Congress has a bit of an egg on its face. The manner in which its leaders opposed Pranab Mukherjee’s appearance at the RSS event betrayed nerves. It was perhaps reflective of deeper insecurities borne out of its present state of electoral shrinking. It was not the first time that a Congress leader was to be seen amid the Sangh cadres. From Mahatma Gandhi to Jawaharlal Nehru, and even Indira Gandhi had had some or the other kind of interaction with Sangh. In fact, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat underscored in his speech that it’s founder Hedgewar went to jail twice while still a Congressman during the freedom struggle.
Bhagwat began by seeking Mukerjee’s guidance (Patheya) and Mukherjee gave a discourse on how he saw the ideas of nation, nationalism, and patriotism after 50 years and more in public life of the country. The former president spoke of five thousand years of civilisational continuity, India’s nationalism based on universalism (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam), and that India existed as a nation much before Europe discovered the idea of a nation-state. He even added with emphasis that Indian identity subsumed all other sub-nationalisms and that one-flag and one constitution defined it. It would be interesting to see how the JNU and left types respond to this formulation from Pranab-da given the left believes that India is still a nation in the making.
If this was Mukherjee’s graceful outreach to an essentially RSS-worldview, he did not fail in slipping in a few ideas from his own ideological moorings. He spoke of how diversity was part of historical conscience and that nationalism had to be a fusion of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and other identities. His emphasis on the constitution as the leitmotif of nationalism and that it would stand weakened by hatred and intolerance was a hint to his audience of the ongoing political debate on the BJP led establishment.
I have listened to Mohan Bhagwat’s speeches in recent past and must say that the RSS chief too rose to the occasion. He said that all Indians were one and that diversity was an attribute that contributed to nation’s prosperity. The bit about common ancestry of all Indians is part of the Sangh’s core belief system. But in emphasising that differences did not matter so long as the destination was same, Bhagwat too made an outreach to the opposite ideological pole.
For the likes of Pranab Mukherjee and Mohan Bhagwat, such loftiness does not come without its share of politics, hidden or otherwise. For example, Mukherjee won’t risk a snub to Congress without a larger objective, perhaps looking for relevance in 2019. For the RSS it provided more than a couple of hours of television prime time footage and the possibility of further mainstreaming. By all counts, it turned out to be a mega public relations exercise for the otherwise inscrutable saffron brotherhood.
If in its truest spirit democracy is about dialogue, then we saw it rolling out in full majesty in the twin speeches of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and former president and veteran Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee today. As the nation heads into a possibly most polarising general election season in recent memory, between Mukherjee and Bhagwat they have set a bar, albeit a difficult one, for the rest of the political class to follow.