When ‘The’ Pranab Speaks

Pranab Rss

Former president Pranab Mukherjee gave a speech in the RSS meeting on Thursday the 7th of June in Nagpur. Now,  let me clarify that this is not a speech on the speech but in fact an article on the speech/ opinions flung around, before and after the speech.

When it was announced that Mukherjee had accepted the invite from the RSS it was almost as if hell had broken loose, not only in the Congress headquarters but in every left-liberal-secular-head too. How could he do such a travesty? Is he moving towards the BJP? Has he been bought off by the RSS? And the usual I-told-you-so-skeptics, ‘Huh! I am not suprised; he is one of them anyway!’ The right-wing were gleeful over the acceptance, their wait for validation from a non-Shakha-ite was finally over.  Having meticulously incorporated every icon of the freedom struggle, into ‘their’ history books, they feel their effort was finally rewarded with Mukherjee’s stamp of approval.

Then came the concern over what he possibly could say.

But really what could he say?

Judith Butler in her book ‘Excitable Speech’ (1997) examines the role of the subject positioning in the performative of speech. She begins by positing speech not only as a verbal performative but also a bodily speech act. Speech is not just what one utters, but is embodied in the subject. Censorship is prior to speech and embodies the subject. The embodied subject produces a certain form of speech based on the foreclosures. Intelligible speech is intelligible because of a whole world of censoring that is incorporated by the subject (Bourdieu’s habitus) prior to making speech. This is learnt in infancy. But how does the subject come to embody it and does this mean that we cannot break from this codification that is given to us? If not, then how does one understand speech’ of resistance that break away from the mould?

The speech given on the 7th was not any ordinary speech but in fact it was Pranab Mukherjee speaking! Butler has pointed out that often bodily speech effects are far greater in reach, impact, superfluous in their content, than the speech itself. What is it to be Mukherjee? Like I have mentioned earlier, he is the former president of India, which itself a heavy claim on ‘the speech’ that was yet to unfold. He was very important figure in the Congress party and still is a Congress supporter (presumably! lets recall the speech has not yet happened). Though speculations are rife at this time about his intentions.

Some critics pointed out that this man has passed the highest number of death sentences in his term, virtually signing his approval on every sheet of paper given to him from either political parties. So spineless indeed!

This man is a Brahmin who took excessive care to display his sacred thread in a temple visit. As an interesting aside, it is also mentioned that Tharoor who was with him was embarrassed about not having a thread of his own. (the temple is the easiest place to borrow one if you are so conscious!). But Tharoor is a digression. So let’s see what we have, a Hindu, president (power/ class), upper caste, male!

This last description of him would have pleased the right-wing the most because that is their clientele anyway!

Butler explains that censorship works in a historical fashion, it is not the speaker who is guilty of committing a crime by mentioning a censored topic but in fact the speech comes in a context that makes it censored. Seditious speech is not a crime of the speaker but its seditiousness lies in its historicity that gives it its seditious character. So what we can speak is determined by a historical process. By that logic context that creates the subject called Ptanab Mukherjee is embroiled in the historical, social, political past that in turn presents itself as the foreclosure/ restrictions to Pranab’s speech.

The embodiment of Pranab as this Hindu upper caste, upper class, president with murder on his hands (read spineless or ruthless as you will), with typical bearings of a secular-liberal Congress wala, was more than his speech could handle. Everything predictable for his position was censored by his critics. For even before he had begun his speech he was ridiculed, mocked, reprimanded for even accepting the invite. Now no matter what he spoke it would be a lie or worse, a joke.

And of course that was what he delivered or so I have gathered from the reaction to his speech. His speech per se might have been totally toeing the line of a sensible, responsible (given the current times), constitutionally protected speech. But that is expected of a former president. The foreclosure presented by the constitution ensured that Pranab could not speak anything that is listed in Art. 19(2). But the foreclosures of his speech do not emanate from his president-ship only, but also from varied factors that we have read above. That ensured that he could not comfortably speak of things that were constitutionally guaranteed either. His speech was set for ridicule and scrutiny no matter what he spoke. So if he accepted the invite in order to make a profound statement, Pranab would have realized this was not to be, while penning down his speech. He would have then regretted accepting the invite.

He talked of pluralism and tolerance, the typical secular-liberal jargon, yawn. He did not speak of Gandhi’s assassination, what a spineless president! Even mentioned nationalism and patriotism, that hypocritical, janehu wearing murderer! The RSS of course had a field day morphing his picture showing him give the RSS salute! For that is the only type of speech they are interested or invested in, a pack of lies! For them it was an occasion to gloat, who cares what he spoke?

Then there are those like Owaisi of AIMIM who believe that the Congress is finished! Mani Shankar Aiyer has post facto confessed to bouts of queasiness upon hearing of the event. Some Congress people are relieved that he has not announced a switch to BJP.

Butler asks about speech acts that resist the embodiments or the censoring of content. Surely there are several instances of these for how else would society have changed? If every speech effect of force is dependent on one’s social context/ position of power or as in a response to the habitus, as Bourdieu claims, then it would be very linear relation between speech and social power/context. Which is problematic postulation. Derrida however is of the opinion that speech as a performative act of force is possible when there is a resistance to existing norms or power. When the speaker speaks it is an act of force, a Derridean “break” with context that utterances must perform. These utterances  of “force” of censored speech opens the performative to an unpredictable future.

While for Pranab this type of act of force was quite impossible given that his script was beleaguered from constitutional and unconstitutional ends, denying it legitimacy from the start, going to the meeting with a script itself was an act of resistance. But that is not my point. In his speech at one point he does do the Derridian break with context, pulling the rug from under the critics – left, right or any political spectrum.

This moment of rupture came when he mentioned Hedgewar as a Great Son of India. Now for all the hypocritical, Hindu Brahmin you knew him to be, you did not expect such a statement, did you? Oh skeptics! Be gone!

Debjanee Ganguly, PHD scholar, JNU, CPS/ SSS

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