A Newspaper Asked Me Write An OPINION Piece But Rejected It Because It Was Against Their 'Editorial Policy'
At the recently-opened R.K. Laxman Museum in Pune, there are innumerable cartoons of Indira Gandhi. It seems as if Laxman, the inimitable cartoonist, had a special place in his heart for the late Prime Minister. All artists (and here I include cartoonists) have a special person or a special incident that triggers their imagination like nothing else. For Laxman it was Indira Gandhi even though his long and legendary career spanning 14 Prime Ministers had certainly no shortage of content.
So the question is: what was it about Indira Gandhi that triggered R.K. Laxman so much that he came up with some of his funniest and most hard-hitting cartoons? Was it something about the nature of the relationship that exists between power and the press? Or was it something personal? The latter has to be discounted as Laxman met Mrs Gandhi during the Emergency and things were civil. Among that many things that she wasn’t, was a bore. She could be self-deprecating and even laugh at herself. And despite the excesses of the Emergency—many of which were committed in her name without her knowledge—she remained a firm believer in the idea of free speech and to the idea that there were many Indias that co-existed and that it would be a humungous error of judgement to shoehorn them into one single narrative.
The idea of a single India story is a fairly new one and it is built on a classic capitalistic model where there is a business that is a brand and everyone has to work in the service of that brand. Implicit in this capitalistic notion of a country is that employees who are not devoted to the service of the brand stand in danger of being fired. But can a nation fire its citizens? In the business firm, employees could be give the pink-slip for failing to perform in the service of the brand but when one tries to thrust that model on a nation you have a problem because the India brand is not a private company. It is a custodianship that is impermanent.
Our constitutional democracy entails that elected governments are merely the custodians of the will of the people. They are not the people. In effect this means that any party that is the custodian of the people’s will is primarily charged with ensuring that people get access to a better life. To take the business firm analogy further, it is the people who hire a party to run the government and not the other way around. Therefore, it is also the people who have the right to fire a party.
The problem arises when a hired government begins to take charge of the narrative of a country instead of doing the work it has been hired to do. This is also the problem of the present government where it is so deeply invested in changing the narrative of India that it is losing sight of its main job.
The raids (or whatever convenient euphemism is used to describe them) on the BBC’s offices is a clear symptom of this. Earlier Newsclick and Dainik Bhaskar offices were raided too on similar pretexts when it was evident to the people what the real reasons were.
There is an interesting story about a king who had two horns on his head. Everyone in the court and his personal staff was sworn to secrecy with the fear of death if they dared to speak about it to anyone. And then came Babban Hajam, the new barber. Babban was sworn in as the royal barber but when the secret beneath the royal turban was revealed to him he was shaken to his core. Not knowing what to do with the terrible secret that he had to swallow, Babban Hajam went to the forest, found an old tree and whispered the king’s secret into its massive trunk. Who can the tree tell, thought Babban. Time passed and a woodcutter came to the forest and cut the tree Babban Hajam had told his secret to. The wood of the tree was of exceptional quality which caught the eye of a maker of music instruments and since it was an old tree there was plenty of wood to be had. The music maker hired extra hands and tripled his output of instruments. Soon dhols, tablas, sarangis made from the old tree were sold to hundreds and thousands at a mela. One of the king’s courtiers who was also a musician bought a sarangi. So impressed was he by the make and finish of the instrument that he decided to take it straight to the king and make him hear its music. In the royal presence unknown to Babban Hajam the courtier began to play. The first notes that came out of the instrument began thus: “It is a secret that’s now well-known, that the king has horns he’s not shown.” The secret that the king had kept with the fear of death was out and all over his kingdom and there was nothing he could do about it.
It is an old fable that I remember hearing as a child. It was funny and amusing then but sheathed within it is a powerful story that every ruler, especially in this digital age must never forget. That the narrative becomes more and more difficult to control when you try to fit it into a convenient box. Sometimes the secret that a ruler is trying the hardest to keep becomes his or her undoing. Two past Prime Ministers put all their official heft trying to keep the narrative in their control, both in the name of keeping the honour of the nation but the story got out nonetheless causing them both much electoral harm. Lewis Simons of the Washington Post who wrote about Sanjay Gandhi slapping his mother, Indira and Time magazine’s Alex Perry who wrote about PM Vajpayee’s failing health were both summarily deported from the country on the publication of their stories. They were both stories all the courtiers knew but could not tell, yet the stories had a way of coming out like the king’s secret.
Dhiraj Singh is a well-known journalist, author, artist and TV personality whose latest novel ‘MASTER O’ is a sci-fi political thriller