Former President Pranab Mukherjee’s acceptance of an invitation to address an RSS conclave in Nagpur on June 7 has sent ripples across the political spectrum. Some Congress leaders expressed their anguish at Mukherjee, Congress leader of many decades, ‘legitimising’ the party’s arch adversary by talking to its workers. Many others pointed out that going to Nagpur would not change Mukherjee’s political principles, that it was a good thing for RSS workers to hear an alternative point of view. It is good for democracy to have different points of view aired in common forums, in a non-hostile manner.
During the freedom movement Congress spoke for an Indian nationalism rather than a sectarian Hindu or Muslim one, even if there were overlaps with both sides. In 1934, the AICC passed a resolution prohibiting Congress members from also being members of the RSS, Hindu Mahasabha or Muslim League. As the editor of a recent centenary volume on Congress history, Mukherjee is all too aware of these differences. That ideological tug-of-war continues to shape contemporary India, and even now, Congress president Rahul Gandhi is fighting a case defending his charge that the RSS impulse lay behind Gandhi’s assassination. Forced to lay low in the decades after Gandhi’s killing, RSS acquired greater popular legitimacy for its resistance to Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.
Differences between Congress and BJP will not melt away with Mukherjee’s speech at an RSS event. But it might change the mood, enable a spirit of civil debate and disputation rather than blood feuds, violence and an idiom of political discourse marked largely by slurs, name calling or uncorroborated conspiracy theories. The question is not about the substance of political differences, but the manner in which these differences are expressed and resolved. This is a moment of bitter polarisation, where the ruling party and opposition are both going for broke.
So it is more important than ever to emphasise dialogue. Parliamentary democracy rests on colliding views being expressed and synthesised. Through this process the rough edges of extreme views can be refined and moderate ideologies applicable to the modern world emerge. Pranab Mukherjee, pragmatic politician that he was, knows the value of engaging with every side. RSS also deserves credit for extending the invitation to him. If only the rest of our echo chambers would learn to listen to the other side.