Modi tries to prise Nehru's legacy from Congress

The political war between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and opposition Congress has deepened, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi trying to distance the Congress party from its great iconic leader, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Mr Modi is pushing ahead with national celebrations to mark the 125th birth anniversary of India's first prime minister on Nov 14, much to the discomfort of Congress, which has planned its own commemorations, including making a short film on Nehru's life and holding a seminar, rallies and talks at educational institutions across the country.

Mr Modi on Oct 19 reconstituted a committee - formed last November while Congress was in power but that became moribund after the party lost the May elections - to oversee the celebrations.

But he triggered controversy by not inviting onto the 31-member committee Nehru's great grandson Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of the Congress party, or his mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Mrs Gandhi had been on the previous panel but resigned in May.

Congress leaders said they did not see any sincerity in Mr Modi's efforts, even though three senior Congress leaders and close Gandhi associate Suman Dubey are on the committee.

"Given the fact that the previous government had taken the initiative to set up a committee to plan the celebrations, Modi would have looked churlish if this had not taken place," said senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar of the move to restart the panel.

"I do not regard this as a serious attempt to celebrate the (anniversary)... he is hoping to hoodwink people into believing he is serious." Congress leader Sheila Dikshit criticised Mr Modi's move, arguing that Nehru was "first and foremost a Congressman and then the first prime minister of the country". Nehru, known as the architect of modern India, instituted a democratic socialist system that recognised individual freedom while promoting a fair degree of central planning. Mr Modi, however, is no Nehru fan and identifies more closely with Vallabhbhai Patel, an independence movement leader known as the iron man of India, whom he once said should have been the country's first prime minister.

Still, of late, the Prime Minister has been keen on acknowledging Congress icons such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru. He has allocated the week after Nehru's birth anniversary to school cleaning as part of his Clean India campaign.

"Certain people should be kept out of the realm of politics and they don't belong to the fiefdom of any one political party," said BJP spokesman Sambit Patra.

But some believe Mr Modi's references to Congress icons like Nehru is nothing but political strategy. Political analyst Sudhir Panwar said: "Modi wants to celebrate Nehru without his ideology and without its followers, which is the Congress."

Still others believe celebrations by Congress - which is hoping to leverage on them to energise itself - will not be able to match Mr Modi's.

This article was first published on October 27, 2014.
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