Pranab preaches pluralism in heart of RSS

Secularism and inclusion are a matter of faith for us. It is our composite culture which makes us into one nation. As his visit to the RSS headquarters in Nagpur to address the new recruits of the organisation sparked criticism from some Congress leaders, including his daughter, Mukherjee, 82, cautioned that any attempt to define India through “religion, dogma or intolerance” will only dilute the country’s existence. Declaring that India’s soul resides in pluralism and tolerance, Mukherjee said he is convinced that nationalism can only come out of the ideological fusion of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and other groups in India. He also called for freeing public discourse from fear and violence. “Every time a woman and child is hurt, the soul of India is wounded.” Dressed in a tradtional dhoti, kurta and a black waistcoat, Mukherjee said people are at the centre of all activities of the State and that nothing should be done to divide them. “The aim of the State should be to galvanise them to fight a concerted war against poverty, disease and deprivation. Only then can we create a nation where nationalism flows automatically,” he said. Asserting that India’s identity has emerged through a long-drawn process of confluence, assimilation and co-existence, Mukherjee made a passionate speech on ‘nation, nationalism and patriotism’ in the context of Bharat that lasted nearly 30 minutes. “From our Constitution, flows our nationalism. The construct of Indian nationalism is constitutional patriotism, which consists of an appreciation of our inherited and shared diversity… Secularism and inclusion are a matter of faith for us. It is our composite culture which makes us into one nation.”

Mukherjee’s message to hundreds of ‘pracharaks’ and top-brass of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, usually described as a Hindu right-wing organisation, was described as a ‘mirror of truth to the RSS’ by the Congress, whose several leaders have so far been critical of his decision to attend the event at the Sangh headquarters. At the same time, the Hindutva leaders, including S Gurumurthy, said Mukherjee talked about nationalism not being limited to any religious identity, which was the same message delivered by the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. In an apparent reference to the ‘one-nation-one-culture ideology’ often identified with the RSS, Mukherjee said India’s nationhood is not “one language, one religion and one enemy”. “It is ‘perennial universalism’ of 1.3 billion people who use 122 languages and 1600 dialects…practice seven major religions… live under one system, one flag and one identity of being Bhartiya and have ‘no enemies’. That is what makes Bharat a diverse and united nation,” he said. Mukherjee, who was President of India between 2012 and 2017, said, “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.” In remarks that come amid outrage over incidents of rapes including of minors, he talked about “soul of India” getting wounded, every time a child or woman is brutalised and “manifestations of rage are tearing our social fabric”. Mukherjee said only “a non-violent society” can ensure the participation of all sections of people in the democratic process, especially the marginalised and dispossessed. “We must move from anger, violence and conflict to peace, harmony and happiness,” he said. Earlier in the day, Mukherjee described Keshav Baliram Hedgewar as a “great son of Mother India’ as he visited the birthplace of the RSS founder Sarsanghachalak. “Today I came here to pay my respect and homage to a great son of Mother India,” Mukherjee wrote in a visitor’s book at Hedgewar’s birthplace ahead of his much-anticipated speech at the RSS headquarters here. Mukherjee also talked about thousands years of Indian history, including the rules of various dynasties, Muslim invaders, a mercantile company and then the British empire. He quoted from works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindra Nath Tagore, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and others and praised Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel for uniting India by bringing the princely states into the main fold. (PTI)]]>


India’s fledgling political opposition may have found a rallying figure in its fight against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It will be a long haul, but traces of a possible opposition alliance were visible at the high-profile launch of former President Pranab Mukherjee’s third volume of political memoirs. They deal with the coalition era in Indian politics. The unmistakable message from the event was that the coalition era did not really end with the 2014 victory of the Modi-led alliance. Mukherjee was applauded as the most erudite and experienced of the politicians around by leading lights of the opposition (none from the ruling National Democratic alliance was present) at the launch.  Mukherjee has since gone about giving several media interviews where he has firmly ruled out returning to active politics. But he is willing to play the guide. At 81, after half a century of political work that includes nearly three decades in government, he is possibly the only acceptable figure for the opposition that has failed to recover from the mauling it received with Modi’s 2014 victory and in the subsequent assembly polls. He may be playing the Bhishma Pitamaha in his second inning. If the atmospherics the book launch generated are anything to go by, Indian politics may be at a very interesting stage when Modi is facing a severe backlash on the social and sections of the mainstream media since his economic policy has faltered.  The run-up to the Gujarat assembly elections has witnessed a frenzy not seen for long. Nobody seriously thinks Modi could lose in Gujarat, his political backyard, but even a significant fall in the seats won could be a setback for the BJP when its chief Amit Shah has set the target at 150 in a House of 182. Mukherjee’s possible role in the near future underscores a supreme irony. Respected and heavily relied upon in the government and in the party, now in the opposition,  he did not get the top post he deserved. And now, it is not just him saying so. It would be a rarity in any democracy that a person holding India’s highest office, that of the President, has been ‘missed’ for the slightly lower, but all-powerful position of the prime minister. That sentiment underscored Mukherjee’s tenure (2012-2017) as the President.   