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Symbolism, Timing of Pranab Mukherjee’s Speech Can’t Be Undermined

Why did the former president and Congressman attend an RSS event in Congress’ climacteric before 2019 elections?

Updated
Politics
4 min read
Former President Pranab Mukherjee  addressed RSS cadre in Nagpur  on Thursday, 7 June.
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The symbolism of Pranab Mukherjee’s address to the new recruits of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Nagpur cannot be undermined in today’s deeply divided political and social environment.

As for the timing – A career Congressman, the president whose nomination was challenged by the BJP, shared the dais with the RSS Chief in an election year and that too, just four days ahead of Rahul Gandhi’s court-mandated appearance (12 June) in a defamation case filed by an RSS functionary. The timing was bound to raise questions over Pranab Mukherjee’s compulsion to go against his political grain at such a critical time for the Congress party and its leadership.

While the party reserved its official response for after the speech, senior Congress leaders Ahmad Patel, expressed their sense of betrayal on Twitter – further raising speculation over whether Sonia Gandhi herself, had ordered party leaders to unofficially denounce Pranab Mukherjee’s decision to visit Nagpur.

The Crux of Pranab’s Speech

But in a speech which can, at best, be criticised as an attempt to please all, Pranab Mukherjee spoke at length on Pluralism, Nationalism, Patriotism, Multiplicity, Intolerance and Tolerance.

While Mohan Bhagwat focused on the ‘Hindu Dharma’ in his introductory speech, which in a few instances, seemed to be critical of the government, Pranab Mukherjee spoke about the “Perennial Universalism of 1.3 billion people who use more than 122 languages and 1,600 dialects, practise 7 major religions and belong to 3 major ethnic groups, and yet live under one system, one flag and one identity of being Bharatiya”

He stressed on the need for an “informed and reasoned public engagement on all issues of national importance” and underlined that a “dialogue is necessary not only to balance the competing interests but also to reconcile them.”

In what could be seen as a direct counter to Mohan Bhagwat’s focus on the Hindu identity, the former president said:

We derive our strength from tolerance. We accept and respect our pluralism. We celebrate our diversity. Any attempt at defining our nationhood in terms of dogmas and identities of religion, region, hatred and intolerance will only lead to dilution of our national identity. 

And in a straight up challenge to the RSS’ idea of nationalism, Pranab Mukherjee asserted that India’s sense of nationalism flows from the Constitution.

The Constitution of India represents the hopes and aspirations of a billion plus Indians. From our Constitution flows our nationalism. The construct of Indian Nationalism is Constitutional Patriotism.
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The Special Mentions...

In his 27-minute-long speech, which he bashfully admitted exceeded the given time, Pranab Mukherjee quoted Congress icon Jawaharlal Nehru and adopted BJP icon Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in the same breath. While he did mention Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Rabindranath Tagore, Mukherjee curiously, or not so curiously, considering which side of the political divide you stand on, made only a passing, one-line reference to Gandhi.

As Gandhiji explained, nationalism was neither exclusive nor aggressive nor destructive.

“It was this nationalism that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru so vividly explained in the ‘Discovery of India’ and I quote, ‘I am convinced that Nationalism can only come out of the ideological fusion of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and other groups in India. That does not mean that extinction of any real culture of any group, but it does mean a common national outlook, to which other matters are subordinated.’”

We won independence in 1947. Thanks to the efforts of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the Princely states merged leading to the consolidation of India. The complete integration of Provincial and Princely States took place after the formation of states on the recommendation of the States Re-organisation Commission. 

What Pranab Did Not Say

As President, Pranab Mukherjee was known to speak his mind. At the end of his tenure, he had criticised the Modi government for choosing to go the ordinance route instead of building consensus and legislating laws in Parliament. He hauled up the Opposition for stalling Parliament, encouraged an ‘argumentative not intolerant Indian’ and lectured citizens on the need to be vigilant against vigilantism.

Here’s a quick recap –

But, as the ex-President addressing the RSS, Pranab Mukherjee did not once mention Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of the former members of the organisation.

Even while mentioning Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, he skimmed over the fact that it was Patel who as Union Home Minister had banned the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh following Gandhi’s assassination. In his ‘history capsule’, as CPI(M)‘s Sitaram Yechury called it, Mukherjee did not mention Patel’s letter to Nehru dated 27 February 1948 (less than a month after Gandhi’s assassination), in which he wrote – “His assassination was welcomed by those of the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha who were strongly opposed to his way of thinking.”

In another letter written in response to RSS Chief Gowalkar’s plea to remove the ban on RSS, Sardar Vallabhai Patel wrote – “The objectionable part arose when they (RSS) started burning with revenge, began attacking Mussalmans. All their speeches were full of communal poison... As a final result of that poison, the country had to suffer the sacrifices of Gandhiji... RSS men expressed joy and distributed sweets after Gandhiji’s death. It became inevitable for the government to take action against the RSS.”

In fact, far from mentioning the facts of the relationship between the RSS, Gandhi and Patel, Mukherjee went out of his way and made an unscheduled stop at RSS founder Keshavram Baliram Hedgewar’s birthplace. In the visitor’s book he wrote – “Today I came here to pay my respect and homage to a great son of Mother India.”

But why would Mukherjee make a statement as bold as this?

An NDTV report quoted sources to state that the former president was positioning himself as a possible prime ministerial candidate for 2019 and was in talks with leaders of non-Congress and non-BJP party leaders like Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee HD Deve Gowda and Sitaram Yechury – political leaders and regional powerhouses, all of who were present at HD Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in ceremony which looked like the first serious step towards an anti-Modi opposition cobbled together by the Congress.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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