Nehru Memorial Museum Saga: BJP Is Taking Congress's Dubious Legacy One Step Further

18/08/2016 8:32 AM IST | Updated 20/08/2016 9:01 AM IST
Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters

Should Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), India's premier institution of research on modern Indian history, be presided over by Shakti Sinha, a retired bureaucrat, whose only credential for the job is that he has cultivated those in power in the saffron establishment?

As a secretary to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister, Shakti Sinha had obviously interacted closely with many of the BJP's top leaders who have again become ministers after a decade. During the last decade, Sinha has kept his links alive, cementing them by joining the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), the best-known think tank of the Sangh Parivar.

It is as good as a career bureaucrat being appointed to head the Indian Space Research Organization (though no one would be surprised if that happens soon)!

Well, all those who had reposed faith in the saffron establishment when it was out of power had to be accommodated with goodies once it was back in power. That is in keeping with the universally recognized tenet of "spoils of power" -- every political party does it in every other country.

But it reflects on the vision of a political leadership when it makes questionable choices. One must ask whether crucial positions are mindlessly ladled out to retainers or is there a thought process to ensure that an institution is strengthened, not undermined, by such political appointments.

The decision to appoint Shakti Sinha as the head of NMML clearly reveals the bankruptcy of the government's thought process. A bureaucrat who pushed files all his life to preside over an iconic institution of higher learning? It is as good as a career bureaucrat being appointed to head the Indian Space Research Organization (though no one would be surprised if that happens soon)

This kind of decision is a sure recipe for destroying the major institutions that symbolize modern India. But then who are the people who chose Shakti Sinha to be the ideal candidate for the job? Minister M J Akbar and A Surya Prakash, the chairman of Prasar Bharati. Both have had careers in journalism and both are cheerleaders of the current dispensation. That is why both have been rewarded with prestigious positions -- in a way, both are beneficiaries of the "spoils of power". It is not surprising that both had no qualms in dutifully carrying out the dictates of the party high command; obviously professional standards and values are not a constraining factor for them in making a recommendation.

The only dissenting voice in the selection panel was that of Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the noted columnist, who had no favour to seek from the political dispensation. He naturally objected to this horrendous decision that would undermine an institution of national importance. (Many ill-informed BJP-sympathisers may jump to the conclusion that Mehta is a Congress agent, but they must read Mehta's sharp rebukes for the Congress dynasty before forming such an opinion about him.)

In his letter to the NMML Society chairman, Mehta wrote:

"NMML has a wide remit, much beyond its function as a memorial and library. It is central to the world of historical scholarship... it is important therefore that the head of the institution be someone who commands intellectual respect ... Appointing an administrator who does not have the requisite track record in the field of scholarship, or the world of letters more generally, sends a bad signal about the stature of NMML as an institution."

The ruling establishment is most likely to ignore Mehta's dissenting note and soon notify Shakti Sinha's appointment. Ultimately, the BJP government would simply be carrying forward the dubious legacy left by the Congress government.

Mahesh Sharma, the current Culture Minister, under whose jurisdiction the NMML falls, is known for his foot-in- mouth disease (remember his infamous remark that former President Abdul Kalam was a nationalist even though he was a Muslim), but he had raised a pertinent issue about the legitimacy of the appointment of the previous director of the NMML, Mahesh Rangarajan.

The BJP, by choosing a nondescript loyalist to head the NMML, is setting an even worse precedent than the one the Congress did two years ago.

Rangarajan, a noted environmental historian, was chosen to head NMML in 2011 by the Congress-led UPA government. The Delhi high court quashed the appointment in 2012, not on the grounds that Rangarajan was not qualified for the job, but because of the secretive manner in which the government went about the appointment without publicly advertising it. The government followed the procedure ordained by the high court and re-appointed Rangarajan as director for three years.

But what was indeed not above board was the decision to absorb Rangarajan in the position for another 10 years, until he attained the age of 60. Now, there was nothing wrong in providing an incumbent a long stint if he was doing a good job. After all, B R Nanda, the exemplary administrator-historian was the founder-director of the NMML for 13 years and Ravinder Kumar, the internationally-acclaimed history professor, who followed Nanda, was at the helm of the NMML for 17 years. What was questionable about Rangarajan's extension was the timing.

The UPA government initiated the process in the end of April 2014, well after the general elections were under way and the Code of Conduct was in place. The government sought the clearance of the Election Commission to notify the decision, but the latter asked the government to hold it till the election process was over. The election results were declared on 16 May and the UPA suffered a humiliating defeat. But the outgoing government brazenly notified the Rangarajan decision on 19 May, three days after it lost the election and a day after the Code of Conduct was formally withdrawn by the Election Commission. The Congress had set a poor precedent by such an action. When the new government raised the issue a year after it came to power, Rangarajan, a thorough professional, decided to step aside so as to not let the NMML suffer because of the mud-slinging between the two national parties. But the BJP, by choosing a nondescript loyalist to head a national institution such as the NMML, is setting an even worse precedent than the one the Congress did two years ago.

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