New India is not 'new' without reason. Over the last four years, ever since the country elected a prime minister who has been untiring in his efforts to ring in the new more in matters of faith and food than governance, India has been turning its face away from some kinds of older, inclusive wisdoms and practices. The propensity to view citizens of all faith in equal light is, some fear, passé. It seems that conversations, especially among those with differences in belief and opinion - a fundamental condition for the survival of a polity as diverse as India - too, would soon be a thing of the past.
The heartburn and, also, fair bit of controversy that have been generated over Pranab Mukherjee's acceptance of an invitation from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to address its volunteers in Nagpur are a testimony to India's growing inability to recognize one of its inherent strengths: the pre-eminence of dialogue in uniting a culture beset with differences. The Congress has, somewhat characteristically, tied itself up in knots on the matter. Some partymen are anxious that Mr Mukherjee's visit would be used by the RSS, which does not have too many luminaries to call its own, to appropriate a man who had served the Congress well in a long and distinguished career. There is also a contrary view doing the rounds in the party. Mr Mukherjee, other Congressmen are hoping, would hold the mirror up to the RSS, elucidating the importance of inclusion, equality and representativeness to a 'cultural organization' that has been an unabashed votary of majoritarianism.
A few issues, however, seem to be getting lost in the ensuing cacophony. The first - the irony is evident - concerns the questions of freedom and consent. In a democracy, individuals or, for that matter, institutions have the right to reach out to those on the other side of the ideological divide. The RSS, no matter what its intentions, cannot be faulted for inviting Mr Mukherjee to speak. In fact, it seems to have done something unexpected given its singularly regimental outlook. Mr Mukherjee, too, has the right to accept or decline the offer. He is a free citizen and no longer beholden to a party. Mr Mukherjee's past association with the Congress, which is a political and ideological opponent of the RSS, should not come in the way of a decision taken in his personal capacity.
The bigger issue - this should concern every Indian who is a believer in debate - lies with the reservations that have been expressed over Mr Mukherjee's participation. If bastions of liberal thought - the Congress claims it is one - begin to emulate the restrictive and polarizing ethic that is integral to conservative, reactionary thinking, it could well spell doom for the Indian brand of pluralism that has made the nation a shining example in the eyes of the world. In fact, at a time when the Far-Right is on the ascendant not only in India but around the globe, it is imperative that liberal politics and its proponents seek to widen their horizon to survive and prosper.