There are some giveaway assumptions that underlie the visible Congress truculence and bubbling controversy over Pranab Mukherjee’s acceptance of the RSS invitation to address its cadres in Nagpur in June. “Ask Pranab Mukherjee. The only comment we have is no comment”, said the Congress spokesperson. But it would be no exaggeration to read between the lines to say that Mukherjee’s decision is being seen by his political-ideological fellow travellers as surprising, unpalatable, even a betrayal of sorts. The assumption is that, as the ideological enemy, the RSS is not to be spoken to at all. That Mukherjee is crossing the line drawn between People Who Think Like Us and People Who Don’t. Look a little deeper and the assumption also seems to be that engagement by a political leader of Mukherjee’s stature would lend credibility to the RSS, somehow make it more “mainstream” than it deserves to be. Essentially, Mukherjee, former president and Congressman has threatened to disturb the tidy separateness of mutually exclusive and self-affirming thought bubbles and echo chambers that public discourse in India has grown or regressed into.
The BJP’s insistent call for a “Congress-mukt Bharat” belongs to a larger syndrome that the Congress partakes of as well. If the BJP seeks to paint a political adversary as an enemy who needs to be not just fought but annihilated, the Congress tries to outrightly banish or altogether deny the ideological challenge. The Congress opposes the RSS for its divisive world view and its unconstitutional power. But it seems to do so, for the most part, by refusing to engage with it, or only through name-calling. The argument that engaging the RSS would only end up “normalising” it scarcely holds in a ruling regime which openly acknowledges RSS influence and power in a number of ways — from allowing it an imprint in crucial appointments to letting it guide policy apart from spearheading the ground-level mobilisation for the BJP ahead of elections. If the RSS power is damaging or hurtful to the secular fabric of the nation, as the Congress says it is, then the Congress needs to contest it more robustly. Only talking to itself or to people who already agree with it is a political cop-out.
Pranab Mukherjee has, of course, been a lifelong Congressman, helming crucial portfolios in Congress governments. But despite his famous temper and unsparing temperament, he has also been the chief firefighter — and interlocutor — whenever the party was compelled to negotiate with someone it didn’t want to sit across the table with. It was Mukherjee, for instance, who in 2011, when the Jan Lokpal movement was at its peak, became chairman of the 10-member joint drafting committee conceded to Anna Hazare by the Congress-led UPA government. Mukherjee knows that democracy is about dialogue. In a democracy, you cannot stop talking to, or turn your back on, those you disagree with, especially those you disagree with. The question is not whether Mukherjee should go to Nagpur. The real curiosity has to do with the kind of conversation he strikes with the RSS.