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Political cartoons

The politics of anti-politics

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The cartoon row betrays a siege mentality bred by Team Anna's potshots. But it has opened up a dangerous chasm between politicians and intellectuals.

A year of hostilities between Team Anna and the political class claimed an unwitting victim last week. The UPA government decided to dump four NCERT high school textbooks on political science because they were peppered with cartoons that parliamentarians deemed insulting and claimed were "poisoning young minds" as part of an ongoing campaign to denigrate politics and politicians. It took just an hour of impassioned speeches and a rare show of unanimity in the Lok Sabha for finance minister Pranab Mukherjee to announce the government's decision. "The books will not be prescribed as textbooks and the entire textbooks will be withdrawn, " he declared as members, including Congress president Sonia Gandhi, thumped their desks in approval.

The ironies are inescapable. The books were compiled and edited by leading political scientists handpicked by the same government in its UPA 1 avatar. And whatever the MPs said that day, these academics are certainly not part of any "hatepolitics" campaign. "Our idea was to make youngsters understand, appreciate and love politics, " says social scientist Yogendra Yadav who put together the textbooks along with scholar Suhas Palshikar. "It's true that we are seeing the politics of anti-politics these days. This is deeply anti-democratic and needs to be checked. The books were inspired by a desire to bridge the gap and bring politics back into the equation. "

So why did Parliamentarians behave like a kangaroo court in action and end up punishing those who are friends, supporters and believers ? It is clear from the tone and tenor of the discussion that the real target that day was Team Anna and its co-travellers like Baba Ramdev who have made the fur fly in Parliament ever since they bared their fangs at the political class with their crusade for a Jan Lokpal bill. Without taking names, MP after MP lashed out at the activists for carrying out what they called a sustained campaign to discredit politicians, Parliament and democracy itself. The cartoons in the textbooks, they claimed, served to reinforce the canards being spread about politicians.

It is necessary to differentiate between the cartoon row in the Lok Sabha and the storm that shook the Rajya Sabha some days earlier over a drawing on Ambedkar. The latter was limited to a controversy over just one cartoon and raised by Dalit MPs who simply wanted it erased from the relevant textbook. It was in the Lok Sabha that the issue blew up into something much bigger and MPs, cutting across party lines, took umbrage to the entire cartoon package and pressed for a ban on all the books.
Justifying their demand, Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam says, "We are not against cartoons but reproducing them in prescribed textbooks for teenagers is dangerous. School children do not have the mental maturity to understand the nuances of political satire. Exposing them in school to cartoons that show politics and politicians in a negative light will instigate young children not to have faith in our democratic institutions. "

Shiromani Akali Dal MP Harsimrat Kaur, who raised the issue in the Lok Sabha, says she stumbled on the cartoons only when she started making inquiries after seeing the enthusiastic response of schoolchildren to Anna Hazare. "I was horrified to see the revulsion schoolchildren have for politicians. They said politicians are thieves and murderers and they would never want to join politics. They said they learnt this not just from films, TV and newspapers but also from their school textbooks which were full of cartoons making fun of politicians. Schools must present a balanced picture to students. Yes, there are some bad politicians but there are plenty of good ones too. Children must be shown both sides of the coin otherwise it is dangerous for our democracy, " she insists.

Educationists and scholars say reaction is way over-the-top. "The textbooks have nothing to do with Anna Hazare or anyone else, " maintains the director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Rajeev Bhargava, who was associated with the textbook team. "In the last five years, politicians have brought great dishonour to themselves. The whole world is talking about the paralysis of leadership, the scams, the continuous disruptions in Parliament. This may not be the whole truth. But if there is a negative impression about politicians, should we fault the cartoons?"

It is interesting that Harsimrat Kaur was lobbying for the better part of a year against the textbooks but got no response from the government. She was taken aback, therefore, when Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar told her that she could raise the issue in the House last Monday. And here is the twist in the tale. Not only did the debate last a full hour, the government took the House by surprise with its ban announcement. Yadav is astounded by the government's unilateralism. "If there is a procedure for giving birth to the books, then there must be a procedure for killing them, " he says. Bhargava agrees, "The government's response should have been to offer a review instead of withdrawing the books altogether. "

As often happens in politics, the story is not always what it appears to be. The government is bracing for a fresh wave of fire from Team Anna and Ramdev, who have announced the start of the next phase of their campaign from June. Temperatures are soaring after Anna Hazare invited the outgoing army chief, Gen V K Singh, to join them. The government may have chosen to shore up its defences with a show of unity in Parliament and the textbooks were collateral damage as it pads up for battle.
It is disconcerting to count the number of times the government has stumbled while attempting to counter the Anna assault. From demeaning itself by sending four senior ministers to bargain with Ramdev and then setting the police on him to throwing Anna in Tihar jail and turning him into a middleclass hero overnight, the government has presented a sorry spectacle. Now, it seems to have fallen prey to a siege mentality. And judging by the collective frenzy on display last week, a similar mindset has overtaken the rest of political class.

The mood is unpleasant and those who value the principle of freedom of expression worry that a dangerous chasm is opening up between politicians and intellectuals. If the response to the Anna bugbear was to ban high school textbooks, where will the axe fall next? "Concerned citizens and concerned politicians must come together to defend democracy and its institutions, " says Bhargava. "The antipolitics mood must not deepen. "

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