his words would be closely analysed, the former president brought up the importance of plurality, tolerance and diversity as being integral to the idea of India and the soul of India. Evidently, both the RSS and the former president appeared clear that their differences might not be reconciled any time soon. In fact, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, an ambitious sarsanghchalak, speaking in Hindi, observed, “After this event, the RSS will continue to be the RSS and Dr Pranab Mukherjee will remain Dr Pranab Mukherjee.” The two sides seemed to have attempted a flexible and open dialogue considering their ideological differences on nationalism, nation and patriotism. For a lifelong Congressman and a Congress loyalist – his differences with Rajiv Gandhi, however, had briefly led him to part ways with the Congress and form the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress – Mukherjee’s decision to address the RSS cadre was by all accounts a brave one. In doing so, he rejected the idea of treating the RSS as an untouchable or isolating it. It is difficult to say if he had to unlearn anything in the process but he made sure his Congress colours were visible as he spoke. The Congress party had vacillated on its responses to Mukherjee being a guest at Resham Bagh, the RSS headquarters.
The Sangh Parivar was clearly aware that they had managed a coup by getting the former president to its headquarters and spared no effort in pomp and ceremony while welcoming him. Several swayamsevaks seem to have been particularly impressed by Mukherjee’s commitment to the larger concept of “Vasudaiva Kutumbakam”, his liberal quotes from the Vedas, Upanishads and even Kautilya’s arthashastra. Some things perhaps rightly upset secularists. Mukherjee’s description of RSS founder Keshav Baliram Hegdewar as a “great son of Mother India” might not sit comfortably with those against equating Hindus with the Indian nation – it was the essence of the RSS founder’s views. It will also be debated for a long time whether Mukherjee gave another helpful push towards mainstreaming the RSS view, which his brand of politics had opposed. However, in a truly free society, if an opportunity arrives to lecture the so-called enemy in his own den – as some describe the RSS to be – that opportunity should not be lost. In that sense, Mukherjee served as an astute oarsman to show the way to a force that now occupies centre-stage in Indian politics.