PM Narendra Modi’s temples of modern India

Modi is no Nehru fan and now he has demonstrated that he differs from the latter’s definition of temples of modern India. The PM was not at Kakrapar this July 22 to celebrate the reaching a scientific milestone by the nuclear power plant there but he will be at Ayodhya on August 5 to lay the foundation stone for the Ram temple.

Denigrating Nehru on WhatsApp is easy but upstaging him as a PM is a challenge. If Modi is up to it, he can start by rectifying the first PM’s mistakes.

Nehru built big dams, heavy industries, institutes of scholastic and scientific excellence, etc as the temples of modern India but his record in public health and primary education is nothing to talk about. The man was a visionary but an elitist approach prevented the gains from percolating to the poor. This explains why India ranks 129th out of 189 nations in the human development index despite all the scientific and industrial progress.

Modi can begin with investing more than just the measly one percent of the GDP that the Congress-era governments did on public health. With COVID-19, he has a historic opportunity. For starters, he can replicate the AIIMS, a Nehruvian temple, in every city and rename it the Atal/Advani Institute of Medical Research. After all, it is hospitals and not holy places that matter in a pandemic. Showering money rather than petals is the way to go about improving the public health infrastructure, as Kerala has shown.

Likewise, Nehru started the IITs but his report card on school education, in the words of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, is, “lamentable”. Even today primary education is so low-priority and riddled with corruption that the food at the mid-day meal scheme designed to lure poor children to schools is often unfit for consumption.

Modi can increase the expenditure on education which is three percent of the GDP. Instead, he is busy dismantling the JNU and the UGC, diluting the IITs and replacing academics of repute with ‘bhakts’. Matters have reached such farcical limits that ministers who can’t show their own degree certificates are questioning the credentials of renowned scholars. And who can forget the HRD ministry’s ‘institutes of eminence’ tag that included Jio Institute which is still a proposal.

It would seem as if Modi and his masters in the RSS are in a hurry to raze the Nehruvian temples and build their own on the ruins.

As for scientific temper, some mad cow disease has afflicted our research institutes. IIT-Delhi received several proposals from top research institutions to explore the benefits of panchagavya, a mixture of five cow products: urine, dung, milk, ghee and curd. And some members of an alumni association of the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, would have got away with a workshop on astrology at the institute had it not been for a public outcry.

What can one say when the Union minister for Science & Technology claims at a session of the Indian Science Congress that Stephen Hawking said that our Vedas might have a theory which is superior to Einstein’s theory of E=mc^2. Peddling of such arrant nonsense and pseudoscience is what led to a nation-wide protest by scientists against “propagation of unscientific and obscurantist ideas”.

Initially, the PM too claimed that cosmetic surgery to reproductive genetics to stem cell therapy were practiced in ancient India but now he talks of promoting a scientific temper. It will be seen as lip service unless he puts his money where his mouth is and increases India’s spending on science and technology, a paltry 0.8 percent of the GDP.

Modi’s own temples show his penchant for the grandiose: the economically unviable Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train, the environmentally unsound Char Dham highway project which has been called a Himalayan blunder, the impossible garland canal project when the emphasis should be on potable water for all, the sluggish Namami Gange river rejuvenation project, the Sardar Patel statue and the Smart City project in metros where the act of breathing itself is equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day, where civic authorities are unable to find space for a garbage dump, where sewer workers routinely choke to death.

If Narendra Modi really wants to compete with Jawaharlal Nehru he would do better not to opt for pompous projects and focus on the basics rather than the optics.

The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.

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