A Congressman for most part of his political life, Pranab Mukherjee’s decision to attend the valedictory function of the ‘Sangh Shiksha Varg’ at the headquarters of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Nagpur, had not gone down well with the Congress party and liberals who cherish democratic values and the Constitution. Despite the reservations expressed by several Congress leaders and others, the ex-president accepting the invite from the RSS had predictably generated a lot of controversy and raised howls of outrage. Not surprisingly, for nearly two hours on June 7, the attention of India’s political class was on the RSS headquarters where Mukherjee was the chief guest.
It was a nondescript function, but the chief guest was a distinguished, liberal and secular former president of the republic whose idea of India is in variance with that of the RSS. Mukherjee’s presence made an ordinary function into a national event; so did the week-long debate and suspense over his speech. As most news channels ran a live telecast of the ex-president’s speech on ‘the concept of the nation, nationalism and patriotism in the context of India’ to the RSS workers, the event got national attention and television eyeballs. In the process, the RSS and its supreme leader Mohan Bhagwat also got the opportunity to present to the national television audience his views on the ‘concept of the nation’ and his organisation’s openness to ‘all kinds of views’ and ‘embrace other ideologies’ to make India a strong nation.
Mukherjee made his point forthrightly and silenced his critics, especially the Congressmen and the liberal intelligentsia who were nervous and miffed with the ex-president for agreeing to attend the RSS function. After Mukherjee’s speech, most Congressmen felt ‘relieved’ for ‘holding the mirror to RSS’ and wondered whether the RSS will take the former Congressman’s ‘sagacious advice’ on pluralism that is central to Indian nationalism. But, it is the RSS which gained the most – hours of live national television coverage to its programme which otherwise would have gone almost unnoticed had the invitee been other than the ex-Congressman who had once accused the RSS in a Congress resolution of involvement in terrorist activities.
Apart from national television coverage and captive viewership, the most significant gain for the Sangh is that Mukherjee’s visit has helped it take the first major step in transforming its image – from a rightwing fundamentalist outfit that cares little for constitutional patriotism, tolerance and secularism to a mainstream social and cultural organisation that, as Bhagwat claimed, is a ‘democratic institution’ which is not rigid about a ‘single way of thought’, though its core ideology is in conflict with liberal, democratic and constitutional ethos. In the RSS’s scheme of things there is a lot of difference between what it says and practices. The idea of India that Gandhi, Nehru, Azad, Patel and several other freedom fighters shaped through their struggle and which Mukherjee eulogised in his speech is certainly not the RSS’s idea of India.
While Mukherjee stressed that India’s national identity has ‘emerged after a long process of confluence and assimilation’ and the ‘multiple cultures and faiths make us special and tolerant’, Bhagwat used the cover of unity in diversity to camouflage his core belief that India is primarily defined by one religion and culture. No matter Bhagwat’s claim about his organisation’s commitment to ‘unifying’ society, the RSS has rarely shown its enthusiasm and commitment to preserve the edifice of secular India and celebrate its diversity. On the contrary, through its ideology of majoritarian India, the RSS sees the minorities, particularly the Muslim, through the prism of unsavoury communalism – unpatriotic and anti-national.
Mukherjee’s visit to the RSS headquarters was not intended to be a meaningful dialogue between divergent ideologies. It was an enacted dialogue and it ended up lending some credibility to the organisation that is considered ‘untouchable’ in mainstream socio-political discourse. While the ex-Congressman’s endorsement of RSS founder K B Hedgewar as a ‘great son of Mother India’ – a big compliment for the Sangh – was a big surprise for the Congress leaders and liberals, Mukherjee did not question the RSS’s divisive dogma of ‘one religion, one language, one culture’ or its ideology of violence against the minorities which are a threat to the edifice of secular and peaceful India. He also did not say anything new or substantive and chose to skip the entire Medieval and Mughal periods, by simply wrapping it up in two sentences, though it is this period in India’s long history that’s the major bone of contention for the RSS.
The event was high in symbolism – though it cannot be underestimated in the current socio-political environment – but Mukherjee chose to be diplomatic in avoiding many contentious issues and holding a real mirror to the RSS which could have embarrassed his host. Nobody expected Mukherjee to be as forthright as Gandhi and Patel who had asked the Sangh to mend its ideology of violence against the minorities. But one did not expect Mukherjee to flatter his host by avoiding speaking about the reality of India of the last four years of the BJP-led rule which have been marked by violence and lynching of people of a minority community and Dalits. So, all in all it was a sanctimonious speech but far from standard in the RSS headquarters.
While the ex-president gained nothing from his visit to Nagpur, the RSS may have achieved its objective. The RSS’s major problem has been its non-inclusive ideology and negative public image: hate-breeding, anti-minorities and chauvinist organisation. Not only have the minorities looked at the RSS with suspicion but also a large section of the Hindus. This has impacted its growth as a monolithic organisation that stands for Hindu values. This has also affected the acceptance and growth of its political wing, the BJP, as a truly mainstream democratic party even among a large section of Hindus who repose faith in India’s constitution and cherish democracy. Like its ideological parent, the BJP also suffers from a big image problem.
Achieving their ideological and political objectives of Hindu revivalism and establishing an invincible Hindu society through democratic means is a huge challenge for the RSS and BJP without an image makeover that’s acceptable to Hindus and also the liberals among Hindus. Mukherjee’s visit to Nagpur may have given the RSS a stamp of respectability that may help it get wider acceptance.
A L I Chougule is an independent senior journalist.’