Updated: August 15, 2021 7:34:26 am
If you want our democracy, which steps into its 75th year, to look a bit ancient, you could say the British left us in the last millennium. Not many would be old and alert enough to remember the “Tryst with Destiny” speech by India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. But, the millennial moment is easier to recall; it was a mere 20 years ago. The prime minister then was the veteran parliamentarian from Nehru’s days, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Atalji spoke with conviction at the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in September 2000. Back home, the mood resonated. The nation, it seemed, had already put the worst behind it. Lessons, we were assured, had been learnt and the new century was all ours. The cartoons, here, are from the India that was rebooted then.
A sad miss at that point was Rajiv Gandhi, who had famously vowed to take us into the 21st century. The backroom mentor, who inducted Rajiv into desktop computing, Narasimha Rao, had reset the economy and bowed out. Always measured, he spoke more languages than any practising politician and clammed up when he chose to, with a stony pout. His protégé, Manmohan Singh, ran the country even more silently for full 10 years. He speaks a bit more these days than some of his political rivals, who were once visibly articulate, but now rather silent — LK Advani and Murali Manohar Joshi are in a strange quiet place called Margdarshak Monastery or is it Mandal? Sharad Pawar isn’t more visible but is actively talking strategy.
All the public speaking is done by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and the TV anchors who mind-read the nation. We must thank them all for keeping cartoons going. But it is not as though the former two are having a field day. They have to compete for space with some venerable characters from the past. Rahul Gandhi is a good sport who welcomes this. He takes his holiday knowing fully well that the bigger Gandhi would stand in and save the nation.
Gandhiji is only one out of the long list of historical figures who populates contemporary cartoons. Such vintage rallying could be exceptional in the history of the art practice. News cartooning is meant to be topical and our times have no dearth of ardent newsmakers. Yet, not a week goes by without an anachronistic presence or two, peering out of the Indian political cartoon.
Nehru, who has had a hectic seven-year run, is seen as the root cause of all our troubles. His contemporaries Subhas Chandra Bose and Rabindranath Tagore have been retrieved and revered though not enough to sway Bengal’s voters. Even Swami Vivekananda was suitably rerun but that didn’t help. Sardar Patel is still standing tall, hopefully not in the flight path of Pegasus. From the city of more modest statues, Chennai, Stalin is running a much bigger state than Stalinists who are confined to Kerala.
There is all-round respect for BR Ambedkar and the book he holds dear. Look closer and you realise that Babasaheb is actually a big favourite of the Opposition. When the same parties are voted in, the adulation shifts to Thomas Babington Macaulay, the architect of the anti-sedition Section 124 A — “the prince of the Indian Penal Code”, as Gandhiji described it. And there is Bapu, butting in again!
While the posthumous eminences got high visibility, the workers quickly vanished from sight. The invisible would be “re-visible”, once we are done with the pandemic and ready to rebuild. Meanwhile, the farmers haven’t budged.
On a clear day, you can still see them at Delhi’s borders.
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