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10 June, 2018 11:36:06 AM

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Pranab Mukherjee: The man to watch

The BJP and RSS were elated at Mukherjee agreeing to address the event
Kumkum Chadha
Pranab Mukherjee: The man to watch

When RSS leaders raised their hands upto their chests, former President of India Pranab Mukherjee did not follow suit. He simply stood in attention.

The Congress heaved a sigh of relief. Mukherjee may have let his parent party down by accepting an invitation to address RSS …but he did not fail it. He stood his ground and came across his own man, so to say.
Raising a hand upto the chest is RSS way of salutation and everyone sharing stage with RSS leaders on their platform is expected to do that. That a morphed photograph of Mukherjee raising his hand up to his chest found its way in the social media is another matter. His daughter, Sharmistha Mukherjee, who is member of the Congress was quick to blame it on the BJP’s “dirty trick department”.
Pranab Mukherjee had accepted the invitation to address an event  of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)  in Nagpur. Consequently, he addressed RSS cadres who are training to become full-time volunteers or pracharaks. Around 800 RSS workers who are below 45 years of age from across the nation attended  the annual training camp or Sangh Shiksha Varg, organised by the Sangh leadership.
Hell broke loose and Mukherjee was slammed by almost everyone including his own party. A day before former President Pranab Mukherjee spoke at the RSS function, his own daughter hit out at him, saying the Sangh Parivar is already calling his visit an endorsement of the saffron ideology.

Sharmistha said, "@CitiznMukherjee (Pranab Mukherjee's Twitter handle), by going to Nagpur, you are giving BJP/RSS full handle to plant false stories, spread false rumours as today and making it somewhat believable. And this is just the beginning!"

That was one part; the other was the Congressmen urging Mukherjee to call off his visit and decline the invitation he had so eagerly accepted. Some expressed surprise at Mukherjee’s move while others went to the extent of even “warning” him on grounds that he was reneging on his over fifty years convictions.

Ramesh Chennithala, Senior Congress leader from Kerala said that Mukherjee’s decision “has invited unparalleled disgruntlement among the rank and file of the Congress party. Your decision has come as a rude shock to secular minds of the country” while requesting him to reconsider his decision. Hanumantha Rao, former MP, asked him to “withdraw his decision in the interest of secularism”.  

Congress leader Adhir Chowdhury, meanwhile said that he was “astonished” to hear about Pranab Mukherjee’s decision wondering whether he had backtracked from his earlier views about the RSS. Amid this controversy, Sandeep Dikshit articulated Mukherjee’s views on the RSS.  According to him, Pranab Mukherjee had said there is nothing worse or filthier than the RSS and that he (Mukherjee) had dubbed the Sangh as 'anti-national'. “Why is the RSS calling such a person. Has he (Pranab Mukherjee) changed his view or has the RSS lost its self-respect,” he asked.

Congress leader M Veerappa Moily said Mukherjee cannot go for the event if he is “dedicated to the Congress ideology” because ideology of the Congress is totally different from the ideology of RSS, Moily said.

Others went to the extent of calling RSS a hydra headed monster and saw it as seeking legitimacy by inviting the Congress.

The BJP and RSS, on their part, were elated at Mukherjee agreeing to address the event.

Amid the political storm that raged following the invite and its acceptance of it, Mukherjee said very little. "Whatever I have to say, I will say in Nagpur. I have received several letters, requests and phone calls, but I haven't responded to anyone yet," Mukherjee was quoted as saying.

He did break his silence in Nagpur and the speech he delivered completely bowled over everyone. It not only silenced his critics but saw the Congress running for cover. The party bigwigs that had initially slammed Mukherjee were now licking their wounds. Former President Pranab Mukherjee spoke about “increased violence” and the need for “peace, harmony, happiness”; he spoke of  “Democracy being  a sacred guide; he spoke of the dangers of intolerance and that diluting our national identity; and he spoke of pluralism and celebration of our diversity,” liberally quoting Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, and Lokmanya Tilak among others.

“When I shut my eyes and dream of India, I am mesmerised that 1.3 billion people speak 122 languages, practise seven major religions and belong to three major ethnic groups. Yet, they are under one system, one flag, one Constitution and one identity, which we may call Bharatiya or Indian,” Mukherjee said.

In a nutshell, Mukherjee took the sting out of the bite. With one single stroke he silenced his critics. Congressmen who were earlier decrying Mukherjee changed tack and said that Mukherjee had “shown a mirror of truth” to RSS by reminding them of India’s ‘pluralism’, ‘tolerance’, ‘secularism’ and ‘inclusiveness’.  However, CPI(M) Sitaram Yechury said that Pranab Mukherjee would have done well “to remind the RSS of its own history - banned thrice by Congress governments, first time by Sardar Patel, following Mahatma Gandhi's assassination”.

Whatever be the angst, analysts  were quick to spell out the political fall out of  Mukherjee’s visit. For one the RSS is on the wrong side of history and is at pains to broaden its base. Mukherjee was the right choice for the popular appeal that he enjoys and the fact that he, in recent years, came across as his own man. Even while being a Congressman he stood for what he believed in which elevated him to the level of a statesman than a pygmy politician. Also his relationship with the current Congress leadership is rather estranged: Sonia Gandhi mistrusts him; her lack of warmth having its genesis in Mukherjee had uneasy ties with Rajiv. Mukherjee was expelled from the Congress in 1984 for allegedly showing defiance towards Rajiv Gandhi. He was also miffed with Sonia Gandhi for pushing Dr Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister and denying him an opportunity he had waited for all his life.

Therefore a Congressman he may be but there is a question mark on his owing allegiance to the current dispensation.

What, however, is of significance is the fluid political situation that India is going through where new combinations and alliances could play a key role. It could also present an opportunity to people like Mukherjee to re-enter public life and play a decisive role. It is common knowledge that he was not averse to a second term as President but Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not oblige.

But with his graph going down and a BJP majority not certain in  2019 there are immense possibilities in which stalwarts like Mukherjee could be major players. Therefore there are several layers to the RSS-Mukherjee cosying up to each other that could pave the way for some surprises in the near future.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: (kumkum91@gmail.com)  

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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