At the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) headquarters in Nagpur, when former president Pranab Mukherjee started defining Indian nationalism through the prism of pluralism, secularism and tolerance, it appeared we had been transported to a civics class. Unperturbed by all the tumult around him, Mukherjee, the teacher, was delivering a lecture that had something for every student. The only difference between the gathering in Nagpur and a classroom was that the audience did not comprise inquisitive students, but RSS workers. Watching him on television were representatives of political parties across the spectrum, including his former colleagues from the Congress. What remains to be seen is what each of them derived from his speech.

Pranabda’s long political innings is evidence that his word is taken seriously and its reverberations felt for a long time.

The kind of criticism that came his way before he could even head for Nagpur, was something that even Pranab Mukherjee would not have anticipated. In a political innings of more than half a century, he witnessed a lot of ups and downs, but his adversaries never raised questions over his secular credentials. But this time, those who were his own, were acting like adversaries. Dada, however, decided not to get distracted. He knew ideas become more effective when they were not foisted but disseminated. This was the emotion that drove him to the RSS headquarters in Nagpur.

The attacks on him began with P. Chidambaram and subsequently got serious support from Ahmed Patel and Anand Sharma. Gradually, a whole lot of Congress leaders joined the chorus. What was incredible was the manner in which Sharmistha, his own daughter, tweeted and gave her father advice on a public forum about how his photograph could be misused. Politics in India has a unique streak to it. Where and what to speak isn’t decided by the politician but the prevalent mood. Even Pranab Mukherjee is not immune to this. While listening to him, I remembered that the person speaking was the same Dada who had moved a resolution for the Congress in 2010 that asked for an investigation into the charges that the RSS and its sister organizations had links with those indulging in saffron terrorist activities. Our politicians change themselves with changing circumstances.

This wasn’t always the case. Despite disagreeing with the philosophy of the RSS, Mahatama Gandhi participated in the same programme before independence. Impressed with their role in the 1962 war against China, Jawaharlal Nehru extended the RSS an invitation to participate in the Republic Day parade in 1963. At that time, Gandhi’s assassination was still fresh in people’s minds and some of them alleged that this was sympathizing with his killers. But Nehru didn’t hesitate or waver. Lal Bahadur Shastri repeated this in the 1966 Republic Day parade since RSS activists had helped the nation during the war against Pakistan in 1965. When Gandhi, Nehru and Shastri didn’t show any aversion to them, why such a kerfuffle today?

In this era of criticism and polarization, one should keep in mind that politics can be conducted on the basis of lies and half truths. But for a healthy democracy, it is also essential to have a dialogue with every legal organization. Gandhi used to say that instead of hating the British, try and understand them and then convince them of your point of view. By going to Nagpur, has Pranab Mukherjee proved that he is a Gandhian or someone who has betrayed the Father of the Nation?

Here it is important to realise that incessant criticism of the RSS over the years has only strengthened it. Today the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its political arm, is ruling over 20 states as well as the country itself. How can one treat such a powerful organization as an untouchable in perpetuity? Even earlier, Left-wing leaders as well as former presidents such as A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Neelam Sanjiva Reddy (who went there during his tenure as president) have participated in similar programmes. Everybody knows that once you become president, you rise over party affiliations. Why create a hullaballoo then?

Actually, we are living in an era of ideological intolerance and distrust. Every class and ideology has been afflicted by this. The question to ask is how can those who keep making allegations about tampering with constitutional bodies conveniently stay oblivious to this history and convention? If you want to restore the dignity of institutions, you’ll have to trust those running them.

This is another lesson from Pranab’s classroom.

Shashi Shekhar is editor in chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin

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