By: John Elliott

India’s former President, Pranab Mukherjee, has gone 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 Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right-wing umbrella organization that has direct influence on government policy and embraces the fiercely Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar (family of organizations), that includes the BJP.

“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)

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 legitimize the organization and plant rumors and false stories.

“India does not have one religion, one entity or one culture,” Pranab Mukherjee said, attacking the very basis of the Modi and Shah approach, which is 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. We must free our public discourse from all forms of violence — physical or verbal. We must move away from anger and violence to peace, harmony, and happiness”.

Pranab Mukherjee welcomes 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. “Of the 2500 years of conquerors and rulers, the 5,000-year-old civilization remains constant. Each conqueror has been assimilated and absorbed,” 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”.

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 polarized 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 organization, 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, which 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 11 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”.

Mukherjee 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 then-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 reunited 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, defense 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 polarized and often violent society.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.