A false step | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 02, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:08 PM, June 02, 2018

A false step

Pranab Mukherjee is a man of all-political affiliations. He has occupied the highest position as a Congressman and has also floated a political party with a few of his associates in the Congress. But one can call him a self-made man in the political arena. He has accepted the invitation to visit the RSS headquarters at Nagpur to address the cadre.

To quote RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, “Mukherjee was graceful enough to accept the invitation.” It is a surprise because the place never put up the picture of Mahatma Gandhi because he represented an ideology of pluralism and egalitarianism, which are not conducive to the RSS philosophy of establishing a Hindu Rastra.

I recall Pranab Mukherjee as a man of humility who invited me to his house to hear the recital of his wife, a vocalist. Then he was struggling to make his mark as a politician. His residence gave a modest look with minimum furniture. He was known as a man of simple habits. But everything changed over the years when he established himself as an affluent politician with authority.

During the emergency I happened to visit him at his residence and to my surprise I found a well-furnished sitting room. He was then the Commerce Minister in the Indira Gandhi cabinet and very close to Sanjay Gandhi, who was an extra-constitutional authority and practically held the reins of power. To say candidly, Pranab Mukherjee was his Man Friday who carried out the orders coming from Sanjay Gandhi.

The latter virtually ruled the country with Pranab Mukherjee on one side and Bansi Lal, then defence minister, on the other. It was during the period that Pranab Mukherjee granted or stopped licences at the bidding of Sanjay. Raids on shops and residences of critics were carried out throughout the country.

Pranab Mukherjee was a wrong choice as president and should not have adored the gaddi at the first instance. When Sonia Gandhi elevated him to the office, she was criticised. But hers was a gift to a loyal person who even said the sun rose from the west if she said so. He was another Giani Zail Singh, whom Indira Gandhi, appointed as president out of the blue and got him elected.

The very rule of Pranab Mukherjee was an insult to the democratic nation. He had violated the constitution by occupying the position. I have followed the period when he was at Rashtrapati Bhavan and I found to my horror that it was a rule which had a negative impact. If he had been a sensitive person, he would have felt the wrongs done during the 17 months of emergency. If nothing else, he could have at least regretted the imposition of the emergency when more than one lakh people were detained without trial, the press was “disciplined” and the civil servants lost the distinction between right and wrong, moral and immoral.

It was Sonia Gandhi's compulsion and determination to make her son, Rahul Gandhi, the Prime Minister came in the way of Mukherjee's political ambitions. But then he soon realised that the mood and announced he would not contest the 2014 elections which, in effect, cleared the deck for Rahul Gandhi.

If she appointed him as president, it was because he had served the dynasty faithfully. People rightly defeated him and Indira Gandhi when the elections were held in 1977 soon after the emergency was lifted. I consider his appointment to the highest position was a slap on the face of the nation. I expected the former president to recall the period when he was at Rashtrapati Bhavan and should have been able to spot at least one instance when he upheld democracy and pluralism. Seldom have people felt as let down as they did during his presidency.

Had there been a Lokpal, he would have pointed out where the former president failed. Alas, there is no such institution to assess a president's tenure. Heads of institutions are not generally assailed. The idea behind such thinking is that the criticism may harm the institutions, which are essential for the sustenance of democratic polity. Germane to the idea is the presidency. Therefore, the president is spared even when he or she crosses the line that the office delineates.

Maybe because of this consideration Pranab Mukehrjee had escaped censure even when a person at an equally high office has been skipped. It did not behove the president to release his memoirs during his tenure. Wittingly Pranab Mukherjee has negated the struggle against communal forces. The RSS or, for that matter, the Bharatiya Janata Party can tell the nation that Nagpur does not represent the communal forces because Mukherjee has chosen to address the RSS cadre.

Surprisingly, the Congress has not uttered a word to condemn Mukherjee's step. The silence is a sort of endorsement of what he is doing. Yet, one former Congress minister has urged him to reconsider his decision in the interests of secularism. Understandably, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari has defended the former president's decision to address the RSS cadre by saying that he was not visiting an ISI camp.

Even though opinion is divided within the Congress, there are some members who still believe that the former president, who has been a Congressman all his life, would deliver a strong message on pluralism from the RSS platform. In fact, veteran leader Salman Khurshid defended him saying that the party must have faith in Pranab Mukherjee and “trust him not just for his true allegiance to the idea of India, but also for being sagacious and wiser than us.”

This is a weak argument. The very presence of Mukherjee at Nagpur would confuse the nation because they have heard from every Congress leader that the RSS is an antithesis of pluralism. In fact, Sonia Gandhi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi have criticised Mukherjee for his visit. Had they done so, they would have forced the nation's attention refocus on the party which is increasingly becoming irrelevant.

Kuldip Nayar is an eminent Indian columnist.

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