Teen Murti Bhavan row exposes the insecurity of a Dynasty whose insidious power play is reaching the end game


By all accounts, the move to build a museum for prime ministers to encourage shared memories in a democracy ought to be non-controversial. It is one of those essential yet dull tasks performed by governments that no one gives much attention to except students, chroniclers, researchers or academicians. News about such tasks find no mention in TV debates and notifications are usually buried in the inside pages of newspapers.

Yet, for months now, a controversy has been brewing over the building of a museum for all prime ministers of India on the premises of the Teen Murti Estate in New Delhi — that also houses the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). It reached a crescendo with former prime minister Manmohan Singh shooting off an indignant letter last Friday to his successor Narendra Modi, accusing the government of indulging in “revisionism” and trying to “obliterate” India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy.

The debate is fascinating in more ways than one. It delves into the inner workings of a Dynasty that has never relinquished its control over the levers of power in independent India. It explains how the Dynasty exerted this control over its ‘subjects’ through an elaborate, intricate and symbiotic power edifice built over decades and nurtured for generations. Finally, the controversy also captures the insecurities of the Dynasty as for the first time in seven decades, it feels an ebb in its power and appears scared of the prospect.

On the face of it, the controversy is needless. First, the proposed museum for all prime ministers will be set up on the premises of the Teen Murti Estate. There will be no reconstruction of the Teen Murti Bhavan which used to be Nehru’s residence and has now been converted into a museum. The estate is situated over 25 acres of prime Lutyens’ land.

A report in The Indian Express quoted A Surya Prakash, a member of the NMML Executive Council, as saying, “Teen Murti Estate and Teen Murti Bhavan (Nehru’s residence and now the museum) are distinct entities. Often, an attempt is made to imply that these are the same. The library was constructed later on the premises, then the planetarium came, some land was also given to Delhi Police. There is scope for adding more in the complex.”

File image of former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru

The decision has irked the Congress. Its leaders and council members Mallikarjun Kharge and Jairam Ramesh have said that “this is the legacy of Nehru and associated with the freedom movement. It cannot be destroyed”. They have slammed the move as “diabolical, intended only to obliterate Jawaharlal Nehru”, according to the report.

It isn’t clear how constructing a museum on the Teen Murti Estate, that also houses other buildings, is a “diabolical act”. It is also unclear how a memorial to other prime ministers “obliterates Nehru’s legacy”. Is the Teen Murti Estate a private property? Does it belong to the Nehru-Gandhi family?

The NMML is actually an autonomous body under the ministry of culture. The prime minister is the president of NMML and the home minister is vice-president. The property belongs to the Union government. The decision, taken in July in a general body meeting chaired by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, complies with procedures. What explains Congress’s angst?

It is useful to remember that the Teen Murti Bhavan was earmarked as the official residence of prime ministers in 1948. Before that, it was the official abode of the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Armed Forces. Nehru, as economist Sanjaya Baru writes in Daily O, moved into the colonial mansion only after Mahatma Gandhi’s death and one year into his premiership, leaving behind his “regular” Lutyens’ bungalow ostensibly because he sought a fancier address than his Cabinet colleagues.

“Once the Mahatma was gone, Nehru would have felt liberated enough to move into the grand palace of the Commander-in-Chief, located a stone’s throw from the Viceroy’s palace – Rashtrapati Bhavan…,” writes Baru, who was the media advisor of Manmohan Singh in UPA 1. His decision to “live in Teen Murti House was perhaps also an attempt to elevate himself above the rest of the Congress leadership in the public eye. From primus inter pares (first among equals), Nehru made himself numero uno.”

The real question is not why a museum for all prime ministers is being constructed on the premises, but why was the official residence of prime ministers of India converted into a museum for its first occupant. Is Nehru the only prime minister of India worthy of his office? While the British left Indian shores, did they transfer the mantle of ‘colonial masters’ to the ‘First Family’ of India?

It is hard to disagree when Baru says that if first occupancy is qualification enough for an official residence to be turned into a memoriam, the Americans should have turned the White House into George Washington’s museum or the British should have turned 10 Downing Street into a memoriam for Robert Walpole. “It was Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, as President, MC Chagla, as minister for education and culture, and Indira Gandhi as minister for information and broadcasting, who took the decision,” writes Baru.

