Sunday Anchor

The politics of iconography

Image: Deepak Harichandan  

The list is exhaustive and eclectic at first glance. The underlying theme, however, is to correct a perceived imbalance. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders say the Congress had “over-projected” the >Nehru-Gandhis and they are ushering in diversity. The Congress has hit back, claiming the BJP is “appropriating” national leaders, as it has no icons of its own from the freedom struggle.

One of the National Democratic Alliance’s early shots was the award of the >Bharat Ratna to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Madan Mohan Malaviya, an early nationalist who founded the Banaras Hindu University, late in 2014. Before storming to power, Mr. Modi had announced a giant statue for Sardar Patel, another Congress stalwart who had some ideological differences with Jawaharlal Nehru.

Earlier this year, the government announced it would celebrate anniversaries of >Rani Gaidinliu from the Northeast, Congress and Hindu Mahasabha leader Lala Lajpat Rai, Revolt of 1857 hero Tantya Tope, medieval warrior Maharana Pratap, progressive writer Bhisham Sahni and medieval Vaishnavite saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The Philatelic Advisory Committee has decided on an array of national leaders to be featured on definitive stamps, but the names of former Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi are not on the list.

“It is an insult to history. We condemn the approach and attitude of this government to the Gandhis, who have sacrificed a lot for the nation,” said Congress leader Anand Sharma.

The contest underlines the politics of icon-building and desecration. The NDA’s attempt to promote a diversity of national icons has an underlying accusation: the Congress projected the Nehru-Gandhi family to the “exclusion” of others.

Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad defended the decision to exclude Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, saying, “In the definitive stamp series, the focus was on one family… though some other names were there… It should not be available to just one family... Here it is an inclusive series…”



The government seems to realise that the present stature of the Congress Party depends on the fortunes of the Nehru-Gandhi family. If you bring them down, you bring down the Congress itself .

The stamps will be dedicated to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Jana Sangh leaders Syama Prasad Mukherjee and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, socialists Subhas Chandra Bose, Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan and Bhagat Singh, medieval warriors Shivaji and Maharana Pratap, social reformer Swami Vivekananda, and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, seen as the tallest Muslim face of India’s freedom struggle. Mr. Prasad emphasised that there would be definitive stamps on Jawaharlal Nehru too.

The umbilical cord

“The government seems to realise that the present stature of the Congress Party depends on the fortunes of the Nehru-Gandhi family. If you bring them down, you bring down the Congress itself,” said a veteran Delhi historian on condition of anonymity. “It senses that many people believe the Congress has over-projected the family, particularly Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.”

“Once the ‘bias’ in favour of the Nehru-Gandhi family is hinted at, it does not matter from which part of the ideological spectrum the present government claims icons, as it can be seen as doing justice to them and thus tacitly claim their legacy by giving them their due,” the historian added.

The government can, thus, claim to have “rescued” these legacies from the Congress’ “family-centrism”, thus virtually separating the Nehru family legacy from other freedom fighters and reviving the latter. BJP leaders’ statements suggest precisely this.

“The Congress tried to exclude all political icons except the Nehru-Gandhi family, save for some like Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Azad and B.R. Ambedkar,” said BJP national spokesperson G.V.L. Narasimha Rao. “While definitive stamps sold in post offices were devoted to Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and non-political figures, other political leaders were just featured on commemorative stamps released only on occasions and in limited quantities.”

The Department of Posts shows that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) issued definitive stamps on Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Dalit icon Ambedkar and leader of the Self-Respect movement E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker. The Vajpayee government issued special definitive stamps on Patel, Bose and Ambedkar. The commemorative stamps of both UPA and NDA honour diverse figures. The UPA government had also commemorated the 150th anniversaries of Malaviya and Rabindranath Tagore.

The present battle, however, is more about perception than facts.

Some icons being feted are close to the Sangh Parivar — like Jana Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mukherjee and the party’s ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. They are, however, relatively moderate compared to early RSS leaders K.B. Hedgewar and M.S. Golwalkar, whose writings have been labelled ‘anti-Muslim’ by many. Golwalkar’s book Bunch of Thoughts explicitly called Muslims, Christians and Communists “Internal Threats”. These leaders aren’t being celebrated yet.

Significantly, >Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi has been renamed APJ Abdul Kalam Road. While Aurangzeb has been seen by the Hindu Right as an oppressive Muslim king, Kalam, widely respected across India, has often been labelled the Hindu Right’s ‘ideal Muslim’, who read the Gita and played the veena.

Among those being honoured, Congress stalwarts Lajpat Rai and Malaviya were also leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha, which some Congress leaders like Nehru saw as “communal”. They were thus ideologically closer to the Hindu Right. “According to Malaviya, the necessity of the Mahasabha had arisen because the Congress being a political body could not deal with the questions which affected various communities...,” Malaviya’s biographer S.L. Gupta writes. “The need of a Hindu body to speak on behalf of the Hindus in matters that concerned the Hindu community was stressed.” This was the vision for the Mahasabha that, incidentally, both Malaviya and Lajpat Rai shared, differing with some anti-Congress extremists in the Mahasabha.

Accusing Motilal Nehru of doing little for Hindu interests, Malaviya and Lajpat Rai had formed an Independent Congress Party to take on Mr. Nehru’s Swaraj Party in 1926 and inflicted crushing defeats on it in parts of north India. A BJP leader, however, claimed the main reason behind the celebration of Malaviya is his stature as the founder of BHU in Varanasi, Mr. Modi’s constituency.

Clear patterns

Another pattern is the appropriation of icons ideologically hostile to >Hindutva politics. One example is Ambedkar, who had rejected Hinduism to become a Buddhist. The political manifesto of Ambedkar’s Scheduled Castes Federation, founded in 1942, said, “The Scheduled Castes Federation will not have any alliance with any reactionary party such as the Hindu Mahasabha or the RSS.” Vol. 10 of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar Charitragranth, a Marathi book by C.B. Khairmode, reproduces the document.

Similarly, Bhagat Singh’s Naujawan Bharat Sabha had shut its doors to members of community-centric organisations like the Hindu Mahasabha. He also distributed leaflets quoting Robert Browning’s poem ‘The Lost Leader’ with a photograph of Lajpat Rai to tacitly criticise the latter’s communitarian leanings. Later, however, Bhagat Singh avenged the death of Lajpat Rai in a lathi charge by killing a British official.

Within the frame of doing justice to these icons swamped out by the Congress’ first family, however, such discrepancies may get brushed out.

Meanwhile, by including figures like medieval saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Rani Gaidinliu and Tamil poet Subramania Bharati, it seems as if the BJP is trying to reach out to Bengal, the North-east and Tamil Nadu, respectively, where the party is non-existent.


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