When will our politicians ever cultivate a sense of humour or, for that matter, a sense of political understanding? The latest clamour against a cartoon comes after MPs slammed the Ambedkar cartoon, a cartoon drawn by no less than a cartoonist celebrity, Shankar Pillai. Shankar’s cartoon was totally misunderstood, but the hullabaloo raised by some of our MPs forced Kapil Sibal to have the cartoon deleted from an NCERT text book. That was a crying shame.
The new shouting match is against an R.K. Laxman cartoon that is part of a Political Science textbook of Class XII which depicted the anti-Hindu agitation in Tamil Nadu in 1965. According to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister who was apparently playing to the gallery, the cartoon “has insulted the late leaders like Periyar and Arignan Anna and other martyrs of the language struggle” and has “demeaned the anti-Hindi agitation, besides burting the sentiments of the Tamils”. Jayalalithaa wants the cartoon to be “removed immediately”. The whole thing is ridiculous. For one thing, R.K. Laxman is a proper Tamilian and one can’t even think of him “insulting” his fellow Tamilians. Secondly, no Tamilian raised any hue and cry when the cartoon was first published in The Times of India. The whole row, the paper said, (14 June) “points to a deeper disorder plaguing our political system and democratic culture”. It also pointed out that “the increasingly aggressive meddling by politicians in educational, media and cultural affairs – including art and literature – is alarming”. It asked: “Can everything that’s written or said be made acceptable to all and offensive to none?” and the paper warned: that the more politicians crack down on cartoons” the more subversive forms of humour they will breed, which will be the case “even more in vibrant, functioning democracy like India”. The Hindu carried on a debate on the subject. M. Karunanidhi was quoted (10 June) as saying “Tamils are boiling with rage over the cartoon”, MDMK general secretary Vaiko demanded nothing less than removing the cartoon from the text book. Togendra Yadav, Senior Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and one of the Chief Advisers of the NCERT pointed out that the text book in the first place “was developed by a large team of political scientists, teachers and educationists” and was shown to three eminent historians of contemporary India, Prof. Sunil Khilnani, Ramachandra Guha and Mahesh Rangarajan and was cleared by them. And, to top it all, The Hindu (11 June) published an article by Prof. Apoorvanand which noted with sadness that the petition against the Nehru-Ambedkar cartoon bore “the signatures of same of our best scholars, universally admired for their rigourous scholarship”. He should know scholarship and wisdom are not synonymous.
But what is remarkable about the entire affair is the space given (16 pages) by Economic & Political Weekly (2 June) to the controversial subject of political cartooning, carrying, as it did, three major articles by renowned scholars. As one of them, Prof. Peter Ronald de Souza, Director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Simla, put it, the cause for the cartoon controversy is “a growing politics of ethnic bidding” and “the heckler has acquired the power of veto over creative expression”. Understandably, the media waited with bated breath for the Congress to name its candidate for the presidentship of the country. When, finally, the Congress chose Pranab Mukherjee for the post, there was almost a sense of political relief. The New Indian Express (16 June) said immediately after the announcement of his name that “support from other parties seemed to suddenly turn the tide in his favour”. Itself supporting Mukherjee’s candidature which it called “a befitting choice for India’s highest office”, the paper said “the 77 years old leader from West Bengal is often described as a walking encyclopaedia of Congress history, expert in matters of Constitution and governance and a stickler for rules in Parliament”. It added: “Pranabda – as he is fondly called – is not only fully qualified to hold the highest constitutional post, but is also capable of restoring the dignity of the high office that has been eroded a lot (and) it will be a fit finale to his elevation to India’s presidency if a contest can be avoided and a political consensus achieved.”
Deccan Herald (16 June) thought that “the election of the country’s next President is now just a matter of formality” and “it is highly doubtful if the UPA’s rivals can come up with a candidate to match Mukherjee’s popularity and creditability to challenge him in the July 19 election”. The paper said “the UPA government will be poorer without Mukherjee’s services”, considering that he had been the government’s “one-man think tank”. The Asian Age (16 June) was equally supportive of Pranab Mukherjee. It noted that “by the look of things Mukherjee appears to be a clear winner” and “it is a signal victory for the Congress Party”. For Mr Mukherjee, it said, “this is a personal triumph”. The paper pointed out that “Mr Mukherjee is a widely admired politician, respected across the board for his deep political understanding, negotiating skills and administrative acumen”, adding that “any contest for the presidency that might occur can only be notional”. The Times of India (18 June) felt that “the nomination of Mukherjee for president has proven a master-strike, as he is eminently qualified for the position” considering that “his mastery of the Constitution and political system is unquestionable”. Importantly, when Mr APJ Abdul Kalam made it public that he doesn’t want to be a presidential candidate, The Hindu (19 June) said: “Well done, Mr Kalam”. Mr Kalam, said the paper, has been able “to see through the motives of his supposed backers” who wanted “only to serve their own respective political interests”. “Five years on” the paper added, “Mr Kalam’s statesmanship, vision and sense of his own legacy remain undiminished”.