Incidentally, as NMML director Shakti Sinha reminds us in The Hindu, “even after it became a museum in his memory, the Union Cabinet, on August 9, 1968, decided that it should once again become the residence of the PM. The NMML agreed to shift the museum to Patiala House, but it did not happen.”

If anything, the travesty lay in the fact that an abode meant for all prime ministers was turned into a memoriam for one, and the decision didn’t generate any debate. This points to the way the primacy of the Dynasty was hammered into the collective psyche of a nation. Its deification was taken as “normal”.

This was a different form of colonialism, where exclusive occupancy of a rarefied zone becomes a signifier for political power and social influence. The exclusivity was slowly institutionalised. The Dynasty used this ‘denial of access’ mechanism to lay the building blocks of the edifice that would help sustain its political sway over several decades — even during times of distress.

To quote from Swapan Dasgupta’s piece in The Pioneer on how this happens: “Despite all the ups and downs of politics, the Gandhis have remained the first family of Lutyens’ Delhi. Some even consider them the owners of the place. Others come and go, maybe even rename Government-owned bungalows to indicate long occupancy, but it is only the Gandhis who have remained permanent residents for four generations. Around them has developed a durbar comprising politicians, bureaucrats, fixers, socialites, journalists, academics and others whose occupations remain a source of enduring mystery.”

It is in this context that we must place Congress’s outrage against Centre’s move for greater democratisation. The party is feeling threatened because construction of a building inside the sanctum sanctorum of its power destroys the ‘denial of access’ mechanism that it had built and guarded ferociously for all these years. The memoriam for all prime ministers inside Teen Murti Estate, in this sense, becomes a symbolical break-in. It reduces the halo that the Dynasty had built around itself (by self-certification methods such as conferring of Bharat Ratnas) and exposes it to plebian scrutiny.

The real danger to the Dynasty lies not in the fact that it is going through a political ebb. Rather, for the first time in history, the blocks of the power edifice are being dismantled. As the legacies of other prime ministers are also brought into gradual focus, soon the new generation may seek a re-evaluation of the ‘Nehru deification’ phenomenon. The emperor’s nakedness may finally become stark.

Congress’s second objection is that NMML is running a BJP agenda and trying to change the “nature and character” of the library and museum. In his letter, Manmohan writes, “The museum itself must retain its primary focus on Jawaharlal Nehru and the freedom movement because of his unique role having spent almost ten years in jail between the early 1920s and mid-1940s. No amount of revisionism can obliterate that role and his contributions.”

NMML director Shakti Sinha,in reply,  says: “Even in the present set-up, less than 2 per cent of the books, documents and other items in our repository are about Jawaharlal Nehru. When we expand the repository to include other PMs, we will be adding to Nehru as well in the process. Nowhere are we obliterating Nehru, we will make it Nehru-plus.”

Sinha has also given an account of the upgradation work that will be carried out.

On the context of Congress’s fear about the museum “losing its focus”, BJP leader Bhupender Yadav has tweeted an MOA clause:

The details make Congress’s fear seem misplaced. Its outrage, however, arises from a deeper anxiety. In marketing policy parlance, ‘brand recall’ and ‘brand recognition’ are key considerations in moulding consumer behaviour. Companies see red when their products suffer a slip in brand awareness. They spend billions in ensuring ‘top of the mind recall’ among consumers.

The Dynasty, through its relentless promotion of the Nehru-Gandhi brand, has so far ensured a high degree of brand awareness among the electorate. Among other things, this has also helped it cement political power. A greater democratisation, fears the party, may drown out the brand awareness of Congress, more so because its current offering has resisted all efforts at repackaging. This distress has reflected in the way it has forced mild-mannered Manmohan Singh — who slept through countless scams under his watch — to suddenly rediscover his voice on NMML issue.

If Nehru’s legacy is indeed “indelible”, no amount of conspiracies from the BJP will be able to diminish his brightness. Why is the Congress unduly worried?

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