Monday, June 18, 2012

Indian Idols

On television and print these days we are being asked to chose the ‘greatest Indian after Gandhi’, someone who has had ‘the maximum impact’.  We will be guided through this process by a jury comprising ‘some of the Greatest Indians who have shaped the nation’, including Chetan Bhagat, Arun Jaitley and Shashi Tharoor. Despite this cumulative greatness, its lasting impact is a great sense of discomfort.
The issue is not the shortlist, though that’s clearly a problem. Why the clowning Kishore Kumar should be greater than the beauteous Madhubala may be a difference of taste. That BKS Iyengar or E Sreedharan should be pitted against Nehru or Ambedkar as shapers of the nation, would seem instead a travesty of judgment.  Millions remember the day that Indira Gandhi died but Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, valuable as their work is, are hardly household words. Some in the list do indeed have instant name recall – like Tata and Birla – but more as synonyms for wealth and corporate power.  Certain professions like the judiciary are conspicuous by their absence – surely some of our justices have been great ‘idea leaders’.

Even the Bharat Ratna awards are accused of reflecting regime preferences. Here, the inclusion of Atal Bihari Vajpayee over Lal Bahadur Shastri or Annadurai probably owes more to the presence of BJP members in the jury than to an intrinsically greater worth. There are none in the jury who represent social movements of any kind.

My problem, however, is not that I, or anyone else, would have come up with a different list, but with the very idea of a singular list that culminates in one winner. Leave alone the hundreds who are worshipped, even the major Hindu gods are a trinity.  As children, we invested our energies in one ‘best friend’, but age makes one realize that even a spouse cannot substitute for all relationships.  Surely a 65-year-old country of 1.2 billion cannot be so impoverished that one person can make or break it; all the people listed have contributed in their own inimitable ways.

As oral historians know, time is telescoped when people try to remember what affected them. It is not surprising that nationalist icons and those of recent vintage figure more than others from the middle period. 

More generally, though, how does one measure and rank across time or space? If asked to chose my favourite book, I would strongly resist.  If one reads RK Narayan (the only writer  shortlisted) for small town nostalgia, the Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam provides a different inspiration.  To hear Bhupen Hazarika sing is to sail the broad Brahmaputra, as against the gentle Ganga-Jumna of Mohammad Rafi.  Each of the linguistic and political communities that constitute India will have their own list of formative Indians, people who shaped their sensibilities in lasting ways. The choice of a jury comprising mainly urban middle class people drawn predominantly from the fields of ‘politics, finance and entertainment’ tells us less about the ‘greatest Indian’ than about the nature of power today and the constrained imagination of our elite.

Gandhi has been excluded from the list – apparently because his greatness overshadows all others – but even he was able to define his ideas only because he was in conversation with other phenomenal people.

It is hardly surprising that in the BBC program that inspired the Indian effort, Churchill should have been chosen “The Greatest Briton” over Shakespeare, Darwin or Newton. What this reflects, above all, is the British desire for relevance in a post imperial world.  In contemporary India, the compulsion to choose just one is as likely to promote parochialism as a shared “Indian” past, as each community votes for its own. The whole exercise risks reducing India’s great arguments, its carefully developed institutions and its vast diversity to a souped-up version of Indian idol.  

Whether this process will encourage the ‘debate’ or ‘awareness’ that its promoters claim is disputable. What is indisputable is the commodification of 50 great Indians, who are being re-branded and served up in a contest that does less for them or for public ideals than it does for television ratings.