These are indeed extraordinary times of political churning, perhaps no less radically disruptive and formative than the phase when the people of this subcontinent assumed power from the outgoing colonialists. The edifices that sustained the new republic for 70-odd years now feel a new strain. And their political custodians have lost ground, judging by a measure best understood in a democracy—the inability to win a clear mandate.
A new order of things has come into being, originally espoused even by its proponents as a contrarian view, but which has over the last four years come to represent the national mainstream. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—by virtue of the fact that its political wing, the BJP, has become India’s largest party, replacing the Indian National Congress, and occupies a crucial policymaking role in large swathes of the Indian Republic—has undeniably attained a centrality in discourse. All sides have been enjoined into this readjustment.
The old order has been pushed into exploring options of re-engaging—witness, at one end, Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to the Nagpur headquarters of RSS, and at the other end, the Opposition’s attempts at a grand alliance. But the RSS too is forced to open a new front for dialogue—as seen through its invitation to Mukherjee—to help it evolve into a centrist force, shedding its staunch rightism.
As 2019 nears, these are significant tectonic shifts. How far the RSS/BJP succeed in holding on to their present arc of power may depend on their ability to transform themselves from a group of ideological faithful to a default centrist logic of benevolent and enabling state power.
Mukherjee agreed to lend his voice to this transformative process, not merely as an astute politician making a tactical move (even if that’s partly true) but as a statist—accepting some of the RSS iconography, while nudging it to accept the foundational concepts of modern, constitutional India. For the RSS, the engagement could not have been any bigger—a former president of India whose political life spanned nearly five decades and who was witness to other tectonic shifts in the polity as a political opponent, as a Congressman, had come to its campus. That itself spoke of the RSS’s arrival on centrestage.
And why did Mukherjee agree to play this role? Was he sutradhar, or bridge-maker, or something more? Didn’t the optics convey way more than his words? The answer perhaps lies in the dual messaging he attempted. One for his erstwhile party, the young president of which is engaged with the RSS in a political-legal battle; and one for the RSS/BJP.
As his speech wound down, Sutradhar Mukherjee cited a Sanskrit inscription that hangs in Parliament: about rajdharma, a king’s duty towards his subjects. There’s little doubt who it was meant for. If this was his way of reminding the Prime Minister of modern India’s inclusive ethos, it was also a subtle admonition to opinion-makers who tend to call any tactician a Chanakya. This is what Chanakyaniti actually meant, he was saying. Not Machiavellian scheming, but protecting the sacrosanct rules of good governance.
But floating under those lofty words, was there a touch of that other Chanakya, the cold tactician? In his Nagpur visit itself? In his stroll around the Hedgewar memorial, in him calling the RSS patriarch “a great son of Mother India”? This was a Congressman crossing a threshold, showing grace to the heirs of a bitter foe—perhaps so that his sage counsel would be acceptable? Or was there more?
Yes, Mukherjee had left his booming verbal guns behind and engaged the opponent in a language that could help calm the polity, ease the darkness that was wounding India’s soul. Was it his way of telling Rahul Gandhi that it was time to call a truce with a force the people had come to accept? And fight to secure the foundational values of ‘constitutional nationalism’ rather than just a socio-cultural (political) institution?
Even more significantly, can Mukherjee find a modicum of success? Or will his Nagpur gambit be seen as his own co-option by the opponent? We don’t know. Mohan Bhagwat was cautious enough to circumscribe Mukherjee’s speech with a never-the-twain-shall-meet kind of line: “RSS will be RSS, Pranab will be Pranab”. Perhaps so that newly inducted RSS pracharaks wouldn’t get converted! But Mukherjee seems to have coaxed the RSS into engaging with the rest of India. If not anything, the new pracharaks would now be exposed to other streams: to Tagore’s universalism, to Tilak, Gandhi, Nehru and Patel’s exposition on nationalism, tolerance, secularism.
A B Vajpayee, as the PM, too had managed a dualism, paying obeisance to Nehru even as he underscored his proud association with the RSS. In the process, the RSS only gained acceptance, and Vajpayee’s voice got credence. This is an inversion of that moment, but in the same spirit. And the Congress’s young president could do worse than realising its potential.
For, Mukherjee’s speech—despite the spin the BJP spokesperson imparts on it—remains a pathbreaking exposition by a Congressman. It’s often said that Narendra Modi speaks the language of the people as none of his contemporaries can and hence connects with them instantly. It could be said that Mukherjee speaks the language of the state like no one else, and who better than him to communicate that to his Nagpur audience? Bhagwat’s invitation too was no less bold than Mukherjee’s acceptance of it. If, in the process, the RSS got TRPs and a countrywide audience, and an uninterrupted focus on itself, so did Mukherjee and his nuanced views. The former President could not have asked for a bigger or more prominent platform for a relaunch. Did someone mention Chanakya?
Political Editor, The New Indian Express