The Pretence of Liberalism

Pranab Mukherjee
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Pranab Mukherjee is free to attend an RSS function if he so wishes

FOR ALL THE opprobrium that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) attracts in liberal circles, there is something in the tradition of the Nagpur-based organisation that is liberal. Every year, for key functions, the RSS invites well-known individuals from various walks of life to address is volunteers. The political affiliation or beliefs of the person are incidental on such occasions. What matters more is the invitee’s contribution to public life in India.

This year, during an RSS camp for third-year volunteers— usually held in peak summer months in Nagpur—former President Pranab Mukherjee has been invited to deliver an address. No sooner was this made public that all hell broke loose. India’s liberals were up in arms against the country’s former First Citizen for accepting an invitation from a so- called ‘fascist’ group. His former cabinet colleagues from the Manmohan Singh Government took him to task for what they apparently saw as an egregious act. A few even went as far to say that Mukherjee should remind the RSS of what is wrong with it as an organisation.

Two conclusions flow immediately from la affaire Mukherjee. One, the former President isn’t seen to have a persona independent of the party he once belonged to. Never mind the fact that as First Citizen, and certainly afterwards, he is an independent citizen, free to hold political beliefs and exercise them as he sees fit. Ordinarily, one would assume that this is the essence of democracy. But in India, democracy—and often even secularism—is automatically assumed to exclude any group, organisation or set of ideas not seen in consonance with what its liberal ideologues consider acceptable. Two, the extent of political polarisation is now warping judgements about simple choices as attending functions and events, even those that have little to do with party politics. This kind of intransigence could prove corrosive to the country’s civic culture, which needs to stay open to a variety of views from both sides of the political divide.

Mukherjee’s acceptance is his decision. From his past speeches, his beliefs when he was a Congress leader, and his general outlook in his years as an active politician, one can safely infer that he disagrees with the RSS’s ideas. But that has not kept him from gracefully accepting the invitation for an event that holds special place in the RSS calendar.