It was interesting to note how the exit of Mahesh Rangarajan as director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) was followed by murmurs of protest from a section of India’s intellectual and political establishment. This columnist firmly believes in the sanctity of institutions and the need for those which come under the broad umbrella of government to be granted sufficient autonomy. The real scandal in NMML isn’t the exit of Rangarajan. The scandal took place in May 2014, when Rangarajan’s original three-year tenure was extended by ten years (until he attained the age of retirement) by a UPA government that was on its way out of office.
It is extraordinary for any head of institution to be granted a ten-year long tenure at one go. Most institutional appointments are for three or five years. Some, including the vice chancellorships of Central universities, like Delhi University, are not extendable by law. That a departing government with no mandate chose to run roughshod over convention should have evoked howls of protest. But the largely left-liberal intellectual establishment kept quiet.
That is why the credibility of the protests around Rangarajan’s exit or indeed the credibility of protests against a BJP government infringing on the autonomy of institutions is a big zero. Rangarajan may have all the qualifications necessary to head the NMML. He may even have done a good job of running the place. But the UPA destroyed his credibility at the stroke of a pen. Rangarajan’s only fault was to accept what the UPA did. To protect his own reputation, perhaps he should have stepped down then.
The challenge for Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to now ensure that his government doesn’t follow the practices of the Congress. In the case of educational and cultural institutions, it is easy for everyone to be distracted by charges of saffronisation and counter-charges of “Leftism/Marxisation” that have come to dominate the popular discourse. For the BJP, it is convenient to cover up sub-standard appointments to crucial bodies by saying that the Congress did the same or worse. But that isn’t an argument that a government headed by someone who promised “change” should be making.
NMML is a good litmus test. Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma hasn’t exactly distinguished himself in recent weeks with a series of careless public statements. But now, Sharma and his ministry have an opportunity to show that they can do things differently. For a start, they must follow due process in the appointment of a new director. Advertise the job and look for talent not just from India but abroad. It isn’t unreasonable to choose someone who leans Right but the person must have the qualifications for the job. Someone like Swapan Dasgupta, the eminent (right-wing) commentator, who is a qualified historian (PhD from SOAS) with intellectual gravitas would be an excellent choice (if he meets the eligibility criterion on age). There may be other worthwhile candidates but the search should not confine itself to the bottom of the pile as has been the case with institutions like FTII and ICHR. And let whoever is appointed get a fixed one-time tenure whether of three years or (preferably) five years. Unduly long tenures only help entrench vested interests and make institutions subservient to personalities.
India cannot thrive until its educational and cultural institutions are protected from the unseemly machinations of its political establishment, whether Congress or BJP.