India’s former President Pranab Mukherjee has accepted an invitation from the RSS to address swayamsevaks at the Sangh Shiksha Varg in Nagpur June 7.
This raises two questions. Why did the RSS invite him at this point in time and why did Mukherjee accept an invitation from a distinctly opposite ideological organisation?
Mukherjee has been a life-long Congressman and served three prime ministers – Indira Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh. He stood by the party all through except for a brief period when he fell out with Rajiv Gandhi and formed his own outfit but by1989 came back to the Congress. He had been a minister, a deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, a leader of the house, a party general secretary, a member of the Congress working committee for 23 years and served the party and the government effectively, but never became the number one.
His excellent command over English, extraordinary drafting skills, elephantine memory, knowledge of parliamentary procedures and political acumen had made him an asset to the government and the party. Even as President, he did well.
Why did the RSS invite him? Besides being an eminent person, Mukherjee has developed a good relationship with the RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat. He even hosted Bhagwat over lunch at Rashtrapati Bhavan before he laid down office, and has met him at least four times since retirement.
Second, the RSS, internally, sees this as a big step to signal that the organisation was acceptable to the Congressmen outside the Nehru-Gandhi family and that despite so much of maligning, an eminent a person like Mukherjee, who is known for his leftist ideals, will find time to visit the RSS headquarters. “Former president Pranab Mukherjee’s acceptance to attend the RSS event in Nagpur sends a message to the country that on vital issues there should be dialogue and adversaries are not enemies. Questions raised on the RSS and Hindutva are being answered,” points out RSS ideologue Rakesh Sinha. Union minister Nitin Gadkari, who has played a role in the friendship between the two, has said, “Mukherjee’s acceptance of the invitation is a good start. Political untouchability is not good”.
Third, the RSS had invited eminent persons in the past too. The RSS mouthpiece ‘Organiser’ noted in its latest issue: “In 1934, Mahatma Gandhi had attended a Sangh shivir [camp] at Wardha and held discussions with the first sarsanghchalak of RSS, K.B. Hedgewar on the future of Bharat.” Other eminent personalities like former president Abdul Kalam, Sarvodaya leader Prabhakar Rao, Swami Chinmayananda, Jayaprakash Narayan too have attended various Sangh Shiksha Vargs or other programmes.
Why did Mukherjee accept the RSS invitation? A person of his calibre and political shrewdness would not have done so without some thinking. No doubt that by doing so, he has left many in the Congress red-faced. Congress president Rahul Gandhi is a staunch critic of the RSS. Some say that Mukherjee is disappointed with the current Congress. The Gandhis do not consult him or avail of his wisdom. He knew that Sonia Gandhi had nominated him as a presidential candidate because she was under pressure to do so. On the other hand, Modi had been quite deferential to him and the two got on well during his tenure at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Second, Mukherjee continues to remain a politician at heart and it is speculated that he might be open to playing a key role as a non-NDA pole in future. He was perhaps the best prime minister that India never had. In his book ‘The Coalition Years’, documenting his disappointment, Mukherjee noted, “I returned with a vague impression that she (Sonia Gandhi) might wish to consider Manmohan Singh as the UPA presidential nominee. I thought that if she selected Singh (Manmohan Singh) for the presidential office, she may choose me as the prime minister. I had heard a rumour that she had given this formulation serious thought while on a holiday in the Kaushambi Hills”.
Third, Mukherjee might not want to be forgotten like his predecessor Pratibha Patil. He is still active and would not like a diminished public profile.
All eyes, including the opposition’s, are on what Mukherjee would speak at the RSS function. Speculation is that he might talk of Gandhian and Nehruvian ideas. He might praise the RSS for their work in the tribal areas and their discipline. He might not endorse the RSS, but also won’t be critical of them. Being a clever politician, Mukherjee would not allow the RSS to use him, instead he would use the occasion to his advantage.
Playing down the controversy, Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said, “Pranab Mukherjee left politics on assumption of the presidency. His speaking at any convocation is absolutely no indication of his beliefs. Judge him by what he says and what his established beliefs during 50 years of political life are”. We should leave it at that although there is much more than what meets the eye.