It is no secret that bureaucrats run this great country of ours. Elected governments and its leading lights may be the faces before the public, but it’s an army of committed and hardworking bureaucrats who burn the midnight oil. They envisage massive public schemes, sift through legislation, do homework for our lawmakers and ensure the seeds of development percolate into our villages and towns. While those working in the higher echelons of the state and Central government have to deal with warring ministers, those at the lower district level are often caught in the complicated mesh that is our politics.
Tussles and fights between bureaucrats and politicians are not uncommon in India. No prizes for guessing who comes out on top in such situations. Like seeds spit out after eating a watermelon, such officers are transferred or dumped into an insignificant department if he/she faces the wrath of the lawmaker. On a trip to Assam recently, an IAS officer told me in private that he was unsure where he would get flung to after a new government comes in. He would regret it, but it was not a choice he could make, he said.
This past week, an incident came to light in Kerala when Prashanth Nair, the district collector of Kozhikode locked horns with Congress MP MK Raghavan, the lawmaker elected from the district in 2014. Now Prashanth is no unknown in the state. He has gazillion followers on Facebook and is quite rightly a social media star. He has been credited with setting up crowdfunded campaigns for the poor and initiatives that get massive popular support. Add to that, he is funny and has a great sense of humour.
The Congress MP blasted the IAS officer complaining of a delay in clearing bills of contractors who had taken up projects under the MPLADS programme. He also demanded that the collector apologise for it. Prashanth, after denying the allegations, promptly put up a map of a local town in Kerala on his personal Facebook page.
Now you may wonder, what’s the connection? It’s a hilarious trick the IAS officer played using a word play. Now, the word for ‘apology’ in Malayalam is ‘map’ or ‘maap’. The joke went viral on the social platform and made headlines on all TV news networks.
Also read: Collector says sorry to MP for Facebook post
Now, there’s also a side story to it. Prashanth’s joke is derived straight out of a comedy scene from a popular Malayalam film. In the scene, a man selling maps arrives at the doorstep of a house where an old, slightly deranged woman stays. The man yells out ‘maap, maap’ and the woman mistakes it for the word ‘apology’ and asks him why he is asking forgiveness from a random stranger. The man explains he is selling maps. The woman, who clearly does not understand the concept of maps, asks him to point out a local town in Kerala on a map of North America. The man, flummoxed by the question, tells her the town cannot be seen on a map of North America. The woman, who is by now angry at the man’s reluctance to show her the local town, manhandles him, until he is rescued by the woman’s son. It’s a hilarious scene that evokes laughter in me every time it comes on television.
Through humour, widely interspersed in Malayalam cinema, Prashanth cleverly brushed aside the MP’s jab at him and has earned applause from the public. The IAS officer, in an email interview last year, had told me that when public representatives complain that he spends too much on social media, it cries for the requirement of e-literacy.
“Putting a post on Facebook takes just five minutes. Just because my profile picture keeps smiling at you 24×7, doesn’t mean that I’m sitting there throughout,” he had said.
But what appeals most to his fans is an image of a hardworking IAS officer rebelling against the system and refusing to follow the beaten track. Prashanth is visible at cultural functions, calls Kozhikode his ‘karmabhoomi’ and is there to lend a hand when his constituents need him, unlike the politicians who are seen once in five years. The fact that Congress MP Raghavan did not get the support of his own party in his criticism of Prashanth speaks highly of the political class’s reluctance to be seen working against an officer who has the public support. Prashanth’s image also reflects the changing perception in the country that dismisses leaders who are often hoisted on the political stage through nepotism as opposed to a man who has tiringly climbed the ladders of power with grit and determination.
Among the many comments on Prashanth’s Facebook post of the map is a screenshot from a 1995 Malayalam thriller in which an IAS officer (played by Mammootty) crusading against corruption goes head to head with power-hungry politicians. That many people see a ‘Thevallyparambil Joseph Alex’ (name of the character played by Mammootty) in Prashanth Nair is no coincidence. When Joseph Alex went after politicos screaming and howling, theatres in Kerala were reported to erupt in applause. Prashanth’s path ahead, delightedly, is in that direction.