Gandhian Pranab & ‘Half-Nehruvian’ Bhagwat Won the Day At RSS HQ 

RSS’ critics need to realise that Pranab Mukherjee’s speech only echoed the Congress’s Nehruvian ideals of yore.

8 min read

He went. He spoke. He conquered.

Pranab Mukherjee went to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s headquarters in Nagpur as a bridge-builder. He spoke in the best traditions of India’s glorious national movement, which to a very large extent is synonymous with the Congress movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. And he conquered the minds of all patriotic Indians, bringing victory to the ‘Idea of India’.

What triumphed at the event, which caught the attention of the entire nation, was not the Sangh Parivar’s ‘Idea of India’, the highest and highly flawed expression of which is ‘Hindu Rashtra’, but the Congress movement’s idea and ideal of India as a secular, pluralistic, tolerant, inclusive, democratic, peace-promoting and progressive nation.


Congress’ Blood Still Flows in Pranab Da’s Veins

Sadly, today’s Congress party, which has become a prisoner of its own insecurities, initially responded with horror and disapproval to the very idea of Pranab da going to Nagpur. “You are giving legitimacy to the RSS,” was the near-unanimous censorious verdict from the Congress establishment ─ and also from the Left and other anti-RSS quarters. The former President’s own daughter, a Congress leader in her own right, publicly expressed her displeasure. Anand Sharma, who heads the party in the Rajya Sabha, tweeted that the “the images of Pranab da at the RSS Headquarters have anguished millions of Congress workers”.

Far from creating “anguish”, Pranab da’s speech before a congregation of RSS trainees brought happiness, confidence and a much-needed sense of reassurance to every thinking Congressman ─ nay, every thinking Indian.

When will our friends from the Congress realise that the moment belonged to the Congress’s vision of India, and not the RSS’s vision of India? Here was India’s Grand Old Party showing no-confidence in its own Grand Old Leader.

Even though he formally ceased to be a Congressman when he entered Rashtrapati Bhavan 2012, and now identifies himself only as ‘Citizen Pranab Mukherjee’, the fact is, he remained a devoted Congressman throughout his political life of over five decades. Even now Congress blood flows in his veins. But it is the blood of the original Congress movement, not that of the Congress party of recent vintage ─ a party that has become a pale shadow of its own vital past – weak in idealism, weaker still in organisational strength, and weakest in its ability to influence the youth.

Mahatma’s Congress Was Truly Democratic

The Congress during the freedom struggle was incredibly inclusive, accommodating and tolerant of diverse, even dissenting points of view. This was mainly on account of the philosophy, personality and moral authority of Mahatma Gandhi. For the larger good of the nation, he reached out even to his bitter critics ─ Mohammed Ali Jinnah (with whom he held a failed dialogue to prevent Partition), Dr BR Ambedkar and Dr SP Mookerjee. He persuaded the Congress leadership to accommodate Dr Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly and even make him the chairman of the Drafting Committee. And he prevailed over Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, to accommodate both Dr Ambedkar and Dr Mookerjee in the first government of independent India.

Unfortunately after the Mahatma’s assassination, the culture of consensus-building and cooperation disappeared, and has now been replaced by confrontation and total non-cooperation between the ruling and opposition parties.

So much so that many supporters of the ruling party, the BJP, do not hesitate to brand their opponents as deshdrohis (anti-national traitors).

Beyond the compulsions of political competition and electoral contest, what has also contributed to the complete absence of dialogue is the apparently sharp divide in the ideological underpinnings of the two main competing political establishments ─ the Congress and the BJP ─ on the Idea of India.

The RSS, which is the mother organisation for all the constituents of the Sangh Parivar, including the BJP, continues to espouse the goal of making India a Hindu Rashtra. This is clearly in violation of the basic secular foundation of the Indian Constitution. India’s history also negates it.

Congress Can’t Afford to Ignore RSS

But does this mean that those who believe in secularism can have nothing to do, not even a dialogue, with the RSS? And doesn’t taking such a stance smack of intolerance, the very vice that the Sangh Parivar is criticised for? Whether the critics of the RSS like it or not, none can deny that it has, over the years, grown into a very large and influential Hindu organisation with a national footprint.

It certainly does not represent all Hindus, but who can deny that a significant section of the Hindu society is ideologically and emotionally attached to it? A simple comparison will highlight how the influence of the RSS has grown, and how that of its opponents in the Left establishment has shrunk. Both the RSS and the Communist Party of India were founded in the same year ─ 1925.

Where do communists and the various organisations stand in our national life today vis-à-vis the RSS and its parivar, including the BJP, its political arm?

For too long, the post-Independence Congress party’s attitude towards the RSS was influenced by the Left, which regards the RSS as a fascist organisation. Congress leaders failed to develop their own independent understanding of, and relationship with, the Hindu organisation. In this, it was also constrained by its fear of losing the votes of the Muslim community, many of whose vocal spokesmen see the RSS as their enemy. All this did not matter to the Congress so long as it dominated the Indian political scene. It could afford to disregard the RSS.

But now that the Congress is struggling not just for its revival but for its very survival, it can no longer afford to have the same dismissive stance towards the country’s largest Hindu organisation.

