Pranab Mukherjee
Pranab Mukherjee

The deluge of media reports and commentaries on former president Pranab Mukherjee’s controversial visit to RSS headquarters in Nagpur last week are like the story of three apocryphal blind men who went to see an elephant. Some analysts said the RSS may be trying to position Mukherjee as the next prime minister, some commentators thought it was just a Sangh ploy to legitimise its insular ideology, some said Pranabda himself may be trying to curry favour with the RSS hoping for some future political gains, some said he walked into the enemy territory to get even with the Congress for denying him the PM post, while others justified his visit saying as a quintessential “consensus man” he found nothing amiss in a powwow with the RSS that remote controls the Modi government.

How valid are these assumptions? Take, for instance, the theories of Pranabda being gift-wrapped as PM candidate ahead of 2019. If so, is it that the RSS is convinced that with Modi at the helm, the BJP may not get the requisite majority? Is BJP’s talent deficit so grave that the Sangh has to scout for a PM face from the Congress? And even if there is a vacancy for the post of PM, how could the RSS think of Mukherjee when it did not trust him as President? The BJP did not back his candidature in 2012, and in 2017 despite the fact that he was a friendly president to the Modi government. Mukherjee had said that he will contest only if there was political consensus on his name; but the RSS willed otherwise and its protégé, Ramnath Kovind, got elected.

Lutyen’s Delhi has been abuzz with speculation that RSS’s blue eyed boys and senior cabinet ministers Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari have of late been positioning themselves as Modi’s successor. Grapevine is also that NDA allies are not comfortable with the style of working of Modi-Shah duo and that some former allies have hinted that they could do a “ghar vapasi” post 2019 if NDA is not helmed by Modi.

On his part, Mukherjee stumped the Left and Centrist forces by the Nagpur visit and his bland speech extolling the virtues of pluralism in sharp contrast to his earlier aggressive pitch against divisive agenda. On July 2, 2017 addressing a select gathering comprising Sonia Gandhi, former PM Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi, sister Priyanka Gandhi and several editors and journalists after releasing a National Herald publication to commemorate 70 years of India’s independence, Mukherjee said: “That 1.3 billion people, speaking more than 200 languages in their daily lives, practising seven major religions and belonging to three different ethnic groups – Caucasians, Mongoloids and Dravidians, came together to constitute one India and one Constitution and live in peace and harmony is a spectacular achievement.”

In an apparent reference to a rise in lynching incidents in the name of cow protection, the (then) president said “When mob frenzy becomes so high, irrational and uncontrollable, we have to pause and reflect… Surely, we shall have to ponder over, pause and reflect when we read in the newspaper or see on the television screen that an individual is being lynched because of some alleged violation of law or not.”

Mukherjee urged the intellectual class to rise and be vigilant as it could act as the biggest deterrent to forces of darkness and backwardness. “Are we vigilant enough… I am not talking about vigilantism… I am talking of are we vigilant enough proactively to save the basic tenets of our country? Because we cannot afford it, posterity will demand an explanation from us that what have you done? I raise this question within myself,” he said.

The million dollar question is as to why the RSS chose to invite a syncretic Mukherjee? Only time will unknot the riddle. However, two plausible inferences that can be drawn from the June 7 optics are: By inviting the former President to Nagpur, the RSS was trying to enhance its acceptability as also to amplify the subterranean rift between the proponents of “soft Hindutva” and Left-of-Centre elements in the Congress. A buzz was created that the so called disconnect between the two Congress groups, if deepened, would isolate and reduce Rahul Gandhi, a vocal critic of the RSS, to a factional leader, a prelude to keep Congress out of power in 2019. BJP MP Subramanian Swamy’s tweet same day is telling: “With Pranabda visit to Nagpur event, the stage is set for the emergence of Rashtravadi Swadeshi Congress leaving behind a rump Deshadrohi Desi Congo. Then long dream of a two-party system of BJP & RSC can become a reality.” The same day, a WhatsApp message also did the rounds apparently to project Mukherjee as pro-Hindu. A recycled article in pro-RSS Postcard News was circulated saying that Mukherjee was not happy with the arrest of Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati in a “false” murder case in 2004. The article, quoting Mukherjee’s book “The Coalition Years 1996-2012”, implied that the arrest in Congress-ruled Andhra Pradesh was done at the behest of Sonia Gandhi. “Mukherjee has disclosed how under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, Hindus have been implicated in the target (sic),” the article said.

The fact that Shankaracharya was arrested by Tamil Nadu police at the behest of CM Jayalalithaa was downplayed. It is highly unlikely that a seasoned Congressman, like Mukherjee, will make such communally loaded observation. On June 25, 2012 at a specially convened CWC meeting at Sonia Gandhi’s residence to give him a warm farewell, an emotional Mukherjee said: “I got more from my party than what I contributed to it in my entire life time.” He said he always considered himself as a true Congressman and did whatever is good for the party. And true to his calling, a nonchalant Mukherjee attended an Iftar party hosted by Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday disappointing cynics on either side who read too much into the well choreographed Nagpur event.

Kay Benedict is an independent journalist.

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