From the time PM Narendra Modi’s government arrived, it has done what all of us do when we take over a house from another occupant: Change the signage.
Only, this is no ordinary change. It is not just about bringing down old photographs and nameplates and putting up a new set. It is far bigger in scale, far-reaching in ambition, profound in its desired result.
So far managing to keep the media noise low, the Modi government has set out to unfix the nuts, bolts, nails, dowels, hinges and fixings of the Nehru-Gandhi architecture.
It won’t be easy. The family has been in power for about 50 of India’s 67 years of Independence, the last 10 of which with Congress chief Sonia Gandhi as the real power centre watching over her party’s PM. This is excluding PV Narasimha Rao's days in office, on which the family had very limited influence.
After the BJP came to power in May, it had said it would review the use of Nehru-Gandhi family names in 650 schemes, projects and institutions.
From roads, parks, colleges, ports, airports, sanctuaries to stadiums and tournaments played therein and trophies distributed, perhaps no part of the country is untouched by these signs of what is variously explained as gratitude and servitude.
Of the many mysterious ways the family exercised and perpetuated its power over nearly seven decades, signage was the most visible but, paradoxically, the most subliminal. One encountered it almost at every turn of everyday life.
The Modi establishment wants to change that. One thought it would. It is predictable that a party which comes to power with a daunting majority would try to stamp its ideology in the names of institutions, rewrite a bit of much-rewritten history, and draw up a fresh pool of icons.
But interestingly — a reconfirmation that Modi places pragmatism over ideology — not all in this growing pool of revived icons are being drawn from the Hindutva pantheon.
Modi’s recent praise of Kerala Dalit leaders Mahatma Ayyankali and Narayana Guru foretells us that he will draw from a wider set of ideologies, consider caste and regional aspirations. It politically makes sense to do so, especially if the BJP wants to grow out of its Hindi belt stronghold and Brahmin-Bania image.
Rajiv Awas Yojna for slum development is going to be named after Jai Prakash Narayan, a socialist and India’s best known anti-corruption activist. In the Union Budget, finance minister Arun Jaitley spoke about setting up the Jai Prakash Narayan National Centre for Excellence in Humanities in Madhya Pradesh.
Modi has repeatedly spoken about the contribution of former Congress PM Lal Bahadur Shastri, even mentioned PV Narasimha Rao.
Vallabhbhai Patel and Vivekananda — neither fit the RSS mould — have been the PM’s enduring idols. His other favourite, Aurobindo Ghosh, icon of Hindu nationalism during the freedom struggle, also does not ideologically fit snugly in Golwalkar or Savarkar’s world.
But the Sangh’s mentors too have started finding a prominent place in NDA’s scheme of things.
The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) will, for all practical purpose, be merged into the Syama Prasad Mukherji Rurban Mission which the government has announced. The urban development ministry has already scrapped the JNNURM.
This Budget also mentioned the Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya Teaching Programme, which is supposed to begin soon. Malaviya, a Hindu Mahasabha leader, founded the Benaras Hindu University.
Quietly but surely, the Gandhis are being edged out. The Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana has been changed to the Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana, while the Varishtha Pension Bima Yojana has the replaced the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme.
Former PM Indira Gandhi’s name has also been dropped from the Indira Vikas Patra. We now have the Kisan Vikas Patra.
Hyderabad’s Rajiv Gandhi Airport is likely to be named after former Andhra Pradesh CM NT Rama Rao.
The churning of icons which started with Modi’s campaign last year will go on as long as this government is in power. What kind of signage emerges in the next five or ten years is difficult to foresee, but it is surely not going to be an ovation to the Nehru-Gandhi family legacy.