One cannot but wonder why an organisation nearing a century of its existence, and currently well-entrenched, has to keep seeking approbation from various quarters. It surely does not expect the visiting dignitaries to convert to its views. But all the same, the fact that so many venerable guests visit its key functions is always a matter of pride for the RSS. The invitation to Pranab Mukherjee could be seen as part of this exercise of seeking a stamp of approval. Predictably, the invitation provided for considerable debate. As a convention, ex-Presidents keep away from politics. In accepting an invitation to speak at the event of a controversial political organisation, Mukherjee either violated that convention or he subscribed to the idea that the RSS is after all, not a political but only a cultural organisation.
Once he accepted the invitation, the actual event and the speech were bound to be entirely predictable. Despite the media frenzy and live telecast, one could not but imagine what an ex-President would otherwise say on such occasion. Mukherjee’s speech, generally hailed by his detractors, was in fact, predictably tame. It did have flashes of lively points but otherwise, the speech was formal and staid so as not to upset the hosts too much and at the same time, careful not to concede any major point that they are often keen about.
The speech began with pedantry, talked text-bookishly about the tradition of diversity, remembered to mention in passing Gandhi-Nehru and sounded almost like a pre-college classroom lecture on the Preamble. The spark was missing. The brilliance of the project of nation-building imagined by Gandhi and Nehru was nowhere reflected. Pranab da did mention Nehru’s claim that our nationalism did not require the “extinction of any culture” but the dazzling distinctiveness this idea implies was mostly suppressed due to understatement. This is not to say Pranab da was cosying up to his hosts. He was being too polite.
Having spent such a long portion of his speech — almost the first half — on detailing the ancient greatness of this land and civilisation, the guest speaker could have easily asked the question: If our ancient heritage is so great in terms of diversity, tolerance and democracy, why do we need to remember all these virtues today? Why do we not seem to have imbibed our civilisational virtues? What interruptions of the present moment distract us from that legacy? Does it suffice to draw pride from the past when we are deviating with impunity from that heritage?
Pranab da’s host had anticipated him by upholding the idea of “unity in diversity”. That was an excellent launching pad for Mukherjee. True, he was reading from a written speech. Nevertheless, a digression or two could have given the message that he meant what he said rather than that he was reading out loud merely for fear of being misquoted. More than that, a shrewd public figure like him should have known the formal pitch the RSS chief would make. In fact, the ex-President shrewdly began by telling his audience that he would speak of nation, nationalism and patriotism. Using that framework, and without necessarily being discourteous to his hosts, the speech could have touched upon the contemporary — the post-Independence challenge of being nationalist and, simultaneously, democratic.
So, here was a speech that ensured the speaker did not endorse the hosts and yet stopped short of speaking out his mind, an opportunity lost. Having risked his reputation, having taken the trouble to go to Nagpur, Pranab da did not make much of himself except that, for the record, he said all the politically correct things.
In contrast, his host seized the opportunity admirably. For the first time perhaps, a self-proclaimed publicity-shy organisation was getting extraordinary nationwide publicity. The importance was not lost on RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. Whatever Mukherjee was going to say, Bhagwat poured cold water on it in advance. The host’s speech was more remarkable than the guest’s for three reasons.
One, right at the beginning, explaining how it is the RSS’s tradition to invite people of different backgrounds, Bhagwat said guests who can do come and see what the nature of the RSS is. He then added, as if to say that it makes no difference what the guests say, “RSS is RSS, Dr Pranab Mukherjee is Dr Pranab Mukherjee”. So much for the dialogue that many commentators were eager to read into the optics. They missed the point that the optic was important, not the “pathey” (message).
Two, Bhagwat’s speech skilfully oriented the trainees as to how to understand the message that Mukherjee was sure to give. Bhagwat himself broached the idea of “diversity” and did not hesitate to uphold it. At one level, this should be seen as a major step in the intellectual evolution of the RSS, equivalent perhaps to Balasaheb Deoras’ unstated transformation of the organisation. It indicates that RSS ideologues are aware of the potent power of the idea of diversity, and hence, they seek to absorb its vocabulary and transform its meaning. As L K Advani did with the word secularism, now the new battle would be about meaning, scope and actual practise of diversity. The RSS chief gave a taste of this when in the course of his speech, confusing “diversity” and “difference”, he argued that the real challenge was to dissolve differences and be prepared to work for the nation (“by giving up differences from the bottom of our hearts”). This was in direct contrast to what Mukherjee was to later quote from Nehru, that nobody had to give up their culture.
Third, the RSS chief’s speech was a remarkable instance of doublespeak, not only for his seeming espousal of diversity but also for his claim that the RSS was working for the whole society — implying that it is not a Hindu organisation. But he later went on to approvingly refer to K B Hedgewar and said that Hindus are answerable to questions about India’s fortunes, they hold the responsibility for India (Hindu Samaj Bharat ka uttardayi hai… Bharat ke bhagya ke bare mein usse hi prashn poochhe jayenge). Pray, where does that leave the non-Hindus?
Knowing that Mukherjee would deal with ideas and arguments, Bhagwat cautioned the trainees that society is not moved by and run on the basis of ideas but on exemplary behaviour. So, arguments don’t matter. In fact, he made it a point to impress that only the evil (khal/dusht) use knowledge for debate. Finally, exhorting everyone from outside the RSS to come, see and decide for themselves what the RSS was about, he added, we are not bothered by what others think, because we know what we are (“humen usaki chinta nahin hai, hum jaante hai hum kya hai”).
In the absence of the importance of arguments, the “mega event” on Thursday evening proved to be a spectacle sprawled over all television channels, popularising, publicising and legitimising an organisation that is at the centre of deep political controversy.