Nagpur: Former president Pranab Mukherjee’s acceptance of an invite from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to speak at its headquarters on Thursday has created a flutter. Many Congress leaders, including his daughter Sharmistha Mukherjee, have alerted him that this would lend legitimacy to the Sangh’s ideology, which the Congress is opposed to. In an email interview ahead of Mukherjee’s speech, Suhas Palshikar, veteran political scientist, analyst, author, and former head of the department of politics at Pune’s Savitribai Phule University, spoke of the possible reasons and the impact of Mukherjee’s acceptance of the invite. Edited excerpts:
What is your reading of the RSS invite to Mukherjee? And why do think he has accepted it?
The invite to Mukherjee has helped RSS in creating a discussion around itself and underscoring how it is open-minded in its approach. It is tough to imagine why Mukherjee accepted the invitation, but one thing can be said for sure: He certainly did not accept it out of naivety or ignorance.
Does this have to do with the RSS’ craving for a wider, more respectable acceptability?
Yes. The RSS is deeply self-conscious of its shortcomings, one being its intellectual inadequacy and the other, its lack of acceptability among a large section of the modern political elite operating in the democratic arena. It strives to always convince its cadres that despite bitter criticisms, it is after all, quite acceptable to the wider sections of the elite.
Whatever Mukherjee says in his speech, the RSS seems to have pulled off a big victory in terms of its credentials as a mainstream organisation simply by offering him the stage. Do you agree?
The RSS has managed to seize an initiative in response to the consistent criticism of it by Rahul Gandhi and an invitation to Mukherjee is a symbolic move to unsettle the Congress criticism.
What could be the implications of this event for the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the RSS?
Already, the Congress is in a bind — it cannot desist from its staunch criticism of the RSS and yet, at the same time, it would find it difficult to openly criticise its veteran for accepting to speak to the RSS. As for RSS itself, it is unlikely to have any implication in the sense that a speech by Mukherjee is not likely to set off any rethinking among the RSS leadership and its cadres are ordinarily not impressed by outsiders.
What could be in store for Mukherjee himself after this event?
Ordinarily, a retired President is a formal dignitary without much likelihood of any direct political role. One hopes that Mukherjee follows this convention.
Mukherjee has been fairly nice to Modi since the latter became the prime minister. Is Mukherjee exacting some kind of revenge from the Congress for passing him over for the prime minister’s post?
Mukherjee’s fondness for Modi was unmistakable and the RSS might look forward to him being some kind of an interlocutor between the RSS-BJP and some sections of the Congress in case there is a need to further weaken the Congress on the eve of the parliamentary elections. An appeal by Mukherjee that at this historical moment in the country’s march toward development, like-minded nationalist forces need to collaborate might add considerable legitimacy to the RSS’ and Modi’s politics. Such an appeal would also seek to entrap the RSS by advising them to give up some of their basic ideological tenets. Thus, he would appear to be an elderly statesman, advising the RSS to change and advising critics of the RSS to shift away from their resolution not to talk to the organisation. If anything, this would enhance his stature without necessarily achieving anything.
Having been sidelined both in 1984 and in 2004 by the Congress, Mukherjee might want to go down in history with his post-retirement moves and appropriation of his stature as ex-president. But as to his motives, the best person to explain would be Mukherjee himself, if he chooses to write a memoir on this post-retirement turbulence.