Why Mukherjee's Nagpur visit should worry BJP brass more than Congress

Pranab Mukherjee.
In the past two years, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat has called on former president Pranab Mukherjee on four occasions. Two of these meetings took place while Mukherjee was still a resident of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and the two subsequent meetings were held at his new address – 10, Rajaji Marg.

These meetings have helped Mukherjee and Bhagwat develop mutual respect for each other. Bhagwat has come to admire Mukherjee’s knowledge of Indian history and his understanding of the Hindu social reform that began in Bengal in the 19th Century.

Mukherjee attaches much importance to preserving the robustness of institutions to keep democracy alive in India, and it is likely that the subject would have come up during his discussions with Bhagwat. In turn, Mukherjee has come to appreciate the various social service projects that RSS undertakes, particularly in the northeastern states.

Bhagwat had invited Mukherjee at least on four earlier occasions to attend an RSS event. Mukherjee refused as he didn’t deem it fit that a serving President of India should attend an event of an organisation with a contentious record. Eventually, the former president relented and accepted the latest invite.

A lifelong Congressman with strong secular credentials, Mukherjee is likely to speak at the RSS event on the subject of India’s civilisational ethos of inclusive nationalism, espoused in modern times by such thinkers as Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda. It would be interesting to see if Mukherjee chooses to quote Nehru’s criticism of the RSS. Mukherjee’s speech will be keenly followed across the country.

Some in the Congress have criticised Mukherjee for accepting the RSS invite, arguing that Mukherjee’s presence would give legitimacy to the RSS.

But there are others who have, and for months now, advised the Congress leadership against attacking the RSS. According to sources in the Congress, over the past year, the RSS has reached out to some of the Congress leaders. The RSS pointspersons have told the Congress that the Sangh is a “nationalist organisation”, which has in the past supported the Congress, particularly Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, on specific issues.

They have indicated that the RSS abhors an individual politician becoming a cult figure or a supreme leader. They also suggested to the Congress leadership that Rahul Gandhi should cease his constant attacks on the RSS, and restrict it to criticising the BJP and its top leadership.

After the news of Mukherjee attending the RSS event broke, some Congress leaders like Kerala’s Ramesh Chennithala and Delhi’s Sandeep Dikshit advised Mukherjee not to attend an RSS event. But there are those among Congress leaders who argue that ‘dialogue with the other’ is a quality that leaders like Mahatma Gandhi held dear.

In his autobiography, Mukherjee counted Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and some others to have influenced his worldview, but identified Indira Gandhi as someone who contributed the most to his political journey.

In recent times, instances of such dialogues undertaken by the Congress leadership are quite a few, but not always successful. The Rajiv Gandhi-Laldenga talks resulted in the Mizo Accord, while talks between Rajiv Gandhi and Harcharan Singh Longowal led to the failed Rajiv-Longowal Accord.

There is evidence that in the 1980s, the RSS under Balasaheb Deoras, the third RSS chief, found a common cause with the Congress on some issues. Bhaurao Deoras, the younger brother of Balasaheb, reportedly also met Rajiv Gandhi in the mid-1980s.

Returning to the current scenario, senior Congress Leader P Chidambaram has advised Mukherjee to tell RSS what is wrong with the Sangh ideology. Significantly, no leading non-Congress Opposition leader has commented on the development. They have preferred to wait and watch.

Of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership, only Nitin Gadkari, considered close to the RSS, has come out in support of RSS inviting Mukherjee.

The RSS, which had a negligible role during the freedom movement, earned legitimacy when its cadre went to jail during the Indira Gandhi-imposed Emergency between 1975 and 1977. Many believe Mukherjee’s presence at an RSS event would give the organisation the legitimacy that it seeks during these fractious times.

But then there are those who believe RSS’ interaction with Gandhians, socialists, communists and former Congress workers in jails during the Emergency years, and the influence of Jayaprakash Narayan, had a ‘civilising’ influence on that organisation. The tenure of Balasaheb Deoras as the RSS chief and his writings also reflected this, with the Sangh somewhat shedding the rabid ideology of M S Golwalkar, as also the dominance of Brahmins with Rajendra Singh succeeding Deoras in 1993.

To the Congressmen who have queued up to meet him in the past couple of days and advised him against attending the RSS event, Mukherjee has told them that the Congress, at least since Gandhi, does not believe in “politics of untouchability” and that “acceptance is not endorsement”. Also, as president and now as a former president, Mukherjee has ceased to be merely a Congressman.

It is in this context, and as the country prepares for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, that Mukherjee would be visiting Nagpur. Mukherjee is admired by political leaders of all hues. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) had supported his presidential candidature, as had the Shiv Sena.

His presence at the RSS event in Nagpur is as much a message to not just the workers of the Congress and those of other ‘secular’ parties across the country, but also the RSS cadre. In Nagpur, Mukherjee's message could be one of building bridges, of inclusive nationalism and of the dangers of hero worship.

For the Opposition and also some within the Sangh Parivar, the battle of 2019 is more a fight against the 'duopoly' within the BJP and Union government.

More than the Congress, Mukherjee’s visit to Nagpur should worry the top leadership of the BJP. 

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