There are many possible readings of former president Pranab Mukherjee’s speech at an RSS event in Nagpur on Thursday. Yes, he upheld his liberal credentials, spoke of a nationalism that is not aggressive, not exclusive, not destructive, in the RSS den. Yes, he spoke of a “constitutional patriotism”. But no, he did not speak of the ongoing and contemporary challenges to the constitutional and civilisational values of openness, assimilation, absorption and synthesis. No, he did not mention the divisive campaigns of “ghar wapsi” or “love jihad”, and of an insecure patriotism that demands multiple loyalty tests and defines itself in relentless opposition to the “Other”.
So, the day after the speech, when the score is totted up, did Mukherjee seize the RSS invitation to say his piece, tell the pracharak what he may not have wanted to hear? Or did he end up as the spotlighted prop on the stage of an organisation that has long worked in the shadows, and now, in the tenure of a BJP-led government with a majority in its fourth year, continues to hold power without accountability? Those are questions that the Congress must politically grapple with in days to come. After all, Mukherjee went to Nagpur not only as a former president or as Citizen Mukherjee, but also as a Congressman of long years and repute.
The RSS, on the other hand, can congratulate itself on an event well done. At Thursday’s end, it had showcased itself as an organisation that was hospitable, even welcoming, to someone who does not share its world view. Its founder, KB Hedgewar, had been hailed by him as a “great son of India”; its Sarsanghchalak, Mohan Bhagwat, had spoken of “diversity” in “unity” on the same platform as Mukherjee, without being questioned or challenged on the meaning and relative emphasis the RSS brings to both — or on how both terms are circumscribed, even distorted, by RSS history and practice. If, however, Thursday’s encounter between the RSS and Mukherjee leaves the Congress with tortuous questions of who lost and who gained, and how much, it has also given the RSS and RSS-watchers something to think about: It invited Mukherjee to speak, but did it listen to him?
Most of all, however, Mukherjee’s acceptance of the RSS invitation will live on as the visual image of a shared stage, a glimmer and possibility of a conversation. And regardless of the winner and loser this time around, of more rounds to come. That can only be good news in a democracy that prides itself for providing a safe house for dialogue, even and especially between those who most disagree with each other.