Not just Pranab's tolerance advice, but Bhagwat's 'power' warning important

Pranab Mukherjee at RSS event in Nagpur
In the run up to his visit to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) headquarters in Nagpur on Thursday, former president Pranab Mukherjee had told people in the Congress that “engagement with the RSS was not an endorsement of its views”.

On Thursday evening, Mukherjee discharged himself honourably. He spoke to the RSS cadres of the importance of pluralism, non-violence and tolerance for preserving national unity. Mukherjee had gone to the RSS headquarters in the hope that his visit would help bridge an ideological divide. It remains to be seen if his visit would lead to a dialogue between the RSS and its ideological opponents in the Congress and other parties.

Also read: Pranab Mukherjee has shown mirror to RSS at their HQ: Congress

It is true that the RSS received much publicity because of Mukherjee’s visit. A case could be made, as some in the Congress have, that the RSS was seeking legitimacy, which it got because of Mukherjee’s visit. The former president visited the house of RSS founder K B Hedgewar, and said he has come there to pay homage to a great son of India. However, the RSS is currently at the height of its influence and can live, if it so chooses, without this legitimacy.

Also read: Pranab Mukherjee at RSS Meet: Secularism, inclusion matter of faith for us

So, why did RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat invite Mukherjee?

The highlight of the evening wasn’t just Mukherjee’s speech, but what RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said in his address to the RSS cadres. It is important to pay attention to Bhagwat’s speech in the current political context.

Apart from expanding on the RSS philosophy, Bhagwat cautioned how power, in the absence of humility, can become destructive. A couple of years back, Bhagwat had told an RSS gathering that the Sangh didn’t believe in hero worship and cult of one leader.

Bhagwat said power without humility can turn into “danavi”, or a demonic force. He said only the “dusht”, or evil people, use power to harass other people. Bhagwat persisted with this line at some length. He didn’t name names, but the import of his words is unlikely to be lost on the current political leadership of the country.

To those who have visited him recently, Mukherjee has defended his acceptance of the RSS invite to say that  “politics of untouchability” should be shed. Senior RSS leadership has also asked its ideological rivals to abandon their political of untouchability of not engaging with the RSS. It should be welcomed that Bhagwat invited Mukherjee, that the two of them shared the dais and told Indians about their respective philosophies.

Also read: As Pranab prepares for RSS event, here's how Congress leaders feel about it

It is possible that Bhagwat sees the dangers of the path currently being pursued by the BJP and Sangh, but is unsure if they will accept his word for it if he were to tell it to RSS cadres. This is where Mukherjee’s speech at the RSS event is important.

In his speech, the former president implored the RSS cadres to follow the path of non-violence, gave a brief history of the 5,000 years of assimilation that India’s civilization has experienced and spoke about the need for India’s inclusive nationalism to survive. He said there was a need to abjure violence, both verbal and physical.

It is more likely that the Congress will continue to criticise Mukherjee for the visit, as it did on Thursday. It is also likely that RSS cadres might not understand the import of what Mukherjee said. But that such an attempt was made to start a dialogue should be welcomed.

Also read: Pranab Mukherjee's daughter had opposed his RSS event visit

Interestingly, none of the prominent non-Congress politicians, particularly of the Hindi heartland, have criticised Mukherjee for visiting RSS headquarters. They understand the dangers of the continued religious polarisation that the BJP/RSS are currently pursuing in northern Indian states.

It is also important to note that none in the BJP, apart from Nitin Gadkari, who is considered close to the RSS, had welcomed Mukherjee's visit. It was only in the last couple of days that BJP spokespersons adopted the RSS line and supported the visit. It also coincides with BJP chief Amit Shah visiting some of his party's miffed allies.

Therefore, there is more to Bhagwat’s invite to Mukherjee, and his acceptance of that invite, than which meets the eye.

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