Former President Pranab Mukherjee’s decision to accept an invitation by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to address its new recruits at an event in Nagpur on June 7 has predictably raised howls of outrage. Some have suggested he shouldn’t go because his visit will give a stamp of respectability to the RSS, which they see as beyond the pale. Others see in it a devious plan by the RSS to show that it is an open-minded organisation, rather than the hidebound, ideological body it is seen as. The makings of a political plot have been spotted by some analysts. Mukherjee’s former party, the Congress, has not commented, though unnamed Congressmen have been quoted as recalling that Mukherjee had called the RSS ‘communal’ and ‘unpatriotic’.
The dismay is not surprising. Mukherjee may not be a party politician any more, but he cannot wish away his old party’s hard views and staunch opposition to the RSS. But it’s not just about his Congress connection. As a recent holder of the country’s topmost constitutional post, Mukherjee no doubt understands the implications of going as a guest to the event of an organisation that makes little secret of its antipathy towards the constitution, especially some of the more cherished provisions such as secularism.
Nor can he be totally unaware that such a move will trigger political speculation. The general elections are a year away and all manner of political activity has begun, including the putative creation of a joint opposition front to take on the BJP. Such a coalition of disparate organisations that may be in conflict with each other will not be without its problems; past experience shows that such efforts collapse under the weight of their own contradictions. Besides, in a conglomeration of equals, who will be the undisputed leader? This is where someone senior and well-respected like Mukherjee can step in.
Convention dictates that former presidents do not re-enter politics but there is no law against it. Mukherjee has been thwarted before from becoming the prime minister – once in 1984, after Indira Gandhi was killed and he had hoped to be the natural successor and then, in 2004, when a technocrat who was junior to him in politics, Manmohan Singh, got the top job.
In between Mukherjee had even left the Congress after Rajiv Gandhi became the prime minister but came back after seven years. The memories of the time couldn’t have just vanished. What is to stop Mukherjee from hoping that now may be his time to claim what was rightfully his? The RSS may not actively help him, but attending the event could be his way of getting back into the public eye. In January, he had attended a lunch at the home of Biju Janata Dal leader Naveen Patnaik along with L.K. Advani, H.D. Deve Gowda and Sitaram Yechury that got the speculation mills buzzing overtime.
The Nagpur event is being held under the auspices of the Sangh Shiksha Varg, a 23-day camp in which recruits at various levels of their seniority are given physical and ideological training. On the last day, the gathering is addressed by a chief guest, which have in the past ranged from CBI chief Joginder Singh and retired Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis. According to one report, the latter spoke about secularism, tolerance and faith, and this was rebutted by the then RSS chief Y.S. Sudarshan.
Mukherjee is unarguably the biggest catch for the RSS so far. A former president, and that too a Congressman of long standing, he will bring heft to the event. The disciplined soldiers of the RSS, fresh from 23 days of hardcore teaching of the organisation’s values and mission, may not be totally open-minded about drastically different views, but will surely listen to him attentively and absorb what he has to say.
Which is why he has to choose his subject carefully and as a responsible politician and one-time holder of a constitutional post, send out a message. He could talk about the constitution, its glorious history, its importance to a country like India and its commitment to equity, social justice and secularism. He could touch upon specific features of the constitution – reservations for the weak, a respect for diversity and justice for all – that are crucial to making everyone in the country feel like an equal citizen of this nation, no matter her religion, caste or economic status.
He could – should – make it a point to mention how, despite this remarkable document and all that it promises, many citizens, especially the minorities, still feel insecure and why this may be so, especially in the India of today. He can remind them how India’s freedom fighters – the genuine ones – stood steadfastly against hatred and worked hard to steady the nation in the aftermath of a bloody Partition and how we should not undo their work.
He could, of course, tell them that the world at large thinks of the RSS as an organisation that spreads hate, but the wise man that he is, he may consider it undiplomatic to offend his hosts. But there are ways to get a message across and Mukherjee is cannier than most in that department.
Such words of wisdom may not succeed in convincing everybody, and certainly not those who may have been told the exact opposite of these sentiments. The RSS’s views on diversity and reservations, to take just two tenets of the constitution, are well known. As for the minorities, the RSS has rarely – if ever – shown any special concern for them or their rights. So it is more than possible that Mukherjee’s words will fall on deaf ears and his presence there will turn out to be just ornamental. But the ex-president, having decided for whatever reasons he has to accept the invitation, must not waste the opportunity.
However, it will be a pity if he chooses to make an anodyne speech that in the end says little that is new or thought-provoking. The symbolic importance of Mukherjee at an event of the RSS, the font of the Sangh parivar, is not to be underestimated, especially in the current political and social environment. The RSS has invited him because of his reputation and stature but that stature imposes a responsibility too. Let us look forward to him rising to the occasion.