A stately New Delhi mansion, once home to first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and now a museum to his life, has emerged as a flashpoint in the growing ideological war between his heirs and the Hindu nationalist government.
Since trouncing the Congress party of the Nehru-Gandhi family in a general election last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chipped away at the dynasty’s grip on India’s post-colonial history.
For long-term dominance in the world’s second-most populous nation, Modi has to ensure his pro-business, conservative ideology prevails over the secular, socialist legacy bequeathed by Nehru.
Culture minister Mahesh Sharma, who is in charge of overseeing the teak-panelled museum that preserves Nehru’s portraits, writing and the rooms he lived in, wants the institution to reflect a wider range of India’s past and present leaders.
Earlier this month, the government of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) forced out the head of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a historian seen as close to the Gandhi family.
The historian, Mahesh Rangarajan, did not respond to requests for comment. A replacement has not yet been named.
“It is not in the interest of any country or society to focus itself on one individual or a family,” Sharma said in an interview. “So many people have contributed to this country and our institutions should reflect that.”
He described Rangarajan’s appointment as “illegal” and said he had planned to investigate his appointment. Rangarajan resigned a few days later.
Starting with Nehru, an independence hero before becoming prime minister, the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty has been intertwined with India’s transformation from struggling developing nation to emerging superpower.
Nehru and his descendants ruled India for more than half of the seven decades since independence in 1947, and hundreds of public projects, airports, parks, universities and stadiums are named after Nehru, his assassinated daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi, also murdered. They all served as prime ministers.
Rajiv Gandhi’s wife Sonia is the current president of Congress, and her son Rahul is seen as a budding prime minister.
Before Modi, the BJP had only sporadically run India.
“We have elevated this family to royalty and built a personality cult around them,” said Mohan Guruswamy, president of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a think tank.
“What the BJP is doing is pure politics. But, at the same time, the need to give space to other people is justified.”
Stamps, Places, Schemes
Since Modi won power in May 2014, the names of Nehru and his descendants have been erased from about thirty government schemes or places and been replaced mostly with the names of ideologues who view India as a Hindu nation.
Earlier this month, the government discontinued publishing two postage stamps that featured Indira and Rajiv Gandhi from the ‘Builders of Modern India’ series, a decision that led to opposition protests.
The government instead plans to feature stamps of the ideological founders of the BJP, who blame Nehru’s economic policies for many of India’s ills, including poverty and corruption.
At the end of last week, the Nehru museum for the first time hosted celebrations for the birth of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, a Hindu nationalist critical of Nehru’s economics and the co-founder of a Hindu nationalist party that was the predecessor of the BJP.
The opposition Congress party has accused the government of diminishing the legacy of one of India’s greatest statesmen.
“The government is manipulating historical facts and distorting truth only to serve their political agenda,” said Kapil Sibal, a former government minister. “You cannot belittle Nehru’s contributions.”
Modi has already moved far from Nehru’s economic moorings.Earlier this year, the government named right-leaning economist Arvind Panagariya to run a new policy bureau, after Modi scrapped a Nehru-era Soviet–style socialist planning commission.
In his first full budget in April, Modi saved money on federal social and subsidy expenditure, the hallmark of Congress governments, and pumped funds into an infrastructure stimulus he hopes will trigger a spurt in economic growth.
Under Modi, organizations that support the idea of a Hindu state have gained prominence. His followers believe Nehru and his successors pandered to India’s Muslim and Christian minorities and crimped the aspirations of the Hindu majority.
“The BJP realise that this family enjoys a lot of political goodwill and they will need to destroy that if they want a free run,” said Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation.
“Historical and cultural institutions are being used as proxies in the battle for the idea of India.”