The Modi government, in its move to reconstitute the board of trustees at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi with its own set of eminences, has shown itself to be no different from the Congress regimes that fostered a culture of using public institutions to dispense patronage. The response from the ousted chairman, Chinmaya Gharekhan, a former diplomat, to the development sheds light on the arbitrary manner in which governments run cultural academies. He practically endorsed the intervention in the IGNCA, saying “all successive governments have done it”. Nehru’s India saw merit in supporting culture with public funds and state-run institutions. His successors, unfortunately, found them the perfect place to lodge lackeys. Appointments to cultural bodies have lacked transparency and, not surprisingly, no accountability or minimum professional standards are expected
This is not how premier public-funded cultural institutions in the world are managed. No US president would think of parking cronies in the Smithsonian Institution board or committees. The British follow the convention that public institutions like museums and art research centres should be representative and even ensure the presence of opposition voices on their boards. The IGNCA, established by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1987 as an autonomous institution to promote arts under the ministry of culture, has a mandate similar to that of the Smithsonian Institution. However, the Congress saw it as family jewel and reduced it to a Gandhi family fief: The Narasimha Rao government even appointed Sonia Gandhi “life president”. For that reason, the Congress outrage at the government intervention in the IGNCA lacks credibility. The BJP, on its part, has chosen to be brazen about making ideological affinity the primary criterion for selections to public bodies. Political parties need to shed partisan considerations in administering cultural institutions and nurture excellence. Professionals must be entrusted with the task of running institutions with mission statements to guide their management. Be it the IGNCA or the Sahitya Akademi, these institutions must also be sufficiently autonomous to also include voices critical of the establishment.
A large proportion of people who produce and engage with culture in India are its youth. Why must cultural institutions then be packed with senior citizens? They need to be responsive to India’s demographic profile if they are to remain vibrant sites. Museums they may be, but they can’t be dead places.