What former President Pranab Mukherjee said last week was not exactly new for a long-time activist of the Indian National Congress, whose last address as head of state was pretty much on the same lines. But it is where he said it that made news, and rightly so. Mukherjee's address to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) workers at its headquarters in Nagpur was akin to former deputy prime minister and senior BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani visiting the mausoleum of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, at Karachi in 2005. It was also a bit like US President Richard Nixon visiting Moscow in 1972 to end the Cold War with the now-collapsed Soviet Union.
Mukherjee said in Nagpur pretty much what he said in his last speech as President as he spoke up for pluralism, inclusivity and constitutional patriotism. It was almost like reading out the Riot Act, albeit in a positive spirit, to the RSS known for Muslim-baiting in some form or other. We can get into intellectual hairsplitting on whether RSS espousing "Sanatana Dharma" is in effect "true" secularism or not but the fact is that the average RSS thinker and some of the MPs and MLAs of its electoral extension, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are essentially regressing too often and too abrasively into India's glorious past, carefully eschewing the contributions of Mughals or Christians in shaping Indian values and only occasionally remembering heroes of the Northeast or southern India. India's "composite culture" in which "conquest, immigration and conversion" resulting in "adaptability and accommodation" is what sets the ground for it as a modern republic. The Constitution, rather than ancient notions of a motherland, is the current touchstone for India's nationhood.
Understandably, the Congress, Mukherjee's alma mater that no longer matters for him in a political sense taunted him for the speech, but it is pertinent to wonder if forgetting some of the wounds of the past is as important for Congress as for BJP and RSS -- and thus for India as a whole. Like Advani's Karachi visit, Mukherjee's speech at Nagpur was one of reconciliation.
But I do believe there is another side to the story, and another reconciliation, that is needed. Congress has been accused by the RSS and the BJP of appeasing Muslims. Often that stems from a poor understanding of modern democracy in which pro-active measures to include minorities and affirmative action to help underprivileged groups are part of constitutionally justifiable measures.
Can Mukherjee perhaps visit Aligarh Muslim University -- which is the counterpoint to Nagpur in the debate on Indian nationalism -- and say a few things that can strengthen his case? AMU was pulled into a controversy recently after BJP leaders raised questions about the presence of a Jinnah portrait in AMU's Union Hall. Ironically, is notable that BJP in its official website records Advani's visit to the Jinnah mausoleum along with his remark that Jinnah was actually a secularist. The BJP leader in fact paid his "respectful homage" to the founder of Pakistan at the mausoleum.
Jinnah, strangely enough, is more of an untouchable for the Congress than the BJP not only because he controversially led a "direct action" call that caused riots in 1946 but also because the Pakistani leader was a contemporary rival of Jawaharlal Nehru.
One recent book by a former Newsweek journalist, Nisid Hajari, talks of a "mutual dislike" between Jinnah and Nehru and says both leaders should share the blame for India's partition. He says "history ought to be examined, and re-examined, threadbare, before nations have the capacity to move on."
Somebody of the stature of Pranab Mukherjee must now call the bluff on both Congress and the BJP so that younger Indian (and hopefully Pakistani) citizens revisit history and debate genuine ideas that will take their countries forward. A visit by Pranab Babu to AMU to say a thing or two about both Nehru and Jinnah -- both positive and negative -- may well be in order. Both Congress and the BJP need some enlightened history lessons so that they stop pointing to each other to justify their own flaws and blind spots.
(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)