When he got the RSS' invitation, several rumours were floated and some gullible TV channels fell for the bait. This not only exposed their incompetence but also exposed their vulnerabilities in the highly competitive genre of news-gathering. Rumours can't be news, but unfortunately, there were discussions about how he had been contacted twice by RSS functionaries and a deal had been struck whereby his daughter was promised a ticket from the New Delhi constituency for the 2019 Lok Sabha election and she would be accommodated in the central cabinet if she joined the BJP. It was a juicy story. Pranab Da's speech proved them so wrong that these anchors should get a lesson in journalism. Sharmistha Mukherjee has denied the story. It was very brave of her to openly criticise her father on twitter - though she was also wrong in the assessment of him.
The other story being propagated was that Pranab Da was greatly inspired by Mahatir Mohammad of Malaysia who become Prime Minister at the age of 92 and inspired a new bout of political ambition. At a time when the Modi Magic is fast fading, new alliances are being formed, and the opposition is demonstrating great energy in tying up with all and sundry to combine against the BJP, it was being said that the BJP to save its skin might offer him the august seat to keep the secular brigade from winning power. This meant that Pranab Da attending an RSS function had a hidden agenda. And that Pranab Da was giving a clear signal that he was is not averse to the idea.
Pranab Da is undoubtedly the most experienced contemporary politician. It is also true that he has held ambitions of serving as prime minister. After the demise of Indira Gandhi, the Nehru-Gandhi family never trusted him. He had to leave the Congress during Rajiv's time. It was also speculated that Narsimha Rao did not include him in his cabinet as he did not want to annoy Sonia Gandhi. Though Sonia was not in politics at the time, Narasimha Rao could have ignored her only at his own peril because it was Sonia's approval that got him the prime ministership. Manmohan Singh was Pranab Da's junior. He had appointed him the governor of RBI. But in 2004, Sonia did not choose Pranab Da to run the country. Manmohan Singh was her choice. Manmohan Singh used to initially address Pranab Da as "sir" but Pranab Da asked him to not do so as MMS was now the prime minster. When corruption charges were intense around 2011-12, it was speculated that he would replace Manmohan Singh; Sonia Gandhi did not agree yet again. Instead, Pranab Mukherjee managed to get himself promoted to Rashtrapati Bhawan.
Pranab Da had a good working relationship with Mr Modi after 2014. And Modi was fond of referring to him as the "guardian". But to say that he succumbed to the charm of Modi would be absurd. He was a copybook president. He did express his views and criticised the murder of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri and the climate of intolerance created by Hindutva forces. The RSS knows that Pranab Da is a quintessential Congressman. He is secular to the core. And yes, he is also a realist, a practical politician. But to assume that at the fag end of his career, he would like to jeopardise his hard-earned reputation by aligning with the RSS in his greed to become the prime minster is unfathomable.
It is true that the RSS is aware of the crisis awaiting them in 2019. The RSS is also aware that if the BJP doesn't get more than 210 seats in 2019, then the BJP will find it difficult to find the extra seats it will need to form the government with Modi leading the front. But to think that the RSS in such a scenario will ask someone out of the Hindutva fold to lead the pack will be displays a basic misunderstanding of the RSS ideology. The RSS will try to find someone within its parivaar will be acceptable to all.
But that is in the realm of the future. My worry is more about the reaction of the liberal left. The Congress getting worried is understandable.A party does not only have to show antagonism towards it adversary but it also has to protect its turf. Pranab Da going to an RSS function would have certainly given a psychological edge to Hindutva warriors; it would also have created confusion amongst the rank and file of the Congress party (which, after his speech, should be cleared). But the intellectuals' reaction was beyond my comprehension, especially that of the English intelligentsia. They had no reason to react the way the Congress reacted. One has to face the reality of today - that the RSS is a dominant force. It runs the country and it has governments in 22 states. Gone are the days when the RSS was just a fringe player and intellectuals could afford to ignore it. But to ignore it now will be a disaster. In a democracy, their viewpoints have to be heard and debated. It also has to be understood why the Right is winning one election after another. Why do they have such an overpowering influence for now and how can this shape our future?
Pranab Da clearly understood the point that engagement with the RSS is unavoidable. He also told the whole world that addressing them from their platform does not mean joining the group or internalising their thoughts. He told the RSS that non-violence, tolerance, peace and harmony are the key. His speech was a good lesson in nationalism and patriotism. Now they will think twice before inviting someone of his kind. Pranab Da, ever wily, has outwitted his rivals again.
(Ashutosh joined the Aam Aadmi Party in January 2014.)
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