How Pranab babu swayed from Right to Left to Centre

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ill he, won’t he? Will he, won’t he? When he finally did, with aplomb, at least one section of the nation, heaved a collective sigh of relief. But before he delivered his speech, heavy with his characteristic Bengali accent, at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s ‘Tritiya Varsh Varg’ event in Nagpur on June 7, former President Pranab Mukherjee kept his countrymen, including some Congress worthies, on tenterhooks, sparking off an intense debate on why a lifelong Congressman accepted the RSS invite in the first place, what he would likely say on the occasion and what that might mean politically – for the Congress, for the right wing and for himself.

By the time he alighted from the spartan podium, bedecked with marigolds and sunflowers, one part of the nation, for which a repugnant ideology has, of late, gripped the other part, felt that Pranab babu had not just delivered a lecture in history but had won the day for the secularists. But it was not so much a history lesson as much as it was in tenets of political theory, for, the contested concepts of nation, nationalism and patriotism are in the latter domain.

Though not a great orator, the diminutive, quintessentially Bengali bhadralok would certainly have left the brown-trousered ideologues, who envision an exclusivist idea of India, squirming in their seats. There was one jarring note in his speech—that 1857 was India’s “first war of independence”—which would have gone down well with Pranab babu’s hosts for it was in line with V D Savarkar’s conceptualisation of a series of events that essentially constituted a sepoy mutiny/uprising.

Aside from this concession and a rather simplistic, commonplace and broad-sweep account of Indian history, the main thrust of Pranab babu’s speech was on the idea of India as a land of cultural synthesis which, in the years immediately before independence, formed the kernel of Indian nationalism. To rub it in, he quoted liberally from the works of Congressmen of yore, including Jawaharlal Nehru, the present-day BJP’s bug bear and equated Indianness with the pluralist values enshrined in the Constitution. In every paragraph of his written speech, the message was clear: the political right’s idea of society and politics is anathema to the “Bharatiyata” that has evolved over centuries and that India is today an “unhappy” nation because of quotidian social and religious strife let loose by unbridled majoritarianism that could lead to national perdition.

Pranab babu appeared to be in fine fettle. Ending the half-an-hour speech with a polite and apologetic smile for exceeding the time limit and gentlemanly recognition of RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat, he showed that his politics is where his heart his – Congressism. But it comes at a time when a much-dwindled Congress is not just fighting for political survival but also searching for a leader who would be able to take the electoral battle of 2019 and beyond to the ruling BJP.

By entering the lair of his political opponents, Mukherjee sought to signal that despite being a former head of state he has remained non-partisan even after demitting office and is willing to engage in a dialogue with his adversaries. It wasn’t, however, lost on many that unlike the rigidity and lack of grace exhibited by certain men in power, Mukherjee, with his speech, that focused on inclusiveness, may have taken the opportunity to signal to his parent party that, in the event of the Congress performing well in the 2019 parliamentary election, he won’t quite shy away from being considered for another public office. To what extent his parent party holds him in that esteem is anybody’s guess. While India hasn’t had a statesman-like leader in years—the last, perhaps, was Nehru—Mukherjee sought to remind his countrymen that being on the Nehruvian mould, his name could be, in the least, enshrined in the annals of national-secular politics.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt once famously said that “in politics, nothing happens by accident”. So it was with the RSS hosting Mukherjee. In the four years that the RSS’ close cousin, the BJP, has been in power, India has been rent by majoritarian supremacist cries of exclusion and a worldview that rests on the Geertzian notion of primordial ties of only one kind. But faced with political uncertainty at a time when the euphoria of BJP domination has begun to fade and fray, the RSS has sought to reassure that the “exchange of views is a part of Indian tradition” and that it respects “diversity” and that “unity is the future”. A section of the BJP, on its part, welcomed the RSS’ effort to give Mukherjee the stage in Nagpur and lauded the former president’s speech, seeking legitimacy of RSS founder Kishan Baliram Hedgewar, from Pranab babu’s description of him as a “great son of Mother India”. We are not quite sure whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi was amused or not.

About Chandan Nandy

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A hardcore reporter by training, he is now transitioning to another level in journalism. He graduated from the erstwhile Presidency College, Calcutta, before taking a Master's degree in History from Delhi University. He is interested in investigative reporting, chasing spooks, covering conflicts and approaching social science issues from an analytic perspective.