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THE CALLING GAME - On the politics and poetics of naming

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By Politics and play - Ramachandra Guha in Postscript
  • Published 29.08.09

Last year, I visited Arunachal Pradesh at the invitation of the Rajiv Gandhi University. After my talk my hosts took me on a tour of Itanagar, with halts at the Jawaharlal Nehru State Museum and the Indira Gandhi State Park. The next day, I proceeded from Itanagar to Guwahati, a long, eleven-hour drive through beautiful country, hills, forests, paddy fields and all. Just before we reached our destination, we passed a strangely-shaped building with a shining yellow roof, recently built by the state government of Assam, and named the Rajiv Gandhi Indoor Stadium.

I recalled, on that trip to the North-east, reading a recent report in The Telegraph by Radhika Ramaseshan, “With you, every waking hour” (August 14), which noted that a scheme for the provision of cooking gas was to be renamed after Rajiv Gandhi. This, apparently, was the 175th government scheme named after Rajiv, Indira, or Nehru. Thus, as Ramaseshan wrote, “From dawn to dusk and beyond, just as at least one Amitabh Bachchan movie used to be viewed by a fan at any given point of time, one scheme or the other named after a Nehru-Gandhi will touch — or hope to touch — the everyday life of some Indians in some corner of the country.”

The act of attaching the name of one or other of India’s most powerful political family to schemes, colleges, museums, stadia, and so on, is not merely, or even principally, a means of acknowledging their contributions to the nation. As often as not, it is a shrewd attempt at career advancement. When a new airport was built in Hyderabad some years ago, the logical — and best — decision would have been to name it after some great icon of the Andhra country. An inspired chief minister might even have held a poll among his constituents, with each Andhra-ite asked to offer his choice of person whose name was to be attached to the new airport. The more literary-minded might have suggested the poet Sri Sri; the music-minded the composer Thyagaraja. History-minded Andhras would have voted for a medieval king or kingdom. Members or supporters of the Telugu Desam Party would have voted for N.T. Rama Rao (as would have very many apolitical film buffs), whereas Congressmen (and Reddys) might have voted for K. Brahmananda Reddy or N. Sanjiva Reddy. The parliamentary communists would have chosen P. Sundarayya, the Naxalites T. Nagi Reddy.

Had the chief minister sought to take the pulse of the people, it would have made for a lively contest — with articles in the newspapers and programmes on television debating the merits and credentials of various names and candidates. But Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy pre-empted the debate by unilaterally deciding to name the new airport after Rajiv Gandhi, so as to all the better ingratiate himself with the late prime minister’s widow, who is the president of the party to which he belongs. In the same manner, the cooking-gas scheme has acquired its new name not because of the contributions to the petrochemical field of the seventh prime minister of India, but because — to quote Ramaseshan once more — the relevant “Congress ministers and satraps [were] keen to catch the eye of the first family”.

To be sure, the names of other Indian airports also reflect a political bias. The airport in Mumbai is named after Shivaji, the airport in Calcutta after Subhas Chandra Bose. One might have wished them to be named after non-political figures — if one can disembark at the Allama Iqbal airport in Lahore, why not at the Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore airport in Calcutta? Still, the names actually chosen represent a lesser evil — namely, regional pride rather than political sycophancy. For almost all Bengalis revere Bose, and almost all Maharashtrians honour the memory of Shivaji. Can one really say the same about all Andhra-ites and Rajiv Gandhi?

The university I spoke to in Itanagar, as well as the museum and park I visited, were all public institutions, run and funded by the state exchequer. So too the yellow-roofed monstrosity on the outskirts of Guwahati. As it happened, a couple of hours before I saw the sign for the stadium, my driver and I had stopped for lunch at a wayside eatery named Amritsari Punjabi Dhaba. Now, this name was not foisted on by an ambitious (or deferential) politician. Rather, it was willingly chosen by the dhaba’s proprietor to signal to the passing traveller both quality and affordability — characteristics usually associated with Punjabi food.

The contrast between the names of the stadium and of the eatery was telling indeed. It prompts this wider speculation that while artefacts publicly funded are usually named for instrumental or parochial reasons, those initiated by private parties more strongly reflect genuine sentiment and affection. Consider, for instance, that there is no public park, office, auditorium or stadium in Chennai named for C. Rajagopalachari (‘Rajaji’), although he was twice chief minister of the state of which Chennai is the capital (he was also the first Indian governor-general). This neglect is not accidental — it has all to do with the fact that Rajaji was born in a Brahmin household. Ironically, despite the rivalry between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, there is a major suburb of Bangalore named Rajaji Nagar, this reflecting the appreciation of its residents for a man who studied in the city, who was a major figure in national politics, and whose renditions of the Ramayan and Mahabharat have educated and entertained millions of Indians of different castes and ethnicities.

Perhaps the most transparent signs of personal preferences in this regard have to do with the names of babies. Admittedly, these too are sometimes chosen with an ulterior motive — we all know of children being named after uncles or grandfathers who have property to bequeath. More often, however, they reflect the tastes and preferences of the parents. Thus, a baby may be named after a favourite character in the epics, or after a living person one greatly admires.

In the latter category fall those very many babies who, born soon after Amartya Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics in 1998, were named after him. All these babies were male, of course, but not all were Bengali. A Tamil friend named his son Amartya in the hope that in the years to come his progeny would exhibit the intelligence and charm — and possibly also acquire the success and good fortune — of the most famous living Indian intellectual. I think that it can be said without fear of contradiction that this was a more sincere tribute to Amartya Sen than that professedly offered to Rajiv Gandhi by Rajasekhar Reddy.

Postscript: In the article referred to above, Ramaseshan noted that Congressmen rued the opportunity missed by not naming the national rural employment guarantee programme — which reaches tens of millions of households — after Rajiv Gandhi. A week later, on his birth anniversary, the government announced the creation of Rajiv Gandhi Sewa Kendras in each of the country’s 250,000 panchayats, these bodies to serve as a clearing house of information about the NREGP. In making the announcement, the minister for rural development indicated that it is only a matter of time before the core programme itself is named after Rajiv Gandhi.