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  Opinion   Columnists  10 Apr 2022  Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay | Nehru, Ambedkar and the BJP: Revisiting of history?

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay | Nehru, Ambedkar and the BJP: Revisiting of history?

The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi-NCR. His latest book is 'The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India', and he’s also the author of 'Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times'. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin.
Published : Apr 11, 2022, 12:28 am IST
Updated : Apr 11, 2022, 12:28 am IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has personally led this new-found public embrace and appropriation of Dr Ambedkar’s legacy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (PTI)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (PTI)

Everyone knows that April 14 is Ambedkar Jayanti, the birth anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar, the father of India’s Constitution. It is also not hidden from anyone that in his lifetime and even afterlife, his relations with political leaders across the spectrum, from the dominant Congress, or the fringes on the Right as well as Left, were strained, to put it mildly. Contrast this with Dr Ambedkar’s being one of the most sought-after legacies in Indian politics now. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has personally led this new-found public embrace and appropriation of Dr Ambedkar’s legacy. His associates, the leaders of Sangh Parivar affiliates, take turns in eulogising the dalit icon despite no camaraderie, of even a pretentious sort, ever existing between him and the RSS in his lifetime. In fact, Ambedkar’s steadfast advocacy of the Hindu Code Bill had angered the RSS and others in the saffron camp because they were of the view that he overzealously campaigned for outlawing polygamy, introducing the concept of divorce and granting women property rights. Ambedkar’s push for modernising select sections of traditional Hindu law was opposed by the Sangh Parivar vehemently.

In the early 1980s, the Sangh Parivar leaders who preceded Mr Modi decided consciously to enlist Ambedkar into the pantheon of their icons. But, despite their resolution to stop disparaging Ambedkar’s legacy, actual steps by RSS-BJP leaders were taken only following V.P. Singh’s implementation of the Mandal Commission award and after his government awarded the Bharat Ratna to Ambedkar. Mr Modi has taken the invocation of Ambedkar’s legacy one level higher and increased its frequency too.

The highlight of 2022’s Ambedkar Jayanti (his 131st birth anniversary) is going to be a tad odd. To grasp this, we need to recall the awkwardness with which Jawaharlal Nehru and Ambedkar worked and interacted with each other. Nehru and Ambedkar being unable to see eye to eye had a lot to do with the latter’s intense differences with Mahatma Gandhi for decades, at least from the early 1930s, from days before the Poona Pact. Ambedkar levelled substantial charges against Nehru when resigning from the government. At his death, the Prime Minister somewhat returned the favour by saying that his former law minister had been a “very controversial figure in Indian politics”.

Everyone knows all this. Consequently, Mr Modi’s decision to inaugurate the Pradhan Mantri Sangrahalaya, a museum dedicated to India’s Prime Ministers, on April 14 is loaded with political symbolism. The chairman of the drafting committee of the Constitution had no formal link with the office of the Prime Minister, so why is a museum to celebrate all 14 of the previous PMs being inaugurated on Ambedkar’s birth anniversary?

In the calendar, April 14 is less than 10 days after the BJP’s foundation day on April 6. Since 2014, every anniversary has progressively become more grandiose. This year, several days following the day is marked as “Samajik Nyay Pakhwada”, and the decision to inaugurate the museum of PMs in this period is aimed at connecting the BJP to Ambedkar and all Prime Ministers. It goes without saying that by changing the character of the Teen Murti complex from earlier being a memorial to Jawaharlal Nehru exclusively into one that gives space for all PMs so far, Mr Modi has brought down Nehru from being the first among equals to one of all. The additional building that has been built in the complex where Nehru lived till his demise reflects the ongoing Modi project — the erasure of another symbol of “Nehruvian colonisation”.

Further, the decision to inaugurate the new “expanded” museum that will not be “exclusive” for Nehru’s memory has been fixed for April 14 after rejecting two other dates considered by the government — December 25 and January 26, the first being Atal Behari Vajpayee’s birth anniversary and the other being Republic Day. The advantage of the inaugural now is that it enables the BJP to integrate the unveiling with the celebrations to mark its foundation day.

The day after Mr Modi was first sworn in as Prime Minister on May 26, 2014, was Nehru’s 50th death anniversary. The new PM provided an indication of his intention to take down the first PM from the pedestal he has occupied since 1964 by not making the customary visit to Shanti Van. No effort has been lost since then to undermine Nehru. In 2017, Anant Kumar Hegde, then a Cabinet minister, stated controversially in Parliament that Nehru had “marginalised” Hinduism in public life and he pursued policies “favouring” Muslims. Earlier, taking the cue from Mr Modi staying away from Shanti Van, Haryana’s new BJP government trimmed school textbooks in history. These had space for inversing history by portraying the Rajput king as victorious at Haldighati, but overlooked the existence of Nehru as well as Gandhi’s assassination.

Allowing Nehru to remain in the pre-eminent position that is rightfully his — Nehru was not just Prime Minister for 17 years, but also a towering national movement leader or freedom fighter for three decades prior to that — is an anathema for this government. The sheer span of time that Nehru occupied national mind space and stayed politically relevant from the pole position weighs on Mr Modi’s mind and forces exaggerated claims regarding his own (Modi’s) accomplishments — for instance during the JP movement or in the Bangladesh liberation war.

One of the key narratives of this government its its claim that “nothing” good or positive was done in India prior to 2014, and that all development and growth is after that period. The irony of the move to make Nehru one among all is that effort merely underscores that Nehru’s colossal personality and accomplishments (there were failures too, but gratefully acknowledged even by his admirers) continues to occupy considerable space in the political discourse.

The problem for this government is that the more they attempt to leave Nehru and his ways behind, the more emphatically do his methods come back as being relevant for this day. Witness, for instance, the Indian government’s efforts at maintaining equidistance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. If this is not neo-nonalignment, then what is it?

Likewise, much of economic measures that have electorally returned the BJP to office in election after election have their genesis in Nehruvian ideas. Years ago, Arun Shourie lambasted the government as being nothing but “Congress plus cow”. He may wish to make an amendment, replacing Congress with Nehru. Teen Murti becoming a “shared space” may actually be lauded by Nehru’s ethereal likeness, for he believed in sharing kudos and not garnering them solely for himself.

Tags: hindutva agenda, ambedkar jayanti, pandit jawaharlal nehru