Of Memorials & Legacies

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Every Prime Minister’s or Chief Minister’s demise is invariably followed by a call to erect huge memorials in his or her memory either at New Delhi or in the state capital. The site chosen by his protégés and followers is invariably the most prime land in the city as nothing else will do. The latest case in this regard is the demand for burial of late Shri Karunanidhi next to his mentor late C N Annadurai on the Marina Beach in Chennai. With the AIADMK government in the state not acceding to the request, the matter was referred to the court in less than a day after his death. The court in a rare depiction of expediency and efficiency decided in favour of DMK demand in less than 24 hours. The court opined that 6 by 6 square feet piece of Marina beach was not asking for too much for a leader as tall as DMK chief Karunanidhi. One wonders how the learned judges came to the conclusion that a memorial is confined to just a 6 by 6 square feet of space when the reality is totally different. Has the court set precedence for all future DMK Chief Ministers to be accommodated on the Marina Beach next to Annadurai memorial and all AIADMK Chief Ministers to be buried next to MGR memorial on the same beach?

At national level Indira Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Rajiv Gandhi, Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram, and Chaudhry Charan Singh were some of the notable politicians whose death followed huge cries for memorials similar to or even bigger than Raj Ghat that is dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi. By default Raj Ghat and Teen Murti house have become bench marks for memorials. In case of Chaudhry Charan Singh, who was Prime minister for less than six months in 1979-80, there was even a second demand in 2014 for a memorial in Lutyens New Delhi area apart from the Kissan Ghat that was built near Raj Ghat after his death in 1987. There was a section of Congressmen who even wanted a memorial for Sanjay Gandhi – someone who had no official standing but exercised huge extra constitutional powers with blessings of his mother Indira Gandhi and her band of sycophant Congressmen. Finally he was accommodated in Shanti Van, a memorial for late Mr Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. At state level perhaps Tamil Nadu takes the cake when it comes to seeking memorials for departed leaders since many of state’s leaders like Annadurai, MGR, Karunanidhi and Jaylalitha had a cult like following that has not been seen in any other state. The bench mark in Tamil Nadu is the memorial built for DMK founder Annadurai on the Marina Beach.

Chennai monuments (Wikipedia)

Are memorials necessary? Should one be built for every Prime Minister or Chief Minister after their demise? Frankly memorials or recordings in history are outcomes of the legacy left behind by a leader based on his contribution to the nation and society. Positions achieved can be hereditary, thrust on an individual or based on longevity coupled with hard work within a party or organisation. Therefore by itself a position cannot guarantee a lasting legacy. Legacies of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawahar Lal Nehru and Sardar Patel stem from their roles in the freedom struggle and not from the positions they held in government after independence. They did not join the freedom struggle for any position or compensation. They gave their all for a cause in a selfless manner. After independence hardly any politician can boast of a legacy that changed the fortunes of the nation or its citizens baring may be PV Narsimah Rao. The truth is that most of them were political professionals who just performed a job for which they were compensated handsomely in terms of money and power. It is also true that most of them are remembered today more for their follies than for any major contribution to the nation.

Indira Gandhi is remembered more for imposition of emergency, encouraging political sycophancy within Congress and turning administrative services into subservient tools despite the fact that she was responsible for creating an independent Bangladesh. Chaudhry Charan Singh reached the pinnacle of political career by expounding the cause of farmers. Unfortunately the farmers continue to be in dire states even today with no solutions in sight.  Rajiv Gandhi is known more for his Sri Lankan misadventure and opening of Ayodhya Temple doors than for any lasting good he did for the nation. Only Lal Bahadur Shastri and PV Narsimah Rao have possibly left creditable legacies. The former is credited for his astute leadership during and after the 1965 war with Pakistan while the later was responsible for ushering in liberalism and reforms for a fast track industrial growth. Baring these two, hardly any other Prime Minister has left behind a legacy that speaks for itself. So do all these leaders deserve monumental memorials at huge costs to the nation? In Sherlock Homes words “Elementary my dear Watson, the answer is obvious”.

One can easily make a similar case for Chief Ministers of states too including Tamil Nadu, the cult like following of their leaders notwithstanding. Late Karunanidhi was undoubtedly a popular political leader in the state who also had admirers in New Delhi from time to time. While he is known for his work for non Brahmin people of Tamil Nadu, he is remembered more for his support to LTTE, a confused vision of a Tamil Eelam, animosity towards Brahmins or upper castes, opposition to 2009 Indian operations against LTTE, anti Hindi stance and his role in increasing reservations in Tamil Nadu to the level of 69% for employment and admissions to educational institutions. There were huge question marks on his honesty and integrity too. Surely these are not signs of an enlightened leader with vision for the future – irrespective of his popularity.

A look around the world, in other nations, will perhaps put this need to make memorials for every Prime Minister or Chief Minister in its correct perspective. In England, even Winston Churchill who is credited for providing unmatched leadership during World War II does not have a memorial. All that exists is a Churchill Memorial trust that offers scholarships to UK citizens to travel abroad, explore new ideas with a view to inspire communities back home. In USA baring Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, hardly any other President has any noteworthy memorial. The legacies of Lincoln and Washington remain unmatched. Prime Ministers of various European countries rise to the apex position in their political journeys and on retirement fade away into nation’s society as ordinary citizens. In Russia, all past presidents have a bust erected near the Military Uniform Memorial barring Lenin who has a dedicated mausoleum in Red Square since his legacy in founding modern Russia remains heads and shoulders above all others.

By the turn of 21st century Marina Beach may have to be renamed as Memorial Beach if memorials for all past, present and future Chief Ministers are to be accommodated there. On same logic Yamuna Front in Delhi will possibly be renamed as Memorial Front with River Yamuna going into oblivion for more reasons than one. The net result will be loss of legacies of both, Marina Beach and River Yamuna in their respective cities. But then who is concerned about such losses – certainly not the politicians of this country. It is time the nation realises that today politics too is a profession with leaders being political professionals. Their routine contribution from the positions they occupy is part of their job and should not be misconstrued as a legacy. Like other professionals they too should just retire and go back to being normal citizens instead of seeking unearned and uncalled for glories after their retirement or demise. It must be understood that legacies cannot be handed down to the people. Instead legacies are recognised by the people and pinned on deserving leaders by the people – if that happens then memorials and places in history are natural outcomes.

Saroj Chadha, an engineering professional, is a successful entrepreneur. Having retired from the Indian Army after having served for over 23 years, he has also been a consultant for leading Indian and Multinational electrical companies. He lives in New Delhi.

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