Such magnanimity is rare in Indian politics but the NDA has surprised us with its plan to build a memorial to PV Narasimha Rao, the Congress prime minister widely considered an architect of liberal reform.
Now while this may seem like a case of rising above political differences, the truth is rather more mundane. Rao was shunned by the Congress in his lifetime and so it is really one in the eye for the party if the rival were to honour him.
This brings me to an issue which has irked me for a long time. Why on earth do we need to use prime land to erect memorials to all our leaders? I have no quarrel with a memorial to the father of the nation, even the first prime minister. But this competitive memorial construction has now become a Pavlovian response every time a leader goes off to the great beyond.
The state is under no obligation to construct memorials for all and sundry, it often does so to appease a particular community or caste. But this trend has been carried too far and must end now. If there must be a memorial to Rao, his own party should erect it on land it has bought or his family should do it. I am not saying he is any less than other prime ministers, but a memorial at state expense so long after he has died is meaningless and bound to stir up needless controversy.
Even though the practice of usurping Lutyens’ bungalows to convert them into memorials was ended in 2000, our political worthies have not quite thrown in the towel. It was only the other day when all his attempts to hang on to to his luxurious bungalow failed that our kisan leader Ajit Singh of the RLD implored the government to at least convert the home into a memorial for his father, the late prime minister Charan Singh. He failed in this and rightly so.
Another person who has tried to play memorial politics is Meira Kumar, whose father, Jagjivan Ram, a distinguished politician, she felt had to be given a bungalow in his memory.
Often such memorials serve to house the relatives of the departed, who are able to swan around in the gracious confines of these pieces of valuable real estate.
I really think we need to grow up as a nation and remember our leaders for their deeds and not erect what are often architectural excresences in their memory. It is true that outstanding leaders in the West have had statues built in their honour. But these are rare. You don’t find a John Major or a George Bush staring at you benignly in public spaces in the UK or US.
But we seem to be a nation of statue and memorial builders. The BSP, when in power, used to build statues of its leader Mayawati at the drop of a handbag, many such creations having to be demolished because the leader did not appreciate her likeness or because they did not have the necessary accessory.
Across Tamil Nadu, one comes across statues and memorials to MGR, each more aesthetically alarming than the other. BR Ambedkar, a man who shunned such shows of servility, has a large number of statues, most of which bear no resemblance to him, across the country. If someone, overcome by love for a late leader, wants to build a memorial I have no quarrel with that.
But, for the state to spend its limited resources on a memorial to someone who has done nothing more than the job he was elected for makes a mockery of the whole thing.
I have no quarrel even with something to be named after a late leader if it is of some use to the public. I can think of several things, maybe a children’s park, a scholarship for students in a subject close to the leader’s heart, the sky is the limit.
If we are going to have a memorial to Rao simply because he kickstarted liberal reform, an idea whose time was long overdue, then we might as well start having memorials for every leader who has taken up and pursued significant issues.
If you look around you, you will see that gigantic statues and memorials are usually constructed for dictators. Kim Il Sung, Saddam Hussein and dear old Stalin come to mind.
Or for those who changed the world like Martin Luther King, the Mahatma, Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill.
With us, it is also a case of my leader’s statue or memorial must be bigger than your leader’s one. And this ruse of grabbing houses for memorials is not seen anywhere else. 10 Downing Street has remained the prime minister’s residence for as long as I can remember.
Imagine if Margaret Thatcher’s children had tried to convert it into a memorial for their mother. Or if the White House was now the John F Kennedy memorial.
I expected a little more sense from the NDA. Once a memorial is constructed to Rao, if that were to come about, I can see all the right-wing loonies demanding memorials to their personal heroes. Never mind if you and I have never heard of them. In fact, the government will find it hard to fend them off if it chooses to honour a Congressman of fairly recent provenance.
And, don’t forget that there are quite a few former presidents and prime ministers who have not had memorials in their name. This means their relatives will throw their hat in the ring. This could go on forever.
Let us stop all this right now. I can quite see the Congress getting itself into a lather on the Rao plan. While it may not have had any time for the late leader, it is certainly not going to go down without a fight over his belatedly recognised legacy. In fact, I would go one step further.
I would ask the respective political parties to buy land wherever they want and put up memorials to their late leaders instead of sponging off the state, which has numerous other obligations to the living. As it is, the plan to construct a mega statue of Sardar Patel is, to my mind, hardly reflective of what the great leader stood for.
If we remember him today, it is for his role in the freedom struggle, his libertarian values and his astute statesmanship. We hardly need a statue to remind ourselves of him or honour him. In fact, Nehru, Patel and Gandhi, to name some of our great leaders, would have thoroughly disapproved of statues and memorials in their name.
Today, like Z class security, memorials have become a status symbol for many and for others simply a means of grabbing prime land in the name of a relative who held high public office. Unfortunately, we cannot undo what has already been done by way of statues and memorials. But let us not lay down one more foundation stone for this. And we really should scrap plans to honour, if I can call it that, Narasimha Rao.