Posted by: John Elliott | June 7, 2018

Narendra Modi’s nationalism comes under attack at the heart of the BJP movement

India’s former president goes to RSS headquarters

“We derive our strength from tolerance” says Pranab Mukherjee

India’s former president Pranab Mukherjee today went to the heart of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s political and social movement and appealed for an end to the divisive policies being pursued by the BJP’s prime minister Narendra Modi and the party president Amit Shah.

“Any attempt at defining our nationhood in terms of dogma and identities or religion, region, hatred and intolerance will only lead to dilution of our identity,” Mukherjee told a youth audience at the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right wing umbrella organisation that has direct influence on government policy and embraces the fiercely Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar (family of organisations), that includes the BJP. (The full text is here)

“In India, we derive our strength from tolerance, and respect our pluralism. We celebrate our diversity,” he said.  “I am here to share my understanding on nation, nationalism and patriotism about our country”


Pranab Mukherjee (right) stands alongside Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, while the RSS trainees march and Bhagwat does the traditional RSS salute

Visiting the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, central India, was a highly controversial move by the 82-year old politician, who held senior ministerial posts spanning four decades and who was defying the current Congress party leadership that had appealed to him to cancel his visit.

Even his daughter, Sharmistha Mukherjee, a Congress activist, went on Twitter to warn him that his speech would “be forgotten”, but that pictures of him with RSS leaders would “be circulated with fake statements” to legitimise the organisation and plant rumours and false stories.

“India’s nationhood is not one language, one religion, one enemy. It is the ‘perennial universalism’ of 1.3 billion people,” Pranab Mukherjee said, attacking the very basis of the Modi and Shah approach, which is widely believed to be to craft India into a Hindu-centric uniform society where Muslims and other minorities are tolerated but not regarded as equals.

“Every day, we see increased violence around us. At the heart of this violence is darkness, fear, and mistrust. We must free our public discourse from all forms of violence, physical as well as verbal. Only a non-violent society can ensure the participation of all sections of people in the democratic process, especially the marginalized and the dispossessed. We must move from anger, violence, and conflict to peace, harmony, and happiness”.

bhagwat-pranab meet Nov '15

Pranab Mukherjee as India’s president welcoming Mohan Bhagwat to the presidential palace

He began by talking about the durability of India’s ancient culture which will have pleased his RSS hosts. “Throughout….2,500 years of changing political fortunes and conquests, the 5,000 year old civilizational continuity has remained unbroken. In fact, each conqueror and each foreign element had been absorbed to form a new synthesis and unity,” he said.

“It is the confluence and assimilation of all these cultures that makes us unique. It is important to remember that the confluence of cultures do not mean extinction of another. Our nation is neither bound by religion nor race. In fact our Bharat is made up of its diversity”.

“Our national identity has emerged through a long drawn process of confluence, assimilation, and co-existence. The multiplicity in culture, faith and language is what makes India special. We derive our strength from tolerance. We accept and respect our pluralism. We celebrate our diversity. These have been a part of our collective consciousness for centuries”.

Congress supporters and other opponents of the BJP believe that the RSS should be shunned and condemned because it is the driving force behind the nationalist party’s Hindu dogma and provides it with its grass-roots strength.

Mukherjee was challenging that view and arguing that India has become riven and polarised with so much violence and discord since Modi’s government was elected in 2014 that there is a need for the RSS, as the BJP’s mother organisation, to be drawn into a national dialogue.

Critics will argue that this is a naive view, that neither the RSS nor the BJP will heed Mukherjee’s words, and that all he has done with his aura of a former president is to give the RSS a national legitimacy that it should never have.

His speech may also have had only a limited impact on his young audience who were attending a big parade at the end of a three-year training camp. Many of them would not have fully understood his speech, which was in English because he is not fluent in Hindi that is rigidly used by RSS and BJP leaders.

There have however been reports that the RSS fears the extreme authoritarian Hindu doctrine and culture being driven by Modi and Shah is so divisive that it is weakening the BJP’s chances of being returned to power in a general election due within the next eleven months. It may have therefore suited the RSS to host Mukherjee and show that it is not averse to some of what he said.

Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief who invited Mukherjee, said in a long opening speech that “everybody has the right to have a political opinion but there is a limit to have opposing opinion”.


Pranab Mukherjee on the stage with RSS leaders while an RSS choir sings

Mukherjee’s motives in making the visit are harder to divine. He may have simply wanted to start a national dialogue and may even see a possible political mediating role for himself in the future.

He went despite widespread criticism, including public remarks by two Congress leaders close to Sonia Gandhi, the party’s former president. Ahmed Patel, Gandhi’s closest political adviser, tweeted in response to Mukherjee’s daughter that he  “did not expect this from Pranab da(brother)!”

Anand Sharma, a former Congress minister and family loyalist, tweeted that “dialogue can only be with those who are willing to listen, absorb and change”, adding “there is nothing to suggest that RSS has moved away from his core agenda as it seeks legitimacy”.

Mukherjee has not been trusted by the Gandhi family since 1984 when prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated and he (then the finance minister) hoped to become prime minister. Rajiv Gandhi took that job and immediately dismissed him from the finance post. Mukherjee formed his own party but then re-united with Congress.

In 2004 when Congress won the general election under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, he was the logical choice to take the prime ministerial post but she chose Manmohan Singh, who she trusted.

Mukherjee then held influential posts as foreign, defence and finance minister, though he did considerable harm to the economy in the latter job with taxation and other policies.

Eventually Gandhi agreed that Congress should back him as India’s president in 2012, a post which he carried out with dignity and effectiveness till last year.

The Congress Party softened its opposition after the speech. Anand Sharma said that “there was never any doubt of Pranab Mukherjee’s ability to articulate and his conviction, but for dialogue the other side must listen and change – hope RSS does it”.

That of course is for the future. Today, the main point is that, by going to the RSS den, Mukherjee has drawn attention to the seriousness of India’s current drift into a polarised and often violent society.

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