Yet another memorial to the great
by J P Sharma on 30 Jul 2009 0 Comment

India’s first sea bridge, the Bandra-Worli Sea-Link in Mumbai, described as a marvel of engineering, was inaugurated on 30 June 2009 by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. The 4.8-kilometre long, eight-lane bridge, constructed at a cost of Rs.1634 crores, took a little less than five years to be completed since work commenced in October 2004.

At the official inaugural function at the Rang Sharda Auditorium, Worli, Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar proposed that the new bridge be named after former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In justification, Pawar quoted Rajiv Gandhi’s contribution to the development of information technology in the country and added “Rajiv Gandhi was born in Mumbai, he was a son of the soil and it will be appropriate that the bridge be named after him”. Maharashtra Chief minister Ashok Chavan readily accepted Pawar’s proposal. Sonia Gandhi duly thanked Pawar and Chavan for the gesture honouring her late husband.

Opposition by Shiv Sena

This drew instant criticism from Shiv Sena MP Bharat Raut, who claimed that the bridge should have been named after consulting all political parties. Sena Executive President Uddhav Thackeray pointed out that when the foundation stone of the project had been laid by Balasaheb Thackeray while the Sena-BJP government was in power, it had been decided that the bridge would be named after VD Savarkar.  If Savarkar was not acceptable (to the present government), the bridge could have been named after some other social reformer like Jyotirao Phule or Babasaheb Ambedkar.

Principles followed in naming public facilities

Apparently there are no well established norms to be followed by government authorities in naming facilities, structures, institutions, projects, created from public funds, and it remains the prerogative of the government in power to give whatever name it considers appropriate to any facility or scheme launched/commissioned by it. It is also a fact that in choosing a name for a prestigious project, political parties are usually guided by considerations of electoral benefits for themselves. There could be and in fact there have been exceptions to the rule, but such cases are few and far between.

In this context, one may recall a joke popular during the cold war era. The government of a totalitarian state once decided to erect a memorial to the country’s most outstanding poet. A nationwide competition was held for designs and the best design for the memorial was selected. When the memorial was finally unveiled amid due fanfare, it was found to be the latest statue of Big Brother reading one of the poet’s books!!!

We are a liberal democracy, but we are also a nation of hero worshippers. Now that our media has become so powerful, it is easy to install any leader having media backing on a high pedestal. And once a person is so installed, we generally dislike subjecting him (or her) to critical examination to determine the leader’s true merit as an object of veneration.

The desire to create permanent reminders of the greatness of chosen icons for the benefit of present and future generations is shared by most Indian political parties. UP Chief Minister Mayawati has left the competition far behind by embarking upon multiple and costly projects funded by the state exchequer, for getting statues of the trinity of Scheduled Caste Messiahs - Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram, and herself (not necessarily in descending order of prominence) - sculpted and installed in prominent public places.

The monuments are plainly and unabashedly meant to remind the public of the contributions made by these leaders in empowering the Scheduled Castes. Public gain by way of beautification of parks, intersections of roads, or other prominent public places, is only incidental. Apparently the UP government is convinced that the message conveyed by the monuments is justification enough for the expenditure of public funds incurred.

A possible suitability test

In making his proposal, Sharad Pawar referred to the element of propriety in naming the bridge after Rajiv Gandhi. But does Rajiv Gandhi on a dispassionate, objective, assessment of his contribution to the nation emerge as the most suitable person for lending his name to the bridge which was not a facility constructed out of Congress party funds?

A memorial is essentially an expression of gratitude the people for the contribution made by the leader to public good, as well as a source of inspiration to the people. Since memorials are costly and somewhat rare, the contributions to public good made by the leader selected to be honoured must be of such merit as to lift the leader appreciably above his peers.

Rajiv Gandhi served as India’s prime minister for just one term from 1984 to 1989. He started with great advantages with the image of a youthful leader keen to clean up the Augean political stables. He had some good things to his credit but his overall performance cannot be graded as outstanding. His initiative in Sri Lanka did not go too well and his government faced serious charges of wrongdoing in respect of the deal for purchase of Bofors guns.

Having been voted to power in 1984 with the highest ever tally of seats (414) in Parliament, Rajiv Gandhi steadily lost public support and his party could win only 197 seats at the 1989 elections. Obviously the Indian voter did not think too highly of Rajiv Gandhi’s performance.

Why only politicians?

There is another important angle to this business of naming landmarks. As mentioned earlier, naming an important facility or institution is a way of paying homage to those who have made extraordinary contributions to national life. Are politicians the only species entitled to this honour? 

Since the dawn of civilization, India has produced a large number of savants, philosophers, poets, authors, mathematicians, astronomers, scientists, social reformers and masters in many fields of human endeavour, several of whom are renowned and respected throughout the world. Yet most of our children grow up knowing little about these truly great Indians. It is high time our governments discard their blindfolds and start naming landmarks after really illustrious sons and daughters of India.

An unhealthy practice

A specially unhealthy practice laying us open to the charge of sycophancy and servility is the tendency to name every new facility or government scheme after some member or the other of the Nehru dynasty, despite the plethora of extant memorials perpetuating the memory of Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

Indeed, this seems to militate against the principle of equality in democracy, by creating a strong bias in the mind of the voter in favour of the members of one family and one party. In March 2009 a public spirited journalist moved a petition before the Election Commission of India pointing out that “on a rough estimate about 450 Central and State Government programmes, projects and national and state level institutions involving public expenditure of hundreds of thousands of crores of rupees have been named after these three individuals. While it is the prerogative of a government to name an institution after a person whom it considers to be a national or state leader, government programmes which have been initiated to ameliorate the lives of millions of citizens (like drinking water, housing, old age pensions, employment guarantee etc) fall into an entirely different category. If the nomenclature of these programmes is not politically neutral, the sanctity of the democratic system would be in jeopardy and it would not be possible to ensure a level playing field for all political parties.”

The petitioner pointed out that in the obsession to perpetuate the memory of three members of the Nehru clan, even Mahatma Gandhi has been virtually forgotten. Will the Election Commission or the Congress party see the impropriety of continuing with the policy of maintaining the monopoly of the Nehru clan in naming government funded plans and institutions?

The author is retd. Addl. Secy., Cabinet Secretariat

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