With Rahul Gandhi becoming the party’s president, we have seen some course correction insofar as it has realised that being perceived as an anti-Hindu party is unhelpful for its resurgence. However, its young and inexperienced chief has not in any way changed the Congress’ no-dialogue-with-the-RSS attitude. If he hopes to create a wide division between the RSS and the Hindu society, he is mistaken.


Pranab Da’s Speech is Bharat Ratna-Worthy

This is where Pranab Mukherjee’s maturity has become manifest. With his vast experience and erudition, he has come to recognise that the growing confrontation and hostility between the Congress and the RSS is undesirable for both, and also for India.

Unencumbered by the rigid demands of party-speak, he chose to take a courageous and far-sighted step to initiate a dialogue with the RSS. Dialogue never means accepting and acquiescing in everything your host believes in. But accepting the invitation for a dialogue does not also mean that you go with a closed mind, unwilling to acknowledge what is good about your host. Pranab da’s conduct in Nagpur showed both these traits. He was firm in the articulation of his convictions. At the same time, he showed due respect to the RSS ─ especially by describing its founder Dr KB Hedgewar as a “great son of Mother India”.

Without mentioning ‘Hindu Rashtra’, Pranab da made it absolutely clear that Indian nationalism, in the sagacious words of Mahatma Gandhi, is not “exclusive, aggressive or destructive”.

Invoking Nehru, he reminded his RSS audience that religion has never been the basis of the Indian nation, which has been formed by the “confluence” of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and other religious-cultural steams. He firmly asserted that “pluralism and diversity” are the very soul of India.

Moreover, addressing those within and outside our country, who view India in the same mould as any Westphalian nation-state, Pranab da made a profound point about universalism that nourishes India’s self-identity as a nation, specifically mentioning that “India has no enemy”.

The message was clearly directed at those in the Sangh Parivar (and many in the Congress, too) who view Pakistan and China as our “enemies”.


Key Takeaways from Pranab Da’s Speech

His speech had other precious takeaways. In a short span of about 25 minutes, Pranab Mukherjee surveyed the 5,000-year-old history of India, mentioning some of the important milestones that hold many important lessons for us today. (I must however mention one major tragic event in our national history that was missing in his speech. He, for some inexplicable reason, omitted any mention of India’s bloody Partition, whose negative effects are being experienced even today.)

He made a fervent appeal to “free the national discourse of violence – both verbal and physical”. (To begin with, heeding this appeal, shouldn’t the RSS and the Communists put an end to fratricidal killings in Kerala?).

In words that should leave an imprint on the minds of all patriotic Indians, he said, “Mother India is asking for peace and harmony.” All in all, by virtue of its context as well as content, it will undoubtedly go down as one of the most important orations in the history of independent India.

Pranab da’s long and illustrious career in service of the nation now has a new achievement ─ his bold, lucid, timely and non-partisan articulation of the foundational values of the Indian Republic. Surely, he deserves a Bharat Ratna.


Mohan Bhagwat Echoes Nehru

Here one must also give due credit to, and unhesitatingly welcome, what Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS Sarsanghchalak (chief) spoke on the occasion. Those in the anti-RSS camp who listened to his speech with an open mind would not have failed to notice that he too presented an inclusive vision of India.

Contrary to what RSS’s detractors say, Bhagwat said that all those who are born in India, irrespective of their religion, are Indians and that “nobody is an outsider (paraya) and nobody is an enemy (dushman)”.

‘Unity in Diversity’ is a credo of his organisation, he averred. He spoke convincingly in favour of dialogue among those holding divergent points of view and developing what he called the “democratic mind”. To me, his speech echoed Nehruvian nationalism. And this echo becomes even more unmistakable when we remind ourselves of something very important Bhagwat said in Pune a few months ago. He repudiated the BJP’s arrogant slogan of creating a “Congress-mukt Bharat”, and said this does not belong to the language of the RSS. He further said that “even those who are opposed to us” should have a place in nation-building.


Time for Rahul Gandhi to Bridge Congress-RSS Gap

What Bhagwat said on 7 June, and in Pune earlier, certainly places an important obligation on him and the RSS. For both right and wrong reasons, the Indian Muslim community is opposed to the RSS. It also feels unprecedentedly excluded and insecure in the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah rule. Therefore, for the sake of nation-building, the RSS should initiate a frank and positive dialogue with our Muslim brethren. Of course, Muslim representatives too should show a similar positive and non-antagonistic approach to the RSS in the dialogue.

On 7 June, we heard Pranab ‘Gandhian’ Mukherjee on the one hand, and Mohan ‘Half-Nehruvian’ Bhagwat on the other. Ultimately, what matters in this dialogue is that the ‘Idea of an inclusive, pluralistic, secular and tolerant India’ won at Nagpur.

A good beginning has been made. Now it is time for young Rahul Gandhi to follow the footsteps of Pranab pitamah (patriarch) and initiate a similar candid, constructive and honest dialogue between the Congress and the RSS.

(The writer, who was an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is chairman of the Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He can be reached @SudheenKulkarni . This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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