New Delhi June 9  Both Mukherjee and Bhagwat deserve kudos for mainlining a discourse of moderation

Former President Pranab Mukherjee, following in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Jayaprakash Narayan — to name just a few stalwarts of modern India including those from the Congress Party — did well to accept the invitation of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat to deliver the closing address of the Tritiya Varsha Sangh Shiksha Varg at the organisation’s headquarters in Nagpur. What he said in his address has been widely reported and needs no repetition. Suffice it to say that while both Mukherjee and Bhagwat, who spoke before him, stuck to the themes which they believe needed iteration for the preservation of an ancient culture and building a modern, inclusive, democratic state, the unstated synergy between their different worldviews, as it were, was the implicit acceptance of the notion of an Indian/Indic/Hindu (take your pick) exceptionalism. That’s a start, because it is an exceptionalism that is premised on moderation, accepts that patriotism and nationalism can be co-terminus and is unapologetic about its unique civilisational heritage while not being triumphalist about it.

Mukherjee, as a lifelong student of Indian politics and the various ideological streams that have contributed to how we view the construct of our nation, knows that unlike the current-day avatar of the Congress, when it was at its zenith the party reached out to all strands of thought. Nehru famously invited the RSS to send a contingent to the Republic Day parade in 1963 and had interactions with MS ‘Guruji‘ Golwalkar in the 1950s. Sardar Patel, even when he argued and disagreed with the Sangh on many of its positions on the issues of the day, never stopped interacting with leaders of what he considered a patriotic organization working for society though it did not stop him, as Independent India’s first Deputy Prime Minister in-charge of the Home Ministry, from either proscribing the RSS in the aftermath of the Mahatma’s assassination or, indeed, lifting the ban when he was satisfied it was unfair. JP, of course, despite his well-known hesitation in working with the Sangh earlier, became one of its most rational critics-turned-friends when he worked closely with the RSS’ political cadre in the Total Revolution and subsequent anti-Emergency movements. But perhaps the example Mukherjee looked to first in deciding to accept the Sarsanghachalak’s invite was that of the original champion of demolishing untouchability in all its forms, the Mahatma.

Gandhiji’s engagement with those who disagreed with him — including the RSS, the Communists and even the Muslim League — remains an example of outreach that has never since been emulated. It is a different matter that of the afore-mentioned organizations, the leadership (at the time) of the first did end up incorporating aspects of Gandhian thought in its own ideological position while remaining steadfast in its opposition to what they saw as his appeasement of the Muslim community; the leadership of the second attempted to reconcile socialism with an Indic cultural idiom but a coup from within effectively put paid to that effort and; the leadership of the third cynically used the Mahatma’s generosity to achieve its own supremacist, religious and political ends.

The lesson? If only the leadership of political parties across the spectrum today reflect, introspect, perchance read a little more, we may finally be able to establish a tradition of samvaad in the public sphere. Mukherjee has done his bit.