Czech-born novelist Milan Kundera begins ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’ with the story of a photograph clicked in Prague. The story goes that when communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped on to the balcony of a palace for a speech in 1948, comrade Vladimir Clementis gave his fur hat to the bareheaded leader on that cold day. The propaganda division of the communists made hundreds of thousands of copies of the snap that showed the fur hat on Gottwald, who was flanked by aides. After Clementis was hanged on treason charges, he vanished from the photograph, leaving Gottwald and the fur hat in the frame.
Seventy years later, Congress leader Sharmistha Mukherjee’s concerns about what she called “dirty tricks” ahead of her father and former President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)’s Nagpur headquarters were not unfounded. Feeding her fears that Mukherjee’s speech will be forgotten but visuals will remain, a morphed photograph showing the former President giving the signature RSS salute surfaced on social media. It was a “we told you so” moment for the Congress, which considers the nationalist, right-wing group an ideological rival. The RSS too condemned the morphed image, blaming it on “divisive political forces”.
The story of Clementis and his hat is a testimony to “dirty tricks” by groups trying to manipulate political and/or social discourses to suit their interests.
But, thankfully, it also underlines that modern history does not easily forget the truth beneath the surface of dominant narratives.
Political pundits and historians to come are to decide what meaning will be ascribed to Mukherjee’s meeting with RSS leaders. But in the immediate future, the veteran Congress leader’s Nagpur visit, loaded with visual imagery and symbolism, is unlikely to lose its substance against the backdrop of a debate that has found a common ground at the confluence of nationalism and the identity of India. For the June 7 speech by Citizen Mukherjee, as the former President calls himself on Twitter, has made both the Congress and the Centre’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party act as a winner.
In Nagpur, Mukherjee talked about the celebration of diversity, plurality and tolerance, underlining how India’s identity had taken shape after a “long-drawn process of confluence, assimilation and co-existence”. At the same event, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat stressed the need for “unity in diversity” and a “democratic mindset”, remarks that came as a prelude to Mukherjee’s speech.
The Congress, which launched a counterattack on the Sangh before Mukherjee took the dais, later said the concepts of “nation, nationalism and patriotism” he discussed had shown a mirror of truth to the RSS, which many consider the ideological parent of the BJP. And the BJP termed Mukherjee’s 35-minute address a “great speech”, while Union minister Nitin Gadkari said the former President’s acceptance of the RSS invitation was a “good start” because “political untouchability” should not be endorsed in a democracy. Fundamentally, the punch in Mukherjee’s words was a great leveller.
There are, and will be, voices in the Congress camp and among political players, such as the CPI(M), that will still question Mukherjee’s visit to the RSS headquarters. Notwithstanding the murmurs, Mukherjee’s message in Nagpur drives home a point at a time when nationalism and its manifestations are dominating prime-time debates. As long as an ugly bickering over ‘your nationalism vs my nationalism’ does not seep into the public discourse in context of Mukherjee’s speech, “dirty tricks” factories should not be able to corrode this moment in India’s history.