The following tweet has been doing the rounds the last few days:
It carries an important message from India’s recent past, that a time of free-as-in-free speech actually did exist only half a century ago. It stands in stark contrast to the public political clime today, where people are jailed for sharing harmless memes and journalists gagged for doing their jobs, not to mention scholars being disinvited from lectures, musicians being prevented from singing and universities becoming less plural and more parochial.
However, Shankar’s cartoon, as depicted above, shouldn’t be paraded as a symbol of an era antithetical to this – 2014-2019 – alone but as one that doesn’t sit well with the politics of 21st century India altogether, including that of the Nehru-Gandhis. It is doubtful that whenever Rahul Gandhi comes to power, if at all he does, he is going to be okay with cartoons showing his great-grandfather’s clenched butt standing outside the doors of the UN, even if he might be willing to brook more dissent than the Bharatiya Janata Party has been.
The party that he leads with his mother has championed sycophancy and nepotism since the 1970s, when Indira Gandhi assumed power. This has often meant that those critical of their family – the First Family, so to speak – have never been able to climb the ranks and/or lead important institutions during Congress rule, even if they are otherwise qualified to do so. Perhaps the most stark example of this in recent memory was when Mridula Mukherjee assumed directorship of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi after an opaque selection process, and proceeded to turn the institution into a building-sized panegyric for Sonia Gandhi et al.
Indeed, the same can be said for any political organisation that is held together by hero worship, centralisation of power and dynasticism. Some examples from around the country include the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Shiv Sena, the Samajwadi Party and and the Rashtriya Janata Dal.
Today, Shankar’s illustration seems only to describe the extent to which the BJP has vitiated civil discourse and the need vote it out. However, the cartoon does not say anything about the party I would like to vote in because it says everything about what free speech really means, the kind of tolerance that political parties must harbour and, most of all, the fact that there seems to be nobody who is capable of that anymore. Even should the UPA somehow emerge triumphant on May 23, this cartoon will likely trigger as much wistfulness as it does today.