Days before former President Pranab Mukherjee visited the Nagpur headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), his critics, mostly from the Congress, predicted that his tryst with the saffron brigade would have consequences similar to what Lal Krishna Advani faced following his ill-fated trip in 2005 to the mausoleum of Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Karachi.
The Pakistan mission proved disastrous, though it was aimed and designed by his core supporters to transform his political appearance from that of a hawk to a dove so as to showcase him as a moderate acceptable face of the Bharatiya Janata Party after Atal Behari Vajpayee. Advani was out of favour with the RSS, which at one time accepted his political advice as the last word, but the image makeover did not go down well with his large number of adherents, who without any hesitation earlier acknowledged him as the principal architect of the BJP.
Thus when in the 2009 Parliamentary elections, Advani was projected as the BJP face, large segments of the Sangh did not endorse his candidacy; the result being that the BJP’s seat count declined from 138 in 2004 to 116 in 2009. The writing was on the wall for the party patriarch, who, however, unfortunately failed to read the black and white print and continued to nurse prime ministerial ambitions. It is obvious that he received a rude shock when the Sangh collectively took a decision to present Narendra Modi as its spearhead for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The overwhelming victory of the BJP spelt the end of Advani’s long and eventful innings, and Modi being a shrewd politician took little time in sidelining him along with several seniors to the Marg Darshak Mandal, panoramically described by political analysts as the Old Age Home of the BJP. On the other hand, Pranab Mukherjee, whose Parliamentary journey commenced a couple of years before Advani’s, has been able to weather many storms in his chequered rise to the top. In the latest instance, he outsmarted his contemporaries and juniors in his erstwhile party, while swiftly sending a strong communiqué of plurality, diversity, tolerance, inclusiveness and reconciliation from the RSS headquarters in his much publicised visit to Nagpur. Advani, in a rare public response, has also commended Pranab and Mohan Bhagwat for initiating a dialogue between ideological adversaries.
In fact, Pranab emerged from the precincts of his one time political opponents many folds stronger, thereby receiving endorsement from a wide range of politicians representing varied doctrines. By conducting himself with unparalleled stateliness and dignity, he maintained his composure while delivering an address that could redefine the narrative. In a statesman like speech, Pranab struck a reconciliatory note and underlined the necessity to coordinate a dialogue amongst believers of contrasting ideologies.
Emphasising that political untouchability had no place in the country, he extensively quoted from our shared history and civilisation, to present the view that if democracy had grown its roots in India, it was on account of the values we had imbibed over the centuries that led us to frame our own Constitution and basic tenets. The reference to our ancient civilisation and the subsequent conquests that resulted in the unqualified amalgamation of foreign rulers in our resilient heritage was a lesson he provided to the RSS probationers on the historic occasion.
Simultaneously, he sought to downplay the present day Congress’ belief that Indian nationhood had its origins in the Constitution of the country adopted on 26 January 1950. He recalled events from the Maurya dynasty onwards and presented the stark difference in the nation concept as it existed in Europe, and as it was perceived in Asia, particularly India. The premature reactions of some of the Congress leaders on his visit seemed to have boomeranged, as many of them did a volte-face after hearing Pranab’s ponderous discourse. Without concealing his admiration for Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, he pointedly highlighted his inclusive and relevant approach towards laying the foundation of modern India. In fact, the Congress conducted itself in a dismal manner, clearly demonstrating differences within its own ranks regarding the former President’s visit to the RSS headquarters.
The party should have at least waited for him to express his thoughts, before playing to the secular gallery, thereby reinforcing the impression that its tilt towards the minorities was very much intact. This perception was one of the major reasons for the party’s rout in 2014. Pranab Mukherjee’s superlative performance at Nagpur could even impact the aftermath of the 2019 Parliamentary polls. The experienced politician has positioned himself in such a manner that he could be an acceptable face, cutting across party lines, if there was a despairingly fluid political situation. Alternatively, he could provide counsel to those seeking his advice on the twisted complexities that would arise in the event of a hung house. There are some political pundits who believe that the invitation from the RSS could have been prompted by the Sangh Parivar, which apprehends that the sizably serious challenge to the BJP would come from Mamata Banerjee and Bengal. Thus by reaching out to Pranab, the RSS may be bearing in its mind both the prospects of facing a formidable Mamata or finding someone who could either placate her or mediate at an appropriate time. The jury is still out whether Pranab would play such a role, or recreate history by conquering the ultimate and final political frontier of his long career. Between us.