To speak or not to speak: Pranab's RSS speech brings controversy home to Congress

Last Updated: Wed, Jun 06, 2018 17:29 hrs
Pranab Mukherjee

The acceptance of an invitation by former President Pranab Mukherjee to an RSS event has caused significant controversy. On Wednesday, the RSS holds the closing ceremony for its annual ‘Tritiya Varsha Sangh Shiksha Varg’ (three years' training camp) in Nagpur. The former President will be the chief guest.

Pranab Mukherjee’s visit has raised questions for many reasons. A stalwart during the administration of the Congress party, in 2010 during a Congress conclave he moved a resolution to investigate alleged links of terrorists with the RSS and its sister organizations. The RSS is widely seen as right wing Hindu arm of the BJP; though they have criticized them at times.

So it was a surprise that they offered an invitation to a Congressman to an event that marks the ending of a ‘training programme’ that is essentially a version of indoctrination of Hindu ideology to its new recruits. As Manmohan Vaidya, joint general secretary, RSS writes in a column for the Indian Express, the visit is a welcome step –

Mukherjee has spent decades in public life. The invitation was extended to him so that swayamsevaks have an opportunity to listen to his ideas on matters of social and national significance. He will also get an opportunity to have a first-hand experience of the Sangh”.

It might not be a stretch to say that Mukherjee and the RSS are not exactly ideologically aligned. He has served under Indira Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh and has stood steadfast with them through turmoil and scandal. This isn’t the first time the former president will meet with the RSS head Mohan Bhagwat; they have met on a few occasions since Mukherjee’s retirement. Daniel Francis, a political commentator and consultant, in a column for The Hindu praised the public meeting of the two as good for democracy –

In these highly divisive times, what democracy needs is a mature engagement with conflicting views. For those who raise their voice against intolerance, the intolerance towards Mukherjee’s acceptance of an RSS event is no evidence of tolerance”.

The former president hasn’t spoken much about accepting the invitation and attending the event, but is quoted as saying in part, “Whatever I have to say, I will say in Nagpur. I have received several letters, requests and phone calls, but I haven't responded to anyone yet”. Francis argues that such engagements are good for the RSS in portraying itself as inclusive –

It is obvious that RSS seeks endorsement to be seen as an inclusive outfit and Mukherjee’s visit has earned them such an endorsement. Here’s hoping such engagements continue. RSS should exercise its political weight to help strengthen the democratic fabric and tradition of India”.

Not everyone agrees with this assessment. The acceptance of the invitation has come in for criticism from certain Congress leaders. One such leader, Jairam Ramesh wrote to Mr. Mukherjee stating that his visit will mean something of a betrayal to his past political life and political ideology. Bengal Congress president stated that he was ‘appalled’ saying it was hypocritical of him talking about the importance of secularism and then speaking at a RSS event. The visit can be seen as the RSS being given political legitimacy; arguably they already had it prior.

From the RSS’s standpoint, they’ve played down the visit and speech as an apolitical event and stated that in the past prominent speakers have attended such as Abdul Kalam and activist Jayaprakash Narayan. From their point of view, this could be seen as the group accepting someone who is outside the Nehru-Gandhi establishment who they have criticized in the past. Journalist and author Sunanda K Datta Ray, in a column for the Deccan Chronicle unpacks the decision made by Mr. Mukherjee –

For all one knows, the former President might roundly lecture his Nagpur audience on the abiding virtues of cultural tolerance and secularism and the need for vigorous pluralism as opposed to majoritarian domination for a multi-religious country like India”.

This wouldn’t be new for him. In his speech on the eve of Republic Day, he spoke of pluralism saying in part, “Multiple views, thoughts and philosophies have competed with each other peacefully for centuries in our country. A wise and discerning mind is necessary for democracy to flourish”.

The former President does nothing lightly. Everyone is therefore eager to interpret his acceptance. He must know that however earth-shattering his speech in Nagpur may be, what really counts is his presence there”.

For someone of Mr. Mukherjee’s stature, it would be surprising if he didn’t expect backlash to the news of him speaking at an RSS event. He’s not necessarily seen as a rank partisan; though he was loyal to the Congress for many years but briefly when he fell out of favor with Rajiv Gandhi. He’s a career politician and spent decades in public life. The two sides of the argument stand as such – a nefarious plot by the BJP leaders of perhaps doing one over on the opposition by having him speak at an important RSS event. The other side is a more diplomatic argument of bridging the political divide.

This is perhaps where some see it as a step too far; especially some Congress leaders as stated earlier. It’s not necessarily the notion of this event being apolitical; though it’s not a solid argument, it’s that some see the RSS as a potent force of mainstreaming their version of Hindu ideology. Would a former president, someone left to the politics of the RSS, speaking at the event give more credence to their ideology or he might very well revisit the points of secularism and pluralism.

More columns by Varun Sukumar