A non-Gandhi Congress leader, someone who praised the RSS founder a great son of India, Mukherjee, a Bengali, ticks all columns of BJP’s ‘pick Congressmen strategy’
The BJP government has conferred former President Pranab Mukherjee with Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian honour of the country. Mukherjee has been a Congress leader all through his life. He served as union minister in different Congress governments, starting with Indira Gandhi, and was a key force in the UPA I and II governments. The Congress made him President in 2012, and during his term he spoke out for India’s plural values for a number of times, especially after the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. Still, the BJP appears to have developed a special liking for Mukherjee. Prime Minister Narendra Modi showers him with praises on Twitter. And now, with the Bharat Ratna, the BJP has made it public.
Primarily, the BJP thinks that by honouring Pranab it’s hitting the Congress where it hurts. It fits well into the BJP’s strategy of honouring non-Nehru-Gandhi family Congress leaders. This is to embolden the narrative that the Congress has been hijacked by the Nehru-Gandhi family and other able, popular leaders were sidelined for Gandhi scions. This is the rationale behind the BJP’s love for Sardar Patel. By building a statue for Patel, the BJP was trying to point out that Patel was a great leader who was eclipsed by Jawaharlal Nehru. The BJP follows the same pattern in the case of Mukherjee.
Secondly, when the BJP picks leaders from the Congress fold, it makes sure that such leaders do not fundamentally disagree with its worldview. In 2014, the Modi government honoured Madan Mohan Malaviya, a four-time President of Indian National Congress and a freedom fighter, with Bharat Ratna. Malaviya was a Hindu nationalist and the founder of Banaras Hindu University to produce men “true to their God, their King and their country”. According to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, India’s first woman cabinet minister, Malaviya “would never take food or drink from the hands of anybody other than a Brahmin of his own caste”. He is also the founder of the Hindu Mahasabha.
Sardar Patel was also well known for his softness towards Hindu nationalist cause. He disagreed with Prime Minister Nehru on political ideology. The Sangh idealised him as a strong man despite his Congress loyalty and the BJP followed suit. And now, they have picked the former President. Mukherjee’s presidential term was known for his “lack of mercy” for death row convicts. He turned down the plea of a record 37 convicts after assuming office. Both Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru and 1993 Mumbai serial blasts convict Yakub Memon were executed when Mukherjee was President. This “merciless” nationalism fits well into the Sangh’s masculine nationalism. Besides, it is an open secret that Mukherjee was upset when the Congress leader Sonia Gandhi picked Manmohan Singh in 2004 to become the Prime Minister. Mukherjee was at that time the tallest leader of the Congress after Sonia.
Moreover, to the surprise of many, Mukherjee accepted an invitation from the Sangh to visit its headquarters in Nagpur and give a speech in June 2018, after his presidential term was over. Though he said in the speech that India’s soul resides in pluralism and tolerance, he paid tributes to RSS founding Sarsanghachalak Keshav Baliram Hedgewar at the headquarters and described him as a “great son of Mother India”. So basically, Mukherjee by visiting the headquarters of an organisation that was banned thrice in independent India and was accused in terror attacks helped mainstream them in the national discourse. This is the last Republic Day of PM Modi in his current term and he’s showing the BJP’s gratitude towards Mukherjee.
Finally, the Bengal factor. Capturing the reigns of West Bengal from Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress is high on Modi-Amit Shah duo’s agenda. Of late, Shah has been holding a lot of rallies in West Bengal. The state, with 42 Lok Sabha seats, will also play a crucial role in choosing the next Prime Minister. The BJP may be hoping that it could reach out to the Bengalis through their Bengal pride by giving Bharat Ratna to the “son of Bengal”.