The former President used the opportunity to distance himself individually from the Congress.
There can be no dialogue with ideological certitude. The Jews could not have had a dialogue with Adolf Hitler. The Americans could not have had a dialogue with Osama bin Laden. And the Syrians or the Iraqis can’t sit across the table and convince the Islamic State of the futility of its millennial dreams. A fascist mind functions with incredible clarity essentially because it is closed. Only those with delusions of grandeur think that they can talk fascism out of fascists.
Was former President Pranab Mukherjee indulging in a dialogue of the deaf with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh at the passing-out parade of its proselytisers or “pracharaks”, which the RSS, in military style, calls its “officers’ training course”?
That is certainly what RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat seemed to suggest in welcoming President Mukherjee with the observation: “The Sangh will remain the Sangh and Pranab Mukherjee will remain Pranab Mukherjee”.
It was predestined, therefore, that there would be no conclusion about what constitutes Indian nationalism or the idea of India at Nagpur. The future of India will be decided by the people of India and not by two old men holding hands on stage.
Mr Mukherjee’s potted account of India’s history and the evolution of its constitutional nationalism was delivered with hallmark pomposity and in verbose prose. Yet it was not a complete waste of time, it had a symbolic purpose.
The former President used the opportunity to distance himself individually from the Congress. As a retired President he has no job except to run an eponymous foundation and go on the speaking circuit. Not satisfied with sitting in the pavilion, he wants to pad up again.
It seems that the former President is positioning himself as a conciliator, a man of destiny who can bridge the ideological divide in a sharply polarised polity. Projecting himself as someone who stands for rapprochement in politics, he has signalled that he is a practising Hindu and that Hinduism and secularism can coexist. Taking a step further, he made an unscheduled visit to the house where RSS founder Keshav Baliram Hedgewar was born, describing him in the visitors’ book as “a great son of Mother India”. This political theatre of “opening a dialogue” helped to “normalise” the RSS and its ongoing divisive activities.
By appearing on its platform, Mr Mukherjee has underlined that the RSS is no longer untouchable and that it is like any other social and political organisation even though it trades in communal hatred, fear and intimidation. He sees some merit in what the RSS does and is therefore mainstreaming their platform.
There have been such attempts in the past as well. The RSS tasted power when the Jan Sangh was included in the anti-Congress Samyukta Vidhayak Dal governments in the mid-1960s. It was again able to enter broad political alliances during and after the Emergency. In the aftermath of the November 1984 riots, the RSS threw its weight behind the Congress. It also supported V.P. Singh’s campaign against the Rajiv Gandhi government in the 1989 general election. Now a Bengali brahmin has sprinkled holy water on the merchants of hate and come back proclaiming victory in an ideological battle.
Some prescient political observers have suggested that Mr Mukherjee may be doing this to position himself as a consensus leader in a potentially messy and fragmented scenario following the general election of 2019. However, by supping with the RSS, he may have lost the goodwill of two large and important chunks of India’s electorate — the Muslims and the dalits. The political parties which count on the support of these groups will be wary of associating with him.
He may have also overestimated his own acceptability to the RSS and other advocates of Hindutva as the leader of a coalition government post-May 2019. It is unlikely that the RSS will choose him over those who have spent their lifetime in its service, whereas he enjoyed power and privileges under the Congress for nearly 50 years.
The Congress Party has heaved a sigh of relief that the man they helped reach the highest office in the land has not wrought any worse damage. The Congress has expressed public satisfaction in the fact that the former Congress leader lectured the RSS on tolerance and pluralism on its home turf.
But they refuse to see that the former President actually tried to find a meeting ground with the RSS in his long ramble about Indian history. He paid homage to the civilisational notion of an India which “always” existed, a notion dear to the RSS and its ideological founder, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. His claim that Indian civilisation was always pluralist and tolerant papered over the virtual disappearance of Buddhism from the place of its birth or more recently, the destruction of the Babari Masjid.
Mr Mukherjee may have fooled only some politically uneducated Congress spokespersons and television commentators at best.
Nor should Congressmen take heart from RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat reprimanding the arrogance and intolerance of rulers, warning that power without humility could turn into a demonic force. Even if they would like to interpret this as a warning to the present establishment, this is not a sign of its impending divorce from the BJP.
The Congress Party should have clearly distanced itself from the activities of the former President. There was no need to first persuade him not to go to Nagpur, and then later to praise him. The Congress will gain nothing by associating itself with a wily politician who is willing to gamble away his lifelong political capital for uncertain gains.
The RSS is the main beneficiary of the carefully choreographed event in Nagpur. It took the most iconic living Congressman and showed the hollowness of his secular ideals. The Hindutva ideologues have successfully demonstrated that even those coming from a self-confessed politics of secularism are only men of straw. It remains to be seen how many others will jump ship as the elections near to follow the path shown by Citizen Mukherjee.