Pranab Mukherjee and RSS

Satish Kumar Sarma
(The writer is an educationist)

Having moved from President to citizen, on June 7, 2018 Pranab Mukherjee turned philosopher-politician at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur. He reminded all present, and the entire country which was hooked to the spectacle, of the foundational values that have underpinned the modern Indian republic.

It was an address to which few could take exception, and one from which both RSS-BJP and Congress could cherry-pick what suited them. It was a balancing act which only Mukherjee, who has navigated many a minefield in his six decades of public life, could manage. RSS was happy that he talked about Indian civilization and its past glory, Mughal invasions, vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family), and cited Sanskrit shlokas. It was happiest with him calling its founder, KB Hedgewar, a “great son of mother India’.

Congress was relieved that he emphasized the country’s values of pluralism, inclusion, tolerance, constitutional patriotism and secularism. He cited Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Tagore, drew from their definitions of Indian nationalism to which he himself subscribes, and had articulated during the last months of his presidency.

Besides, he did not refer once to RSS or to its work. Nor did he take the salute like others on the dais when the Sangh’s bhagua flag was lowered. He also had his way in being the last speaker, obviously to be able to rebut any problematic references that might crop up, but did not. The Sangh brass, which rolled out the red carpet for him, was clear that no controversial note would be struck. Normally it is the RSS sarsanghchalak who speaks at the end.

RSS was under no illusion that Mukherjee, by accepting to come to Nagpur, would suddenly start to speak their language. Mohan Bhagwat said at the beginning of his speech that even after the event, Pranab Mukherjee would remain Pranab Mukherjee and RSS remain RSS.

For the Sangh, to get the former President, and the Congress Party’s seniormost and most experienced leader, to its most important event, and to have that beamed all over the country, was clearly a feather in its cap. RSS-BJP will use the occasion in myriad ways to their advantage in the coming months, but above all to counter Rahul Gandhi’s recent attacks on the Sangh. Without doubt it was a win-win for RSS, which could make it more widely acceptable.

For Mukherjee, going to an RSS event underscored his pro-Hindu image in a country which has got increasingly Hinduized in recent years, even as he retains his secular credentials. This could make him – as an ex-Rashtrapati he is already viewed as above party – acceptable to a larger number of people. He has also positioned himself as a leader, probably the only one in the country today, who can reach out to and engage with all sides of the political spectrum, in a polity becoming more contentious and bitter by the day.

Pranab Mukherjee elucidates constitutional values to RSS. What he speaks at RSS can always be subjected to critical analysis.