The most interesting thing about Pranab Mukherjee’s speech at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh headquarters on Thursday may not be what it says about the former president’s relationship with Hindutva organisations. Instead, the more important effect may be on his ties to the party where he spent the bulk of his 50-year political career: the Indian National Congress.

More than anything else, it was the Congress reaction to Mukherjee’s acceptance of the RSS invitation to speak at the annual concluding ceremony for RSS workers who have undergone a three-year course that added attention to the event. The Congress, particularly under current president Rahul Gandhi, has tried to hyphenate the Bharatiya Janata Party and the RSS and insist that both organisations together are responsible for polarising Indian society. So the sight of Mukherjee, one of the Congress’ most distinguished leaders, accepting an invitation to speak at the organisation, threatened to derail the party’s narrative.

Congress overreaction

Soon after Mukherjee accepted the invitation, the rebukes began to come in. Ramesh Chennithala, a senior Congress leader from Kerala, wrote a letter to the former president saying his decision has “invited unparalleled disgruntlement among the rank and file of the Congress party”. Several others echoed this sentiment, saying they were astonished to hear that Mukherjee had accepted the invite. West Bengal Congress leader Adhir Chowdhury asked whether Mukherjee now believes his own previous comments criticising the RSS were wrong. V Hanumantha Rao, another leader, formally made a request to Mukherjee not to go.

As the date came closer, the pitch got a bit louder. Efforts were made behind closed doors to convince Mukherjee not to go. His own daughter, Sharmishtha Mukherjee, tweeted to say that by going to Nagpur, her father was giving the BJP and the RSS a handle to spread false stories. She said that Mukherjee’s speech will be forgotten, but the visuals will remain.

According to NDTV, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi ordered Ahmed Patel also to rebuke Mukherjee.

And when the event actually started, Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament Anand Sharma tweeted to say that thousands of Congress workers were anguished by the images.

After the speech

When Mukherjee finally spoke, he delivered a sharp defense of India’s pluralism and secularism, and called on the RSS workers to shun violence or hatred. Although he did not directly rebuke the Hindu Right-wing organisation, he did not praise it either, and Mukherjee pointedly mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru, ‘Mahatma’ Mohandas Gandhi and the Constitution, not references that are usually made with praise at RSS events.

Soon after, the tune of the Congress too changed. Sharma, despite having mentioned all that anguish before, now said that there was “never any doubt” about Mukherjee’s strength of character and moral courage. Party spokesperson Randeep Surjewala gave an official statement, saying Mukherjee had “shown the ‘Mirror of Truth’ to the RSS” by reminding them about India’s pluralism, tolerance, secularism and inclusiveness.

“Let the RSS and BJP publically commit today to change its character, orientation, thought process and path and accept the sagacious advise of their guest, Shri Pranab Mukherjee today,” Surjewala’s statement said.

Independent Pranab

So which was it? Was the Congress rank and file still disgruntled and anguished by Mukherjee’s appearance? Or were they proud of his decision to go to RSS headquarters and defend India’s pluralism? Does the fact that Sharma had to say “there was never any doubt” suggest there had indeed been doubt that was eventually assuaged?

The Congress may have breathed a sign of relief after Mukherjee’s speech did not in any way endorse the RSS worldview – other than a guestbook comment at the house of RSS founder KB Hedgewar that called him a “great son of Mother India”. But the sequence of events alone suggests that Mukherjee is operating on his own, without consulting the Congress leadership. As historian Ramachandra Guha put it, by accepting the invitation, Mukherjee was not crossing a Congress lakshman rekha because Gandhi and Nehru had in the past appeared at or spoken to RSS leaders. Instead, he was crossing a red line of the current Gandhi family, which wants the RSS to be the villain of its electoral campaign.

As Thursday’s speech made evident, Mukherjee may not be pandering to any Hindutva sentiments, despite murmurs in the past that he shared some of their opinions, but what is certain is that he will not be toeing the Congress line. As some have speculated, that might permit Mukherjee to play a political role in the event that elections next year do not throw up a definitive result.

But how will the Congress handle one of its stalwarts, the man who was denied the prime ministership but elected to be president, striking it out on his own?