Ram Nath Kovind and Pranab Mukherjee: A tale of two presidents who displayed complete lack of spine

Gautam Benegal
Gautam BenegalJun 10, 2018 | 19:46

Ram Nath Kovind and Pranab Mukherjee: A tale of two presidents who displayed complete lack of spine

In the post-mortem of former president Pranab Mukherjee's visit to the RSS Tritiya Varsh Training programme, various theories have made the rounds from 'he sold out' to the 'he taught them a lesson'. There's even one which claims that Mukherjee still harbours PM aspirations, an old unfulfilled desire gnawing his entrails like a teenager's first love.

The fact is that apart from his bizarre endorsement — rather glowing praise — of KB Hedgewar, his visit and speech was not spectacular at all and something of a damp squib after all these days of anticipation. This was a generic Class 10-level lecture in Indian history on national integration with the mandatory Rabindranath Tagore quotes to Mohan Bhagwat and his cohorts, like a kindly grandfather reminding a group of dull children about pluralism and tolerance. As a BJP spokesman pointed out, it was nothing spectacular and nothing PM Narendra Modi does not do abroad.

Columnists and social media pundits have been decoding and fitting the speech into their confirmation biases and political corners according to their colours and stripes.

As Mukherjee, a survivor in the corridors of power over several governments, and an expert in bureaucratic neutral banalities knows, the best part about mouthing truisms and generalities is that everyone can lay claim to you, and cherry-pick what suits their agendas. You come out as a noble soul far removed from earthly turmoil and distasteful mortal failings. Everyone's a winner.

If anything at all, one gets the unmistakeable feeling from the heavy and ponderous speech that he meant this to be a last hurrah as a patrician statesman with his head far above in the snowy realms of noble idealism, skirting contentious issues, so that he would go down in history as one of India's last secular leaders.

In other words, the man is looking for immortality, not a PM ship.

Meanwhile, the RSS' purpose of finding legitimising for itself has been partially served by having a respectable leader like Mukherjee gracing their presence (even graciously signing the visitor's book under 'Great son of mother India' to describe Hedgewar).

Is Pranab babu aware of the following saying of Hedgewar's? Hedgewar quotation that owes its origins to a biography of Hedgewar by CP Bhishikar, titled Keshav: Sanghnirmata.

'As a result of the Non-Cooperation Movement of Mahatma Gandhi, the enthusiasm [for nationalism) in the country was cooling down and all evils in social life which that movement generated were menacingly raising their head. As the tide of national struggle came to ebb mutual ill-will and jealousies came on the surface. Personal quarrels raged all round. Conflicts between various communities had started. Brahmin-non-Brahmin conflict was nakedly on view. No organisation was integrated or united. The yavan-snakes reared on the milk of non-cooperation were provoking riots in the nation with their poisonous hissing.'

In fact no sooner had Mukherjee descended from the dias, that the IT cell creative brains were assiduously at work photo-shopping him with his hands across his chest in the RSS salute and putting the black cap on his head. Others harvested his speech and posted memes claiming that the former Congressman was now their fellow traveller. This was, of course, to be expected, and the worst fears of his daughter Sharmishtha Mukherjee realised, but the RSS/BJP IT cells still never cease to surprise with their remarkable speed and agility.

Meanwhile, the Congress too has claimed victory saying that he went into the enemy camp and gave them an object lesson on Nehruvian values. To each their own purpose. None of it is hardly going to change a single thing on the ground, in any case.

Pratik Sinha of AltNews astutely sums up the disconnect, 'Going gaga about both Nehru and Hedgewar in a span of few hours is the dictionary definition of duplicity.'

In many ways this 'duplicity' has been a common factor in the tale of two presidents for these last two weeks. When President Ramnath Kovind's office announced that he would not be throwing an iftar party at the Rashtrapati Bhavan this year, the perennial debate around 'appeasement of minorities' (in this case read Muslims) and secularism was reawakened and predictably the media has been buzzing with what constitutes or does not constitute secularism. The president's break with tradition has also irked many leaders of the Opposition, especifically the Congress party.

