India is never lacking in seasonal entertainment that often passes off as public controversy. The frenzy — both among the editorial and political classes — over former President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to an RSS function in Nagpur last week was a very Indian storm in a chai cup. There was a great deal of huffing and puffing before the event, saturation media coverage of the event itself and a profound sense of anti-climax after the Last Post had been sounded in the sweltering heat of Nagpur. In a week’s time, as the agenda shifts to something more titillating, the Nagpur function would have been forgotten and only the photographs of a slightly awkward and pensive Pranab Babu in his traditional Bengali dhoti flanked by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat will be reminders of an event that neither shook India nor redraw its political map.
The Nagpur event may not have been as consequential as L K Advani — in one of his rare interventions in recent years — made it out to be. Yet, it wasn’t inconsequential either. In the past, important dignitaries without any previous connections with the Sangh have graced RSS functions. These are said to include Mahatma Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan and Field Marshal Cariappa. Pranab Babu has joined the list and its attendant publicity has undoubtedly added to the RSS’s self-esteem hugely. Certainly, the televised images of swayamsevaks marching in formation to martial music played by its own band and the basic self-defence and lathi drill has added to the curiousity about an organisation that is forever being dubbed ‘fascist’ by its many detractors. However, last Wednesday evening’s images suggested a function that was more in keeping with school annual day functions of an earlier and, arguably, more innocent, era.
Pranab Babu was advised by his former associates in the Congress to not have any truck with a group that celebrates India as a Hindu Rashtra: it believes that Indian nationhood is defined by its Hindu underpinnings. The Congress feels that the RSS is an affront to India’s secularism and must be shunned. The reason why the former President chose to disregard this advice may have something to do with his determination to appear completely bipartisan — he had, after all, in June last year, also attended the relaunch of National Herald, a publication inextricably linked to the Gandhi parivar and the Congress Party. There are other suggestions that his admiration of the RSS stems from his deep respect for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fierce sense of determination and his grasp over the complexities of statecraft.
Whatever may be his personal compulsions, the larger message that flowed from his attendance at the event was two-fold. First, like many Congressmen of an earlier era, Pranab Babu is deeply uncomfortable with the politics of untouchability that has permeated into the political system, not least around the BJP and the wider Sangh fraternity. His presence in Nagpur was, therefore, a repudiation of the ‘no dialogue’, ‘no fraternity’ menace that has crept into the system.
Secondly, Pranab Babu, like most Congressmen in Bengal who cut their teeth in the face of a menacing challenge from the Communists, is a nationalist. Indeed, what distinguished the Congress from their ideological opponents in Bengal was their commitment to nationalism — something that the Communists shunned. Unlike many of the Congress backers of the post-Indira Gandhi phase, who couch their alleged liberalism in a simultaneous belief in post-nationalism, Pranab Babu’s nationalism is quite old-fashioned. It was quite quaint to watching him quoting Vincent Smith to back up his views on India’s innate unity. A new generation of ‘intellectual’ Congress activists would squirm in utter embarrassment at the mention of the literature that once shaped what the party stood for.
This is no way unique. Jawaharlal Nehru’s personal inclinations were cosmopolitan and mildly socialist. However, the Congress that he headed was a more conservative body that included the likes of Dr Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Patel, Govind Ballabh Pant, Dr Sampoornand, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, among others, whose vision of India was shaped by more authentic values. Certainly, the present Congress flirtation with identity politics — a tradition that seems to have been uncritically borrowed from the recent orientation of the Democratic Party in the US — is at odds with the Congress belief in composite Indian nationhood held together by shared traditions and a robust common sense stemming from mutual accommodation. In recent year, particularly after the advent of Sonia Gandhi, the Congress has lurched sharply in a more Leftward direction and embraced the assumptions of NGOs and other fringe movements drawing inspiration and even sustenance from the West.
It is also noteworthy that the RSS, too, have evolved over the years. There is a sharp difference between the RSS of today and the RSS of the past that was smaller and, consequently, more shrill. With expansion — both geographically and in terms of political influence — the RSS has edged closer to the centre ground. The influence of individuals such as Bhaurao Deoras, Professor Rajendra Singh, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani have, in this context, been seminal. Many of the rougher edges of the RSS have been blunted. The deification of Sardar Patel, for example, by the Sangh fraternity is symptomatic of a larger process. Today, the gap between the Hindu nationalism of the Sangh brotherhood and the Congress nationalism that was once defined the old party is not so wide as to warrant a lack of engagement.
What Pranab Babu said in his speech at Nagpur wasn’t terribly original. What was more interesting is the RSS endorsement of his message. Something interesting could be happening. Alternatively, it could well be a false start.
Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.