Symbolism and tokenism to encourage and facilitate vote bank politics, and, to a lesser extent, being politically correct are deeply ingrained in all our politicians, government servants, wannabe government servants like union leaders of public service undertakings [PSU]. What am I driving at? How often have you had the privilege of visiting a government office or PSU office and seen the photographs of our icons adorning the walls. Depending on where you are you have S Radhakrishnan, Indira Gandhi, the almost obligatory M K Gandhi, J L Nehru and Dr. B R Ambedkar. If you enter the main branch of the State Bank of India in State Bank Buildings you will see an imposing Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj complete with ramparts and orange flags in the background.
In many instances if you enter elevators you will get a selection of India finest Gods with all the attendant regalia. Sandalwood garlands [these have some permanency] Marigold garlands and smouldering incense sticks with falling ash. The choice of God is often a function of the liftman’s tokenism; you could have a Krishna or even a Balaji. Quite often humans are elevated to Godlike status and you have Sai Baba sitting with his leg crossed over, Sathya Sai Baba blessing you and other very human characters like Aniruddh Baba, a favourite among Maharashtrians.
Why do we have to publically display our personal religious beliefs? Is it exhibitionism? Is it a sense of deep insecurity whereby we believe that all our success are not due to our own hard work or brain power but due do divine and human intervention? Is it because the liftman has no faith in the elevator manufacturer or the elevators maintenance?
Tokenism unfortunately, also forms a huge part of public life, where having a Dalit or a woman or a member of the minority community as the President of India has been the norm. We had Gianni Zail Singh a Sardar, several Muslims and now a woman as Presidents. Mercifully, this seems to be on the wane with the selection [as I write] of a very mainstream, seemingly competent, seasoned politician Mr Pranab Mukherjee as the most likely candidate to post of President of India.
Our very own Anna Hazardous has his share of tokenisms to keep the pot boiling. He always has a very Muslim looking Muslim on stage with him as well as a token woman and often an adorable child will present him with a glass of orange juice or fresh lime when he is breaking one of his fasts. Three ticks in one frame of the idiot box!
Tokenism touches and affects all parts of our lives both public and personal. Look at the half hearted toe touching all `respectful’ young Indians indulge in. Or the automatic, unthinking head bowing when passing a place of worship. Or the the kitty party brigade who pat themselves on the back for raising Rs 1 lakh for an orphanage while abusing the child maid they employ. Or security checks at any of our theatres or malls – tokenism at its best!
I read a wonderful snippet in the newspapers in the days following the fire at Mantralaya in Bombay. Apparently, on the 6th floor of the building there was an urn containing Mr. J L Nehru’s ashes. The fire particularly affected the 6th floor. The papers reported in terse terms that, “there are reports that urn containing Pandit Nehru ashes, kept in the sixth floor of Mantralaya, has been damaged in the incident.” The `incident’ of course being the huge fire. My question is why should Mr. J L Nehru’s ashes be kept in the Mantralaya in Bombay 48 years after he died? Anyway, as the cliché goes ashes to ashes dust to dust.
The `middia’ [media] which today is all pervasive, invades our homes at 9 pm every weekday night, also has its more than fair share of tokenisms. Whether it is having the obligatory publicity hungry Prahlad Kakkar and Mahesh Bhat appearing ad nauseum and holding forth on all sorts of issues to the `middia’ taking rather bizarre stands in pumping up matters which are only at best mildly interesting all have to do with tokenism.
Take the latest example of the fire at Mantralaya which I refereed to earlier. The Indian flag [now always referred to as the `Tricolour’ which is factually wrong, but anyway] is hoisted every morning and lowered every evening on top of the building. Being India, there is dedicated staff with their own room to do this task. Being government employees they are obviously entitled to all privileges which you and I would never dream of. When the fire was raging, these chaps did not leave their room but hung on there, till they got orders mind you, to lower the flag and keep it away. Our `middia’ latched on to the `feel good’ `positive’ story and have gone on to use all sorts of superlatives to describe the valiant efforts, bravery, dedication to duty and so on and so forth of these men who lowered the flag. Do we really have to get so carried away? I presume these chaps will soon be on TV being interviewed.
I often wonder if this tokenism is getting worse, and I find the answer is almost always, yes, it is. The `middia’ which is so influential and has the potential of really lifting us out of tokenism, mediocrity and making us think, has spectacularly failed us as have our political leaders.