Former President Pranab Mukherjee’s proposed visit on 7 June to the Nagpur headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) for delivering a valedictory address to volunteers participating in a programme has stirred a hornets’ nest. The 82-year-old erstwhile Head of State has widely been criticised for attempting to provide credibility to the Hindu cultural organisation viewed by its ideological opponents as both fascist and polarising. Several top Congress leaders have urged him to reconsider his decision and cancel his trip. It is clearly evident that these functionaries were unaware of the close relationship the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi shared with the outfit during his tenure. He occasionally took advice on pivotal matters from Bhaurau Deoras, the interlocutor between the RSS and the BJP, and younger brother of the then Sarsangchalak, Balasaheb Deoras.
In fact, Rajiv had imbibed the “soft Hindutva legacy” of Indira Gandhi, and according to well placed sources had met the younger Deoras at least half a dozen times at different locales, including 46, Pusa Road, the residence of family friend and industrialist Kapil Mohan. He similarly had met Bhaurau Deoras at his confidant Arun Singh’s house on Race Course Road, twice at key associate Anil Bali’s Friends Colony residence, and their final meeting took place in December 1990 at 10, Janpath, nearly five months before his gory assassination.
Bhaurau had considerable influence over Rajiv and played a pivotal role in facilitating the opening of the locked doors at the disputed site in Ayodhya in the aftermath of the Shah Bano controversy. It was on his recommendation that the former Prime Minister provided clearance for Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana serial to be telecast on Doordarshan, this despite the fact that the Congress government had showed its disinclination for it to be aired. The shilanayas exercise at Ayodhya took place following Rajiv’s meeting with Bhaurau Deoras, who had counselled him to advance the Parliamentary election to May, 1989 so as to prevent the then opposition from reorganising themselves. The proximity of the two leaders and their splendid chemistry was evident from the fact that the former Prime Minister had gifted a Contessa car (DAV 2050) to Bhaurau, which subsequently Deoras gave away; his office secretary, Jyoti Saroop, was aware of this bestowal.
The short point being that despite ideological contradictions, the personal relations between Rajiv and the RSS functionaries remained cordial. If the current Congress president Rahul Gandhi is scathing in his references to the RSS, it is because no one apparently has adequately briefed him on the background of his father and grandmother’s complex and paradoxical political equation with the cultural organisation. Since he has an aggressive and overbearing attitude towards the RSS, his followers, mostly sycophants, who have scant knowledge of either the history or the contributions of their own party, follow suit.
From another angle, it may be unfair to blame them since they have solely witnessed the era of their party under Sonia Gandhi, where it had acquired a pronounced tilt towards the minorities. This perception had cost the Congress dearly in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, leading to an unprecedented victory for the BJP under Narendra Modi. This group of leaders, including many veterans as well, are oblivious of the fact that the RSS had been invited by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to participate in the 1963 Republic Day Parade for its contribution in organising civil defence work in the wake of the Sino-Indian war.
The RSS obviously has its specific agenda, which does not go down well with its opponents who believe that it was trying to impose its own thesis at the cost of the idea of secular India. However, political battles have to be fought on the ground, and those who support pluralistic concepts should be broad-minded enough to have a look at what the RSS stands for, though they are in variance with its doctrine.
Pranab Mukherjee perhaps has chosen to go to Nagpur since he is a seasoned politician whose acceptability and tremendous prowess is acknowledged across party lines. He is conscious of the fluidity of the current political situation ahead of next year’s Lok Sabha elections and is aware that his presence at the RSS headquarters would provide him visibility and keep his relevance intact. His secular credentials are unquestioned since he has spent the major part of his political career with the Congress. However, he realises that there would be little room for him in his old party, which is dominated by those committed to the leadership of the Gandhi family. After having served as the President of the Republic, he cannot be seen supporting inexperienced leaders of his erstwhile party.
Therefore, Pranab on one hand, in all probability is going to Nagpur to assuage the Hindutva brigade, and on the other, to send a distinct missive to the secularists that he was not yet out of the political arena. His address to the RSS volunteers would be under close scrutiny and while talking about inclusive politics, the former President in all likelihood shall shun political untouchability. The veteran perhaps can anticipate that his role as an elder statesman and politician has not ended, and even now, he could contribute in some measure, to the future of the country. His tango with the RSS cannot be without reason. President Pranab Mukherjee, possibly, is scripting a new chapter in history. Between us.