Sanjaya Baru | Revisiting PMs: Museum in Delhi underplays PV

The Asian Age.  | Sanjaya Baru

Opinion, Columnists

The consultants’ team of the three BJP members should be complimented for giving Nehru his due

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the inauguration of Pradhan Mantri Sangrahalaya, in New Delhi. (PTI Photo)

It is not clear whether it was just intellectual laziness or bureaucratic safe play or just plain bias that the designers of the newly built Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya (Prime Ministers’ Museum) in New Delhi chose to allocate more or less the same space to most of our Prime Ministers, virtually equating most of them. Quite understandably, Jawaharlal Nehru gets his due both because the original museum at Teen Murti House still retains most of the space devoted to the first PM. Next to Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee also get their due space.

Vajpayee’s decision to conduct the nuclear tests in May 1998 is memorialised with an installation which allows the visitor to view the Pokhran-II test and feel the ground beneath shake. Indira Gandhi gets two separate sets of display for her first and second rounds in office, but this also allows the designers to provide adequate space for recalling the 1975-77 Emergency period. Fair enough. There is no doubt that Nehru, Indira and Vajpayee left a more prominent legacy behind and deserved the attention their tenures secure in this museum.

What of the rest? The committee constituted to conceptualise the museum included three distinguished journalists and writers on contemporary history -- M.J. Akbar, Swapan Dasgupta and A. Surya Prakash. All three are qualified for this kind of effort. However, it is curious that they chose to play safe, if sometimes partisan, rather than adopt a historical approach to recording the legacy of India’s PMs.

Consider the fact that between Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji Desai, Chaudhary Charan Singh, Vishwanath Pratap Singh and Chandra Shekhar, the six PMs spent a total of around six years in office, while P.V. Narasimha Rao alone was in office for a full term of five years. Yet, PV gets almost as much attention as each of these. Shastri did play an important role as Prime Minister, and one can quibble about Morarji. But, what of the others?

If one were to allocate space and time in a museum based on an assessment of the impact that individual PMs have had on events and policies of their time, that in turn shaped the nation’s destiny, then how should one view each of our PMs? Is it fair to devote as much attention to PMs with one-year tenures as it is for PMs with longer tenures? Then again, one should not look only at time spent in office. What then ought to have been the criterion used, especially by a group of contemporary history recorders like these senior journalists, in planning not just the allocation of space in a museum but in also the selection of memorablia, the experiential panels and so on?

In my book, recording Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s contribution to policy and recent Indian history -- 1991: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Made History (Aleph, 2016) -- I make the point that the best way to judge the role and contribution of a PM would be to take stock of the country on the eve of the individual’s assumption of office and of the state of the nation when that individual demits office. Consider the available data in terms of the performance of the economy, quality of life, external status of the country and the manner in which major events and policies were handled.

This requires some judgment, albeit subjective, but one that can be defended in the court of historical analysis. Using such an approach, one would say that the PM with the most impactful tenure was without doubt Jawaharlal Nehru. For good and bad, Nehru shaped India’s destiny in a manner that was not possible with any of his successors because he was, after all, the first PM and one with the longest tenure in office. So, allocating maximum space to Nehru is justified and understandable. The consultants’ team of the three BJP members should be complimented for giving Nehru his due. They also took care to offer space to Nehru’s contemporaries who did not make it to that top job, namely, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. C. Rajagopalachari was, surprisingly, left out.

My suggested method of estimating a PM’s significance would justify the space devoted to Indira Gandhi, Vajpayee and even Manmohan Singh. However, it certainly does not justify the focus on the many one-year PMs and the shameful downplaying of the historic tenure of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. Many analysts in India and overseas have remarked that 1991 was a turning point in India’s post-Independence history. If 1947 defined 20th century India, 1991 shaped 21st century India. Consider the state of the country in the summer of 1991 and look at where it was by the summer of 1996. Even the preparations for Vajpayee’s significant achievement – the Shakti nuclear tests that have been memorialised in the museum -- was undertaken by Narasimha Rao during his term. On handing over charge to Vajpayee in 1996, PV told him: “Samagri thayyar hai”.

The Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya is a welcome addition to New Delhi and it is an impressive effort. It has something for the serious student of contemporary history and something for casual visitors and even entertainment for children. If it lacks anything, it is the judgment that is expected of contemporary historians about the role and relevance to the nation and the history of individual PMs. Narasimha Rao was not merely the first South Indian to ever govern the sub-continent from Delhi. Even the Peshwas of the Deccan who conquered Delhi never sat on the throne of the Delhi darbar. PV was more than a mere ruler, something that can be said of any PM. He shaped India’s destiny.

No only has New Delhi refused so far to honour P.V. Narasimha Rao with a Bharat Ratna, it has not named any road or building after him for him to be remembered by. It is almost as if the Delhi darbar is ashamed to admit that one such as him shaped the course of Indian history merely with his pen and his pout, and signing files that altered the framework of economic and foreign policies, defining the personality of post-Cold War India.