Shortly after the UPA came to power in 2004, a senior Cabinet minister took a senior journalist out for lunch in Delhi. The directorship of a prestigious centre of historical research had fallen vacant; and the minister wanted suggestions as to suitable candidates. The first name the journalist offered was mine. “Guha has written critically about Indiraji,” said the minister, “we can’t have him”.
The journalist next suggested the name of the distinguished political theorist Partha Chatterjee. “Chatterjee has written critically about Jawaharlalji,” said the minister, “so we can’t have him either”. The journalist now prudently shifted the conversation to other subjects.
The anecdote is worth recalling for two reasons. The first is that contrary to the impression Congressmen may now convey, academic appointments during the UPA regime were often influenced by political considerations. The second (and less important) reason is that whatever their other deficiencies, some Congress ministers read scholarly books, if only to sniff out heresies about the First Family.
At least since the time of Indira Gandhi, the Central government has sought to undermine the autonomy of institutions that promote culture and scholarship. Two Congress education ministers were particularly culpable: Nurul Hasan and Arjun Singh, both of whom cultivated and promoted scholars of a Marxist or socialist persuasion.
Hasan and Singh may not have chosen the best, but at the same time they stayed away from the worst. What is new about the appointments made by this NDA regime is that they have chosen individuals held in contempt by their fellow professionals. The most egregious examples may be those of Y Sudershan Rao, a chairperson of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) whose publications are unknown to historians; and Gajendra Chauhan, a chairperson of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) who is likewise far from being regarded as a leader in his field.
Between 1998 and 2004, the first NDA regime was in power. It packed the governing councils of academic bodies with RSS sympathisers. On the other hand, when it came to the most important post, that of chairperson, it paid at least some attention to scholarly credentials. Thus, AB Vajpayee’s government appointed the historian of ancient India, GC Pande, chairman of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla, while the historian of modern India, MGS Narayanan, served as chairman of the ICHR. Meanwhile, the diplomat-turned-academic ML Sondhi was chosen chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR).
That none of these three scholars were Marxists, and at least two had publicly confronted Marxists, was perhaps not incidental to their appointments. But other criteria were also at play. For both Pande and Narayanan were serious and well regarded scholars. And Sondhi was a a senior professor in the country’s best department of international studies.
Move further back in time, to the United Front government in which HD Deve Gowda was prime minister and SR Bommai HRD minister. This regime chose S Settar chairman of the ICHR and D Nanjundappa chairman of the ICSSR. Again, the fact that these scholars were from Karnataka, the state to which the HRD minister and the prime minister also belonged, may not have been a coincidence. At the same time, no one could deny that professor Settar had done pioneering work on Hoysala temples, or that professor Nanjundappa was a celebrated teacher actively involved in public policy.
This brief survey leads to three broad conclusions. First, that nepotism and patronage have been endemic in academic or cultural appointments in the gift of the Government of India. Second, that while previous governments have not been shy of using ideological criteria, they have at least sought to seek people of credibility. Third, that this present NDA regime has abandoned the pretence of credibility altogether.
This last quality (if it may be called that) is evident in the two appointments mentioned earlier, and of a third; that of Baldev Sharma as chairman of the National Book Trust. Apart from having edited the RSS mouthpiece, Panchajanya, Mr Sharma’s contributions to either literature or scholarship lie unrecorded.
Consider, on the other hand, the names of some past chairmen of NBT. They include the historian Sarvepalli Gopal, the critic Sukumar Azhikode, and the novelist UR Ananathamurty. All were left-of-centre politically, yet all had written books that were widely read, discussed, and debated.
To head bodies like the ICHR, ICSSR, FTII or NBT, one requires (a) to have the respect of one’s professional peers; (b) to be a competent and fair-minded administrator. It is in the first, crucial, respect that the appointments of Sudershan Rao, Gajendra Chauhan and Baldev Sharma so manifestly fall short. Even if all are good human beings and good administrators, they remain (to put it politely) professionally under-qualified for the jobs assigned to them.
The appointments made by the current NDA regime are far worse than those made under NDA Mark I. Why is this so? One reason may be that while Mr Vajpayee’s government had some ministers with connections to scholars and scholarship, the present government has none. A second reason may be that as chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi had little respect for intellectual or cultural creativity, and this has now been transferred to the Central government. A third reason may be that the Prime Minister has left this space entirely to the RSS, so that it does not trespass on his pet subjects, the economy and foreign policy.
Whatever the reasons, the fact is that the present government despises writers, scholars, artists and filmmakers. That is the melancholy but inevitable conclusion one must draw from the choices it has made in these fields.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha . The views expressed are personal.