By Amulya Ganguli
What is noteworthy about the cartoon row is that neither Jawaharlal Nehru nor B.R. Ambedkar found anything objectionable about it when it was published in 1949. Nor did all the politicians in the intervening decades, among whom were luminaries such as Vallabhbhai Patel, J.B. Kripalani, Ram Manohar Lohia, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram, A.K. Gopalan, Hiren Mukherjee and scores of others whose names are likely to last in textbooks longer than of some of their successors in the political field today.
It may be worthwhile, therefore, to mull over the differences in response between an earlier generation of politicians and the latest ones, especially when, by common consent, the calibre of those who graced the hallowed chambers of Parliament House and of public life in the past was of a higher order than of those who came in their wake. There is little doubt that what places them on a higher pedestal in the eyes of their countrymen is their accomplishments in personal and political life.
Among the attributes which gave them a higher status was an ability to take a critical look at themselves. Nothing showed this exemplary trait more than Nehru’s searing observations on himself which surpassed anything which his critics might have said. Writing anonymously in the Modern Review in 1937, the hero of the independence movement said: “Caesarism is always at the door and is it not possible that Jawaharlal himself might fancy himself as a Caesar.”
If the builder of modern India detected an unworthy trait in himself, Ambedkar, the architect of the constitution, sounded a warning about a dubious characteristic of the nation, “where ‘bhakti’ or the path of devotion or hero worship plays a part in its politics unequalled in its magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, bhakti or hero worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”.
Central to this attitude is an uncluttered vision and a self-deprecatory sense of humour about one’s personal self and the country. It is this broad-minded outlook which must have made them see Shankar’s cartoon about Ambedkar being harried by Nehru in the matter of framing the constitution as a droll, inoffensive interpretation by a humourist. To them, raising a hue and cry over a form of popular art common to all democracies would have been like taking the “road to degradation”.
But, there was another, deeper reason for their response – or the lack of it – which underlined their culture and academic temperament. It was the fact that they took it for granted that their popular base was the entire nation, not segments of it which had to be assiduously cultivated. Instead, they drew their strength from the adulation of all sections of Indians, irrespective of their caste or creed.
If the reactions of those who have replaced them in the political field to Shankar’s cartoon are so very different from Nehru’s and Ambedkar’s, the explanation lies in the heavily truncated nature of their perceived bases of support. None of today’s politicians can claim to represent the nation. Instead,they seem to see themselves as representatives of particular religions or castes or provinces or regions. What is more, since they are uncertain of their hold on their targeted communities, they constantly need to exploit issues which can enable them to retain their influence.
So, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has to harp on the temple on which it has set its heart lest the Hindus slip out of its grasp, the caste-based outfits like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of the Dalits, the Samajwadi Party of the Yadavs and others have to use real or imaginary slights on their castes to mobilise their supporters and provincial groups like the Shiv Sena have to call for the banning of a book seemingly offensive to Maratha icon to retain their bases. But, interestingly, all these parties also have to pander to the supposedly hurt sentiments of the other communities in the hope of winning over some of them. Hence, the outrage voiced across the board after a Dalit organisation criticised the cartoon.
The pity is that Nehru’s own party, the Congress, with its history of non-partisan politics, has fallen prey to this cynical game to pander to the Dalits just as it had banned Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” to please the orthodox Muslims and offered muted support to the ban on James W. Laine’s biography of Shivaji to keep the Marathis in good humour. Yet, there is nothing to suggest that anyone other than the backward-looking sections in these communities are impressed by such kowtowing to self-serving propaganda which makes a mockery of democratic values, intellectual acuity and freedom of the media.