Charu Sudan Kasturi, telegraphindia.com
Scholarships for India under Washington's Fulbright programme were named the "Fulbright-Nehru" fellowships under a 2008 agreement after the then Manmohan Singh government decided to match America's bilateral contribution.
Nehru had in February 1950 inked a pact with then US ambassador here, Loy Henderson, that has since then allowed 17,000 students of the two nations to study in each other's universities. Former US senator James William Fulbright had piloted the initiative globally for Washington in 1946 as a vehicle for America's post World War II soft-power push.
Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and US secretary of state John Kerry decided on the first scholarship with the new name during the India-US Strategic Dialogue on September 23 in Washington. A "Fulbright-India climate change fellowship" was announced at the end of the meeting.
Buried deep in a statement, the name and its significance went unnoticed at the time amid the frenzy ahead of Modi's second visit to the US as Prime Minister.
The decision to remove Nehru's name from the India-US Fulbright programme comes weeks after the two countries chopped off - again without an announcement - the name of Modi's predecessor Manmohan Singh, and in the process, of President Barack Obama, from another diplomatic initiative.
The Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative, launched by the two leaders in 2009, will be known as the US-India 21st Century Knowledge Initiative, confirms the US-India Educational Foundation (USIEF) - which runs both this project and the Fulbright-India programme - on its website.
The changes in names of diplomatic initiatives undertaken by the previous government also come amid a growing debate on whether the Modi government is attempting to replace Nehru's domestic and foreign policy legacy with its own.
"They are trying to not only change names but to rewrite history by removing the icons of our freedom struggle and also of our modern development," Congress spokesperson Shakeel Ahmed said over the phone from Bihar. "It is unfortunate."
USIEF executive director Adam Grotsky and deputy director Diya Dutt did not respond to email questions from this newspaper on the process followed in deciding on the name changes. It is also unclear whether existing Fulbright scholarship initiatives for India will be renamed. The USIEF is chaired by foreign secretary S. Jaishankar and US ambassador to India Richard Verma.
Analysts said it was unlikely Washington would mind the changes too much, although it would have been uncomfortable for America, they added, to drop Obama's name from a pact when he is still in office for another year.
Naming bilateral diplomatic pacts after politicians is a dodgy proposition for democracies to start with, the analysts pointed out, precisely because of the problems such nomenclature can create if a very different dispensation comes to power in either of the countries.
"This government is clearly trying to leave its imprint on foreign policy," Chintamani Mahapatra, professor at the centre for Canadian, US and Latin American Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said. "But the Congress did so too - by injecting Nehru into the pact in 2008."
But the decision to change names is also fraught with risk, Mahapatra added. "The problem here is that you're not removing names from all government or bilateral projects - and by picking one or two, you reinforce the perception that you're trying to target Nehru's legacy," he said.
From 1950 to 2008, the US - which provides 8,000 scholarships each year globally under the Fulbright project -was the sole funder for the initiative with India.
But in July 2008, the then foreign secretary, Shivshankar Menon, and the US ambassador in New Delhi at the time, David Mulford, inked a pact revising the bilateral Fulbright agreement to become "full partners" through equal funding.
"The number of scholarships and grants exchanged each year is expected to double," the US state department said in a statement after the revised agreement was signed in the capital's Hyderabad House. "Reflecting this new partnership, scholarships awarded under this program will be known as Fulbright-Nehru Scholarships." The US Education Foundation in India became the USIEF.
A year later, Singh, the then Prime Minister, and Obama declared from the lawns of the White House that they would launch a jointly funded initiative named after them to promote collaboration between research universities in India and the US.
But as this newspaper had reported last year, the Modi government did not want a reference to the Obama-Singh initiative in the Prime Minister's talks with the US President when he visited Washington in September 2014.
That worry is now history.