Pranab Mukherjee
Former president Pranab Mukherjee speaks during the closing ceremony of Tritiya Varsha Sangh Shiksha Varg, an RSS event, Nagpur | PTI
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The Congress was attacking Pranab Mukherjee for attending the RSS function. But just as he ended his speech, the Congressmen began re-claiming the former president as one of their own.

He came, he saw, and he was impressed. Former president Pranab Mukherjee’s address at the concluding session of the 25-day annual third year training camp of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Nagpur probably attracted more eyeballs than all the IPL matches put together.

We cannot see the concepts of nation, nationalism and patriotism in isolation, said the former president, who began his English speech after formally thanking Mohan Bhagwat. Indian nationalism emanates from the thought of universalism and lofty ideals of respect for pluralism and diversity, and any deviation from this will lead us to downfall, he said and went on to trace India’s glorious past. Our plural Indian society may have some superficial differences but is deeply united by common ancestry, culture and history, he said. The soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance and the Constitution is the Magna Carta, he said.

True to his acumen for handling complicated situations by taking recourse to centrist position, the former president’s speech can be used by every shade of the political spectrum to claim vindication of their respective stand.

Staying away from politics

Inviting persons of stature to its events has been a tradition of the RSS. Pranab is the latest addition to those stalwarts, who have patronised the RSS in spite of ideological differences.

It all began with a courtesy call by RSS sarsanghchalak Bhagwat (who incidentally has good command over Bengali as he was a pracharak in West Bengal) on then president Pranab Mukherjee during his last days in office. It made news, but what the media missed was the laying of a foundation for a stronger and lasting relationship between the two. A year later, Pranab da paid homage to the founder of RSS K.B. Hedgewar at the very place where it was founded, Nagpur.

The 93-year old RSS is not new to controversies. The RSS has experienced three bans, enquiry commissions, slander campaigns, and much more in its journey to being the only non-governmental organisation with maximum reach and presence in almost 80 per cent of Indian villages and more than 80 countries of the world.

The founder of the RSS was in the Congress. He participated in the Jungle Satyagraha in 1931. To insulate the RSS from politics, he stepped down from his post and became the head of the organisation only after his release from the British jail.

Years later, post-Partition and assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, there were forceful attempts in the early 50s to urge the RSS to don a political role. But the second sarsanghchalak of the RSS, M.S. Golwalkar, insulated the organisation from politics. When a non-Congress political party was launched, he deputed half a dozen dedicated workers to the Jan Sangh, but clearly kept the RSS out of electoral politics.

No need for character certificate

The post of the President of India, the highest constitutional post, is non-political, and the person occupying that post is considered apolitical. So, when an apolitical former president of the country addresses a gathering of the RSS, a non-political, socio-cultural organisation, ideally, there should be no controversy or uproar or umpteen attempts to ‘advice’ him on what to say or not to say. But that would not be.

The Congress criticised the move, saying this has given credibility to the RSS. In the first place, the RSS is not hunting for a character certificate from any of the Congress persons, past, present or future. The leftover Left, itself left with no credibility, political relevance or ideology, is riding piggyback on the Congress.

Some of the Congress worthies, who are merely parroting the unwise harangues of their perennially losing president, should look into their own past and links with the RSS. One of them was eager to jump into the BJP bandwagon in 2004 and approached the party through his uncle, who was then holding a high post in the RSS.

RSS’ contributions

On many occasions, the services of the RSS have been recognised and appreciated by prime ministers and governments. But the same governments and prime ministers imposed, albeit wrongly, three bans on the RSS. All bans were revoked unconditionally. At least one former Congress prime minister was known to be a strong sympathiser of the RSS, and was even accused by his own party members as “Sanghi in disguise”.

The Congress, probably under the influence of the Communist party (especially CPI leaders like S.A. Dange and latter-day politicised comrades), distanced itself from the RSS and, thereby, from a large section of the Hindu society that was comfortable with the centrist, non-political, socio-cultural RSS.

Ironically, there have been times when individual Congress candidates have sought the help of local RSS units to tide over non-BJP rivals. Suddenly, the Congress was attacking one of its own for attending the RSS function. But just as he ended his speech with Jai Hind and Vande Mataram, the Congressmen began re-claiming the former president as one of their own.

Did Pranab da and Mohan Bhagwat say the same thing in different languages? In which case, will the Congress accept that there is a congruence of ideas between the Congress and the RSS? Was the Congress in indecent haste to denounce the veteran Congressman, and then make a shameless U-turn? Was it a slap on the face of the Congress or the RSS? Is there a political pointer in the entire event?

The coming days and months may reveal more hitherto undisclosed secrets about this surprise visit of a veteran Congressman to the RSS headquarters.

The author is a security and strategic affairs commentator, and former editor of ‘Organiser’.

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