K Rahman Khan, Congress leader and former minister for minority affairs, one of the first to be interviewed by Times Now, gave a very carefully worded response, punctuating his statement with long pauses, saying, 'Whether to hold the iftar party or not is his individual decision, but whether to link that to his not hosting the iftar party to avoid unnecessary expenditure is really not in tune with the way the iftar party should have been considered.'

The president has said that piety should not be mixed with politics and public funds should not be wasted on religious festivals. This is very much in line with ex-president Abdul Kalam's policy of not hosting such celebrations. All would be well were if not for the fact that questions of secularism always crop up when a Muslim festival like Eid or Moharram comes up.

It is true that Rashtraparti Bhavan, apart from being bedecked in lights every Diwali (let's not be churlish), stays religion neutral. Carol singing on Christmas was stopped during Kalam's time though essential items and gifts were distributed to the needy. And now Kovind has broken tradition. Fair enough. But if we are talking about the president making a personal example (and an admirable one at that) for everybody in the administration starting from the PM to the lowest tehsil clerk, then there's a lot wrong with the picture perfect Uniform Civil Code (UCC) that the BJP keeps harping on.

The main reason President Kovind gave for discontinuing iftar receptions was that it was a waste of taxpayer's money. In fact, much earlier in 2017, the Maharashtra government citing a high court order, which came the same year, directed all municipal corporations in the state, including the Pune Municipal Corporation, to stop using municipal funds for religious ceremonies, festivals and functions. In its order, the high court had stated that 'municipal corporations must bear in mind that secularism is part of the basic structure of the Constitution and municipal funds are primarily required to be spent on providing civic amenities to the citizens.'

Prima facie these are admirable sentiments. But let us take a look at how all this works out on the ground in practical terms.

Post the government of India's decision to stop Haj subsidy for Muslims, the Minority Coordination Committee (MCC), Gujarat, a minority rights organisation had, in a letter to Union home minister Rajnath Singh, sought a white paper from the government of India on the types of subsidies being offered to different religious organisations.

Signed by Majuahid Nafees, the letter mentions that the NDA government progressively reduced the Haj subsidy ever since it came to power from Rs 750 crore two years ago to Rs 250 in 2017-18. Yet it was made to appear as if only Muslims cornered all religious subsidies.


Objecting to the effort to paint stopping of Haj subsidy as a 'big saving from wasteful expenditure', MCC points to how a few years ago, the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad carried a budget of Rs 1,150 crore, totally funded by the state and central governments. Moreover, in 2014, the UP government was accused of 'misusing' Rs 800 crore of this amount.

The MCC letter states, 'The Madhya Pradesh government spent Rs 3,400 crore, while the Central government spent Rs 100 crore for the Singhast Maha Kumbha in Ujjain… this apart, different governments spend huge funds for helping pilgrims visiting Badrinath, Kedarnath, Kailash Mansarovar, Amarnath and other spots... the government of Madhya Pradesh gives a subsidy of Rs 50,000 for Kailash Mansarovar Yatra per passenger.'

Referring to Gujarat, the MCC letter says the state government 'has set up what is called Pavitra Yatradham Vikas Board for the 'development' of 338 pilgrim spots across the state, even as it provided a budgetary allocation of Rs 106.69 crore in 2017-18. It also adds, 'The state government runs a course to teach the rituals of Hinduism, funded by the state.'

Moreover, the present government of Uttar Pradesh has 'begun programmes for the renovation and spiritual development of pilgrim spots in Kashi and Ayodhya, allocating Rs 800 crore.' MCC points out, 'The question arises whether one should focus on government spending on Haj pilgrims alone.'

'We believe that the state should not interfere in religious practices, which is a matter of personal choice,' MCC says, even as quoting from a Supreme Court judgement, which reads, 'The relationship between man and God is an individual choice. The state is forbidden to have allegiance to such an activity… Mixing state with religion is not constitutionally permissible.'

It also quotes Article 27 of the Indian Constitution, which states, 'No person shall be compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination.'