It was at times publicly expressed, in his presence, while according a civic reception or when conferring an honorary doctorate upon him. “He is the best Prime Minister India has never had” was the refrain. Mukherjee never reacted to this as a minister or as the President. Even if somebody asked or even hinted, he would chide in his characteristic style, “I don’t expect such a thing from a senior person like you”, or words to that effect. Post-retirement, he has repeated this the umpteenth time, as journalists who have interacted with him over the years well know.   “Don’t forget you are talking to a former President of India,” he told a senior journalist recently. It was at once a reminder to the questioner as also to himself that certain norms of public decency are expected of a senior journalist and even of someone who held the highest office. This is saying a lot in today’s no-holds-barred toxic discourse.   Mukherjee’s thwarted “political ambition” – and it is no sin for someone to aspire — is an “official secret” the country has lived with. Even foreign observers of India would bring it up in private conversations. Now it has come into open, officially, from the horse’s pen, as it were, in the pages of his memoirs. He writes that he did aspire for the PM’s post. He had come away from a meeting with Sonia Gandhi with the impression that Dr. Manmohan Singh, then the prime minister, would be elevated to the presidency, in which case, he could be the PM. That did not happen. Instead, he got a green signal, not for that post, but for the job in Rashtrapati Bhavan. That had left him both surprised and dismayed. At the book launch, Singh candidly accepted that Mukherjee, his senior in earlier governments (he had been instrumental in Singh being appointed the governor of the Reserve Bank of India) was better suited to the prime minister’s post than he was. When Mukherjee declined to join the Singh Government in 2004, and he did so because Sonia Gandhi had insisted, the first thing the new PM did was to tell Mukherjee that he had “no choice” on his being chosen. The two worked well thereafter. It needs stressing that this id not a reflection on Dr Singh who, when he got the post, led the country for a decade. An eminent economist and administrator, but not into the rough and tumble of politics, he was, and admits to being “an accidental prime minister”. The “no choice” factor was obvious from the start, but remains largely unstated even now. Singh was Sonia’s ‘choice’ for the PM’s post and Mukherjee was not.  She exercised her overriding power as the Congress chief, and more so, as a Nehru-Gandhi who had headed the Congress as a dynastic preserve. She deliberately overlooked a politically agile, experienced and powerful Mukherjee and preferred Singh, a total outsider with no political base.   It does not require to possess understanding of a Chanakya to recall that she was thwarting Mukherjee in 2004 just the way she had thwarted Sharad Pawar in 1991, choosing to throw her weight (while still not the Congress President) behind an older P V Narasimha Rao, who had all but gone into retirement. Pawar, the doughty Maratha had the satisfaction of contesting against Rao and losing. Mukherjee did not have that solace. He was not even given the key Home portfolio, the second-best – forget being made the deputy prime minister – perhaps because that, again, could pose a political threat to Sonia and her family. Had she permitted Dr Singh’s elevation to the presidency and Mukherjee as the prime minister in 2012, chances are that the Congress-led government would have emerged far more decisive and dynamic. In which case, perhaps, the 2014 debacle would not have happened.    These are but ifs and buts of history and shall always overshadow Sonia’s 19-year tenure as the Congress President, the longest any person has had in the life of the 132 year old party. The question, now, is, will she make amends for her past judgments that cost the country dearly? Sonia, along with son and party vice president Rahul Gandhi was present at the book launch. At the function, the Gandhis let it be known that she, known to be ailing for long, would step down and Rahul would take over as the party chief in the coming weeks. Assuming the changeover happens, despite the surge in his political profile in the recent weeks, Rahul has not attained the image and seniority that leader of an opposition alliance demands.  Even those parties that view the BJP as their principal threat are unable/ unwilling to shed their anti-Congressism. This is where Mukherjee’s role could come as behind-the-scene father figure. That he enjoyed ‘excellent’ ties with Modi, yet never wavered from criticizing the atmosphere of ‘intolerance’, repeatedly harping on the need for preserving an ‘inclusive’ and ‘pluralistic’ society —  speaking all these within the parameters of grace that his office demanded, indicate that he had and continues to have, an agile mind rooted in a deeply evolved political culture. But even Mukherjee cannot work wonders for the country if the Congress fails to rise to the challenge as a cohesive party on the go and the opposition parties continue to behave like the proverbial crabs pulling each other down. Their past record is not very flattering. People rightly ask: “But where is the opposition?” Coalition in their endeavor would have to precede any ambitious move they may make towards power. // ]]>


The outgoing president of India used an interesting word to describe the soul of India. He said it resides in ‘pluralism’. Yet during his presidency he defended ‘secularism’ an ideology that promotes tolerance but not pluralism. What and when the president said is the tragic contradiction of India, a State whose institutional ideology supresses its soul while people try and find expression for that soul.
