It is probably not a stretch to compare former president Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) founder Keshav Baliram Hedgewar’s residence at Nagpur on Thursday with that of senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L K Advani’s to the mausoleum of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, in Karachi in the summer of June 2005.
On Friday, Advani issued a statement lauding Mukherjee and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, and there were hints that the senior leader, who is now a member of his party’s margdarshak mandal, or mentor’s group, feels vindicated that the RSS opened its doors for Mukherjee, and the veteran Congressman accepted the invite.
Mukherjee wrote on Thursday in the visitor’s book at Hedgewar’s residence that he was there to pay homage to a great son of India. The former president’s gesture is comparable with Advani’s in Karachi. In Karachi on June 4, 2005, standing before Jinnah’s tomb, Advani had described the chief architect of Pakistan as a “secular” and an “Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”.
As Mukherjee has been criticised by some in the Congress, Advani had faced criticism from the RSS. K S Sudarshan was then RSS chief and the Sangh didn’t forgive Advani. It contributed to the BJP’s loss in 2009 Lok Sabha, when Advani was its prime ministerial face by not putting its shoulder to the wheel. However, Advani remained steadfast in never apologising for the views he had expressed about Jinnah in 2005, and Bhagwat's efforts at initiating a dialogue by inviting Mukherjee has probably given him a sense of vindication.
In his statement issued on Friday, Advani said: “As a lifelong swayamsevak of the RSS, I believe that these two national leaders (Mukherjee and Bhagwat) have truly set a praiseworthy example of dialogue transcending ideological affiliations and differences.”
Advani said he has known and worked closely with Mukherjee. He said the former president “strongly believes in the necessity of dialogue and cooperation among people of various ideological and political backgrounds.”
More interesting was Advani’s praise for the RSS chief. “I am happy that under the leadership of Shri Bhagwat ji, the RSS has expanded and intensified its efforts to reach out to various sections of our nation in the spirit of dialogue,” Advani said.
The veteran BJP leader described Mukherjee’s visit to the RSS headquarters and his "illuminating exposition of the noble idea and ideals of Indian nationalism" as a "significant event in our country's contemporary history".
Advani said there was significant concord and resonance in the views expressed by both of them. "Both of them highlighted the essential unity of India, which accepts and respects all diversities, including the pluralism of faiths," he said in the statement.
"Such conversations, conducted in the spirit of openness and mutual respect, will surely help in creating a much-needed atmosphere of tolerance, harmony and cooperation to build an India of our common dreams," Advani said.
In the last four years, Advani hasn’t had the best of equations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah. In an interview in 2015, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, Advani had said: “At the present point of time, the forces that can crush democracy, notwithstanding the constitutional and legal safeguards, are stronger”.
His comments were taken to be a criticism of the Modi government. In November 2015, after BJP’s loss in Bihar, Advani, along with senior leaders Murli Manohar Joshi, Shanta Kumar and Yashwant Sinha, had flagged the erosion of democracy within the BJP. They had said “the party is being forced to kowtow to a handful”.
Advani’s statement on Friday comes in the wake of a report in Bengali daily Ananda Bazar Patrika earlier this week that Prime Minister Modi had gone to meet his one-time mentor. According to the report, Modi asked Advani to prepare himself to contest for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. However, the country’s political class, as well as some in the RSS, are wary of the dangers of the ever-strengthening personality cult of the PM.
In his speech on Thursday, Bhagwat said that “power without humility turns into danavi, or monstrous power”, and that only the “dusht”, or wicked, use unbridled power to harass others. Bhagwat didn’t take names, but the message could be to the current leadership of the country.
On Friday, Congress leader Anand Sharma also praised Mukherjee. It was quite a change of heart for Sharma, who on Thursday had criticised Mukherjee for agreeing to visit the RSS headquarters.
“Pranam Pranab da, you have emerged proud and taller from Nagpur. There was never any doubt about your strength of character, moral courage, conviction and commitment to uphold the secular constitutional democracy,” Sharma tweeted on Friday morning.
This was in some contrast to his tweets on Thursday. In one of his tweets, Sharma had said: “The images of Pranab Da, veteran leader and ideologue at RSS Headquarters have anguished millions of Congress workers and all those who believed in pluralism, diversity and the foundational values of the Indian Republic.”
Later in the evening, the RSS "denounced" those trying to defame the Sangh by posting morphed photographs of Mukherjee. The photographs show Mukherjee standing in a prayer position, and is a custom with the RSS cadres, with a folded hand during the recitation of the RSS prayer on Thursday evening. However, Mukherjee was standing in attention and didn't fold his hand. The morphed photographs have been circulated since morning in the social media. "We denounce and strongly condemn such dirty tricks by these divisive political forces to deliberately defame RSS," a statement from the RSS said.
There is indeed more to the Bhagwat and Mukherjee equation than what meets the eye.