What’s in a (Gandhi) name?

October 11, 2010

A boy plays cricket near a poster of India's former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, inside the premises of the Congress party headquarters in New Delhi April 7, 2009.  REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/FilesFor the past 63 years in India, it wasn’t too difficult for most ministers to think up a name for a highway, a nuclear plant or a scheme to crank up the production of solar energy.

They just picked one of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasts who had ruled the country for most of the years since Independence and whose members are widely seen as the power behind the present Congress party-led federal government.

That cosy — and politically expedient — practice is getting frowns from the top levels of government. Local media have quoted the country’s top civil servant asking ministers to go easy on the “widespread and indiscriminate” practice, with many of the projects not delivering results.

No one doubts the practice is widespread. Delhi’s airport is named after Indira Gandhi, a leading university has her father Jawaharlal Nehru’s name, and the centre of the city was renamed after her son Rajiv. These are just three of the hundreds of projects and institutions named after the three prime ministers, who ruled in total for 38 years.

To be fair on the Congress, it is hardly an exception in these matters. It just has the advantage of being in power longest and widest.

But will the letter work? The idea in all probability has the backing of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But whether this suggestion will have wide currency is questionable.

Singh has no political base. He has never won an election (he sits in the largely nominated upper house) and owes his position to party chief Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv’s widow. Most see Singh as yielding to Sonia’s son Rahul in a few years’ time.

That entrenchment explains the naming rash. In a party where loyalty counts, the easiest way for politicians to prove it is to invoke the name of the family.

And till the powerful party chief puts her foot down decisively, they will have no pressing reason to look no further than the magic names to choose from, when the next highway is up for building.

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