Pranab’s Speech At RSS: One Speech, Many Opinions, Zero Consensus

In a 27-minute-long history lesson, the former president offended no one, and seemed to please all.

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There is zero consensus on what to make of Pranab Mukherjee’s speech at the RSS event in Nagpur on 7 June.

In a 27-minute-long history lesson on nation, nationalism and patriotism, the former president offended no one, and seemed to please all.

Well, almost.

CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury was the first to fire and said the absence of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in Pranab’s speech spoke volumes and that he would’ve done well to remind the RSS of its own history – banned thrice by Congress, first time by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who had also, in a letter, noted how RSS men had distributed sweets after Gandhiji’s assassination.

You’d think a historian would agree.

But not Ramchandra Guha, who compared RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat’s unitary and homogenising nationalism to Pranab’s “catholic and broad-minded understanding of what it means to be Indian."

Guha also noted Pranab’s emphatic assertion that our nationalism flows from the Constitution — a document Mohan Bhagwat was unlikely to mention.

There were some, though, who saw some confluence in Mohan Bhagwat and Pranab Mukherjee’s speeches.

They argued that both spoke about celebrating diversity and celebrating the other. What Bhagwat said in Hindi is what Pranab said in English, wrote senior editor Kanchan Gupta.

RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy echoed that analysis and said he found virtually no difference between their understanding of what is nation, nationalism and patriotism. He asked, “What is the liberal group objecting to then?”

The founder of The Wire.in Siddharth Vardarajan answered.

However, Pranab Mukherjee’s poltical acumen was acknowledged across the ideological spectrum.

Some like Abhijit Majumdar called it a ‘political masterclass’ which gave both left- and right-wing commentators in India a reason to cheer. He said an ‘undeniable message was sent’ which was that the RSS is no longer untouchable and that Hedgewar is a hero.

This comment was in reference to Pranab Mukherjee’s unscheduled stop at the RSS founder’s home where he called Hedgewar a ‘son of India’ in the visitor’s book.

Others like veteran journalist Barkha Dutt saw it as reconciliatory message in this increasingly polarised socio-cultural environment.

Apart from the speech itself, it was what Pranab Mukherjee said and what he didn’t say — his decision, as a career Congressman, to be present at an RSS event — which raised a big debate.

Scholars like Dr David Frawley saw it as par for the course.

But Congress leaders like Anand Sharma who had gone to the extent of saying that images of Pranab at an RSS event had anguished millions of Congress workers got a reality check even while Pranab’s speech was on.

Shekhar Gupta predicted that Congress leaders who had cursed Pranab Mukherjee may soon need a place to hide. Congress leader Anand Sharma did not hide, but sure enough sang a completely different tune towards the second half of the evening.

So, what impact will career Congressman Pranab Mujherjee’s speech at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur have on the future politics of the country?

I’d say – it’s bound to get curiouser and curiouser.

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