Pranab at RSS headquarters, an exercise in image makeover

The former president went to the RSS function at a time when Rahul Gandhi and the Opposition are engaged in a fierce battle with the RSS-BJP combine. What significance his visit holds for his home state West Bengal and country at large, is still a question, analysis Anil Sinha

India witnessed an event which will be remembered for long. Former President Pranab Mukherjee who has been a hardcore Congressman for five decades went to the RSS headquarters at Nagpur to attend one of the most important functions of the Hindutva outfit, on the occasion that marks the completion of three years training program. The graduates, after completing this coursework of the RSS are aimed at creating a Hindu Rashtra. Obviously, the appearance of a man of his stature at headquarters of the RSS came as a surprise to most of the people in the country.

The question that baffles most of the people is what could be the intention of an experienced and shrewd politician like Mukherjee behind such a move. People, particularly those who are involved in confronting RSS became anxious about the possible political consequences of the event. Though it is really difficult to know his real motive, it can easily be assumed that he must have gone with some political purpose as he is known for his political manoeuvrings. In a recent article, eminent journalist Kuldip Nayar recalled how Mukherjee was associated with Sanjay Gandhi, an extra-constitutional authority in Indira Gandhi’s rule and he carried out his orders during an emergency. Nayar considers his years in the presidency as an “insult to the democratic nation”. “I have followed the period when he was at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and I found to my horror that it was a rule which had a negative impact,” he wrote. He has also said that Mukherjee had the ambition of becoming Prime minister, but Sonia Gandhi’s determination that Rahul Gandhi should get the post came in the way. Mukherjee decided not to contest the elections.

Shiv Sena spokesperson Sanjay Raut has given credence to the political gossip of Pranab’s attempt to realise his lost dream. He has said that he may be projected as the consensus candidate for the post of Prime Minister in a situation where BJP fails to get a majority in 2019 polls. He said that RSS might project him as the head of a national government. However, his daughter and Congress politician Sharmishtha Mukherjee has denied the possibility of his returning to politics.

According to experts, he did nothing wrong by accepting an invitation from a cultural organisation. However, the argument does not seem to hold water as it ignores the fact that the RSS now controls the biggest political party of the country, the Bhartiya Janata Party and it has always been standing behind the party in every election. It is also no secret that the organisation has been interfering in policy decisions as well. It would be only naïve to consider this organisation as an apolitical and cultural one.

One can easily assume that Mukherjee’s visit may have some serious political implications in future keeping in view the capacity of the RSS in manoeuvring the politics. Mukherjee has been also equally adept in such things and one should not forget that he had performed the role of a trouble-suiter for the Congress in its difficult times. Apart from being a shrewd politician, he has been a favourite of the corporate all through his political careers.

He made a speech which prompted the Congress party to change its stand that it had taken prior to his visit to Nagpur. The party picked up some thread from his speech which was in consonance with the stated objectives of the party and endorsed Mukherjee’s speech. It was virtually an admission to the fact that the earlier apprehensions of the party were wrong.

“Any attempt to define our nation through religion, dogma or intolerance will only fade our existence,” said Mukherjee in his speech.

“We accept and respect our pluralism and celebrate our diversity. Our national identity has emerged from a long drawn process of confluence and assimilation, the multiple cultures and faiths make us special and tolerant,” he told the cadres who were just ready to carry out the agenda of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Congress party spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said, “He particularly highlighted the imperative need of freeing the public discourse from all forms of violence — physical and verbal, besides putting compassion, harmony and non-violence at the centre stage of our public life.”

However, the official appreciation by the Congress was challenged by other leaders of the party.

Senior Congress leader and former minister Manish Tiwari asked the former president: “You were a part of the government that banned the RSS in 1975 and then again in 1992. Don’t you think you should tell us what was evil about the RSS then that has become virtuous now? Either what we were told then was wrong or your lending respectability if not legitimacy to the RSS by the act of association is not kosher given your stature in public life.’’ He said that the visit would be used to “mainstream” the outfit. The social media was soon flooded with morphed photos of the former president saluting the saffron flag to support his view and a similar apprehension of Pranab’s daughter.

The current political scenario certainly gives some insight in to what’s going on in the RSS. The BJP has lost most of the Lok Sabha bypolls since 2014. If it has won some states it had to struggle hard to make favourable social equations. A few states have come under its control only after manipulations. The percentage of votes has gone down significantly compared to 2014. Regional allies are also feeling uneasy. Results of Uttar Pradesh bypolls have proved beyond doubt that if a united opposition challenges BJP, it cannot win. The party requires an immediate image makeover. The RSS and the BJP, both have realised that only a soft face can again bring them in to power.

Mukherjee has only helped RSS in its attempt. Though Congress chose to ignore the finer points of the speech at Nagpur, the speech by no means was embarrassing for the organisation. Mukherjee’s narration of ancient history was in tune with that of the RSS. He referred to glory brought to the nation by Chandragupta Maurya, Asoka, Kautilya and Guptas. He referred to medieval rulers as Muslim invaders and took all the precaution not to refer Akbar as the great ruler. He was also cautious not to talk about incidents of attacks on freedom of speech. Pluralism, secularism and tolerance are the words which are regularly quoted by the RSS and the BJP. RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat also spoke of pluralism and inclusiveness in his own way. He also claimed that his organisation works for whole of the society. He also said that idea of pluralism should be respected.

The most important thing Mukherjee did in endorsing the RSS by writing a rosy tribute to Hedgewar, the founder of RSS. He wrote in the RSS book that Hedgewar was a “great son of mother India”. The man who has been criticised for his pro-Hindu stance for all these years gets such an endorsement from a person of Mukherjee’s stature. This is a long-term benefit he has done to the RSS.

The current political scenario should also not be overlooked. The former president went to the RSS function at a time when Rahul Gandhi and the Opposition are engaged in a fierce battle with the RSS-BJP combine. He has also damaged the political prospects of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, his home state where the TMC and the RSS are fighting a ferocious battle.