Indian millennials like myself were used to seeing portraits of India’s icons of freedom, like Mahatma Gandhi and first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru adorning the walls of our schools and behind the headmaster’s chair. The same portraits were displayed at other government institutions as well, be it a police station in a mufassil town or a magnificent office of a central ministry in New Delhi.
However, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi misses no opportunity to show his animosity towards Nehru, the pictures of the first prime minister have almost vanished from government offices. While Gandhi’s picture still hangs on the wall, observers say it is just a matter of time till his photo disappears as well, as the history of India is being rewritten and tilting towards Hindutva icons, only praised and recognized by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Prime Minister Modi blames Nehru for a host of issues afflicting the country, from problems in Kashmir, to allowing Kartarpur in Punjab to be given to Pakistan. In Modi’s India, Nehru is blamed for everything from poor economic growth to inflation and unemployment.
Last week, while replying to a motion of thanks to the presidential address in Parliament, Modi yet again chose to target Nehru, instead of mentioning his own achievements over the past seven years. Just a week ahead of the Goa assembly elections, Modi held Nehru responsible for Goa’s delayed independence, as well.
“Pandit Nehru’s biggest concern was his international image. He felt intervening in Goa and taking over the state by the army would have dented his global image as a peace-loving leader,” Modi said.
In one speech, Modi mentioned Nehru 23 times. Such is his obsession with India’s first prime minister.
Nehru’s economic policies
Modi’s government has been criticised for the country’s rising inflation. To defend his government, Modi exploited Nehru yet again. He referred to Nehru’s 1955 speech when Nehru had tried to reason that commodity prices were increasing because of global crises, like the Korean War. One could argue that Modi had merely referenced Nehru’s speech, but it was not so simple.
“You keep complaining that I don’t take the name of Nehru Ji enough. Today I will only talk about Nehru Ji. Enjoy,” was Modi’s retort in Lok Sabha. Modi’s intonation and body language implied that he was taunting Nehru and the Congress. Even while discussing the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) in 2020, Modi mentioned Nehru 23 times. Such is his obsession with India’s first prime minister.
Parliament is not the only place where Modi has tried to exploit, ridicule and discredit Nehru and those of his era. Last year while speaking at the convocation of the India Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur, an institution established by Nehru, Modi blamed the first prime minister for the slow pace of economic growth in India during the first 25 years post-independence. Modi said that more should have been done to make India self-reliant in its first years as a country.
Nehru’s scientific endeavours
It is to Nehru’s credit that he promoted scientific thought in Indian society by setting up institutions like the IIT’s at Kanpur, Kharagpur, Bombay, Madras and Delhi. The Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and state agricultural universities were also initiated by Nehru. All India Institute of Medical Science at Delhi, which serves as a premier medical institute, and the Indian Space Research Organization, were both established in the first 25 years of India’s independence. Nehru also established premium institutions for art and culture. Film and Television Institute of India, National School of Drama, and Sangeet Natak Akademi were also created during the Nehruvian era.
Modi did not even spare the Nehru Jacket, the waistcoat popularly worn by Nehru. Modi wore the jacket so often that in no time, the Nehru Jacket became the Modi jacket.
Modi has discredited Nehru for all of his achievements, and has tried to erase and distort Nehru’s robust legacy, starting with the Nehru Pavilion at Delhi’s iconic Pragati Maidan, as well as the Teen Murti Bhawan, which once housed the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.
Teen Murti Bhawan had served as Nehru’s residence before it was converted into one of the finest libraries in India. As one of the country’s premium centres for cultural exchange, it also housed the Centre for Contemporary Studies and Nehru Planetarium. In an attempt to demolish his legacy, Modi converted Nehru’s memorial into the Museum of Prime Ministers of India.
Such is Modi’s hateful obsession with Nehru that even massive government office buildings, most of which were constructed in the Nehruvian era and have plaques commemorating his name, are hardly tolerated. As a part of the Central Vista Project which involved the construction of a new parliament building for the offices of the Prime Minister and other government bodies, an early plan was to demolish all Nehru era buildings. However, the idea was scrapped when the government realized it would not be able to complete the vista if these Nehru era buildings were demolished.
Demolishing and diminishing institutions
Last year, celebrating 75 years of India’s independence, the Indian Council of Historical Research released a poster of Indian freedom fighters. The poster included pictures of Mahatma Gandhi, BR Ambedkar, Sardar Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose, Rajendra Prasad, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Bhagat Singh and notably Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who is considered the father of Hindutva ideology. This was the first time Savarkar has been depicted in such close proximity to the others. Nehru’s image was conspicuously absent.
Even when political parties have had ideological and political differences in the past, politicians across parties had maintained a good rapport – a practice that Modi 2.0 has abandoned.
The Planning Commission, established in 1950 during Nehru’s administration, was dissolved in 2014, soon after Modi took his oath as prime minister. The commission provided a linkage between centres and states in distributing resources within the federal structure. It was rechristened Niti Ayog and repurposed as a government think tank.
Modi did not even spare the Nehru Jacket, the waistcoat popularly worn by Nehru. Modi wore the jacket so often that in no time, the Nehru Jacket became the Modi jacket. However, Modi never wore the red rose that Nehru would often sport. Modi took a jibe at Nehru’s flower at an election rally in 2018, while addressing a gathering of farmers, saying, “Those who went around wearing a rose knew gardens, they knew neither of farming nor of the sweat of the farmer.”
The Congress Party has alleged, time and again, that Modi has tried to discredit Nehru and ruin his legacy. Earlier this week, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recorded a video message: “On the one hand, people are facing problems of price rise and unemployment, on the other, the present government which has been in power for the last seven and a half years, rather than admitting their mistakes and making amends is still blaming first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru for being responsible for people’s problems.”
Team Modi has often been questioned about their lack of basic political courtesy. Even when political parties have had ideological and political differences in the past, politicians across parties had maintained a good rapport – a practice that Modi 2.0 has abandoned.
Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who also came from the RSS cadre, never tried to brutally tear into the opposition or rewrite history. In his speeches, he often recalled Nehru fondly.
Once, Vajpayee had said that when he first took over the Prime Minister’s office, a portrait of Nehru hung in the corridors. However, one day Vajpayee saw that the picture was missing. When he asked his staff about the missing frame, he did not get any reply, but the next day, Nehru’s photo was back on the wall. Such was Vajpayee level of maturity and courtesy. Like Modi, Vajpayee too came from the right-wing. But while holding the office of prime minister, Vajpayee ensured that the dignity and sanctity of the office remained intact.
The façade of Bharat Mata
Replacing Nehru, a portrait of Bharat Mata, a personification of Mother India that was first created by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in the 1870s and later adopted by the RSS, is now the unofficial portrait head in all public offices. Bharat Mata also symbolizes the dream of Akhand Bharat, an undivided India that comprises India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Myanmar – a longstanding dream of the RSS.
Lest we forget, while the RSS-BJP may have managed to hang the portrait of Bharat Mata on the walls of all public spaces, ironically India has only resembled the map adored by the RSS under the reign of emperors like Ashoka, Akbar, and again during British rule. None of these rulers were Hindus: one Buddhist, another Muslim and the third Christian.