MCC also quoted from a Supreme Court order of 2011, Prafull Goradia vs The Union of India, pointing towards how religious funding 'violates Article 27' of the Constitution. The order said, 'In our opinion Article 27 would be violated if a substantial part of the entire income tax collected in India, or a substantial part of the entire central excise or the customs duties or sales tax, or a substantial part of any other tax collected in India, were to be utilised for promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination.'

The duplicity reflected in partisanship and religious bias does not necessarily even have to come from contravention of rules on paper, it can come from the signals you send out and the optics that you create as a public servant who holds government office. And that creates a mental blueprint of a state and its engagement with secularism.

In May 2018, when the president, who is the first citizen of India, and whose personal example should set a precedent visited the Brahma temple and offered prayers from the stairs on May 15, what kind of message was given out? Granted that he may have gone in his personal capacity, but were no public funds spent at all on that journey?

Expecting the public to be legalistic and compartmentalise public office and private practice in their heads when such images are splashed all over the media, is not practical when it comes to optics. On November 24, 2017, replying to a two-day long debate in the Lok Sabha to commemorate the Constitution Day and the 125th birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar, PM Narendra Modi said 'India first' is the only religion and Constitution the only 'holy book' for his government. This was after February 24, 2017, on Mahashivratri when he had unveiled the Isha Foundation's 113-foot Shiva statue in Coimbatore.

Disconnects, much? Or are we going to brush aside these things by saying, 'He went in his private capacity?'

Earlier, on October 6, 2016, Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje took part in a 'Rashtra Raksha Yagna' at the Tanot Mata temple near the India-Pakistan border in Jaisalmer district, seeking the deity's blessings for the Army and the BSF with '21 patrotic Brahmins'. CPI(M) and minority groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind took strong exception to the yagna being organised on state expenses and described it as an act violating the spirit of secularism enshrined in the Constitution.

From March 18 to 25, 2018, a Rashtra Raksha Mahayagya was held (BJP MP Maheish Girri was one of the organisers) with 180 hawan kunds, 2,100 priests and 51,000 attendees to pray for BJP's re-election in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls, for seven days near the Red Fort. Union home minister Rajnath Singh flagged off the rath yatra associated with the Rashtra Raksha Mahayagya on February 14, 2018.

Even if public funds were not spent on this jamboree, what kind of signals are sent, and lessons learnt, by the public at large when government functionaries actively encourage and indulge in religiosity in public spaces, no less the Red Fort? Maheish Giri even grandiosely announced that President Kovind, one of the invitees would light the last aarti. Whether President Kovind turned up or not is immaterial; what is important is that Giri as a public servant was neither rebuked, nor did Rashtrapati Bhavan issue a strong denial. In cases like this, the perception in the public mind takes root and the damage is done.


And very intentionally so by a party promoting Hindu Rashtra.

Pranab Mukherkee indeed went to RSS in his private capacity. But neither did he have to describe Hedgewar in the fulsome terms of praise in the visitor's book that he did, nor subsequently deliver a lukewarm speech with a please-all approach.

Are we all so naïve to not believe that to a minority population besieged and marginalised in so many ways in post-BJP-RSS India, all this does not translate to a nod and a wink without actually spelling out where one's affiliations lie?

Yes, this is the tale of two presidents, who displayed an unfortunate lack of spine, one taking refuge in legalism, rejecting a custom that need not have been construed as mixing politics with religion, the other in a generic exposition of unity in integrity, when he could have taken on the bull by the horns and said so much more.

Are we as a nation really serious about secularism or looking for a Hindutva version of it?

Because if we are serious about secularism, we should be able to do the following things:

If there is UCC, all religious institutions should be taxed. All unauthorised constructions should be razed, no religious head should be recognised and given invitations to government functions or invited to speak from government forums. Those holding official positions should not visit places of worship in their official capacities or using government vehicles or accompanied by government personnel. There should be no government holidays on religious festivals. The government must not recognise any religion. UCC must come with true secularism.

Are we up for it?

Last updated: June 10, 2018 | 19:46
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