The Indian civilisation is indeed uniquely a pluralist civilisation. It does not aspire to simply tolerate but permits alternative ideas and ideologies to flourish as equal.
Secularism on the other hand merely tolerates. It permits alternative ideologies to survive in the personal domain as personal religion or belief. Those competing in the public domain have to commit to pretending that apart from democracy and atheist political ideas, all others are irrelevant to the system of governance.
In India however, these non secular ideas have been part of the plural public domain for more than thousand years until the British introduced European monopolistic public domain as a the ideology of governance.
Not only the ex-President, but there are a number of politicians and thinkers who think that there is a dysfunctional relationship between the what Mukherjee calls ‘soul’ of India and the constitutional India that the State of India inherited from British liberalism.
But why say it at the end of the presidency. India’s vice president, Shri Krishna Kant in 1999 also said something similar. In fact he even dared to say that the concept of dharam and Indian civilisation had been distorted by western secularism. He, like Pranab Mukherjee, said that India’s essence is pluralism. Yet in office these powerful politicians defended a constitution and an ideology that they clearly knew does not reflect the ’soul’ of India let alone give it expression.  If they know this, why not initiate change when in office instead of making throw away statements at inconsequential times.
Both with majoritarian democracy lifted from Westminster and secularism taken as crumbs from European intellectual tables, India has carried on with the British created and then discarded body of the Indian State on life support, keeping it going under indigenous management. Is it any wonder that poverty continues, communalism flourishes and corruption reigns. While the soul of Indians as a people may be based on pluralism, the State’s spiritual home is in Europe where secularism emerged as another of the big Abrahamic ideologies.
It must be time that Indians start some introspection. Surely in 5000 years of history, the only contribution of India to world civilisation cant just be a curry and a sari to which now PM Modi has added Yoga. There must be Indian political ideologies and Indian forms of consensus that are more sophisticated than the simple majoritarian democracy borrowed from Westminster. There must be Indian political philosophies that reflect the plural soul of India.
Mukherjee’s statement had some sad undertones in some ways. It appeared that the statement was acknowledging that in office he was flogging something that he didn’t quite believe in. Perhaps he was also making a veiled reference to the Hindutva agenda but he would be missing that essence of ‘soul of India’ if he thought that secularism was it.  One can only assume that as President and an intellectual, he would appreciate the difference between secularism and pluralism and was in fact referring to this difference.
There are no longer the British to stop Indians developing a pluralistic political institution in India and adopt a pluralistic constitution.  So why after 70 years, India  carries on as if it is still seeking approval and a nod from its previous masters that it is doing well with the ‘Indian project’. Why carry on with the institutions created by Britain to impose their own culture upon Indians?
Isnt it time, that India can breathe easily and start a slow process of giving expression to this supressed soul? Why still seek words of ‘well done boys’ from the British by boasting that ‘India is the world’s biggest democracy’. This only adds to the British self smugness and pride that it was they who have taught this 5000 year old civilisation how to govern!
Why go on being proud telling the world that the Indian judicial system is the same as in Britain with separation of executive and judiciary. So what happened in the 5000 minus colonial period. Wasn’t there anything of worth in Indian justice from that long period or was it a period of long darkness waiting for British colonialists to drag Indians into some form of enlightenment?
The truth is that many an Indian realises they are supporting and bandaging an artifice, a plastic scaffolding of governance which does not have a soul originating from the long history of India’s plural civilisations. Yet no one has the courage to say it in public let alone shake the system. Many say it in coded language as the ex president has said.
Perhaps it is time that India lifted the veil of self deceit. Instead of being the world’s biggest democracy with the most number of people in poverty, it may be an idea to have an Indian form of consensus politics and very little poverty. Instead of being a country that plays the parliamentary game as handed down by the colonialists, perhaps India can create a house of representatives that truly represent its diversity.
Perhaps what Mukherjee should also have said is, there fore we need to drop the word secular in the constitution and replace it with the word ‘plural’. That may be a start.