Jawaharlal Nehru had many faults as a leader, but the man could at least take a joke – even if it was on him. For more than a decade when he was Prime Minister, his many foibles and failings were lampooned by cartoonists, including the immortal Shankar in his Shankar’s Weekly (which was billed as India’s own Punch magazine).
Many of them were pungent works of satire and unflattering to Nehru, yet he took them in his stride, and was even known to relish them. On one famous occasion, he enjoined upon Shankar never to “spare” him. It was mark of refinement in a man who could laugh at himself.
But Nehru’s own daughter Indira Gandhi was lacking in such refinement. During the Emergency, she threatened to prosecute cartoonists who had made bold to mock her. It was during those two years when civil liberties were suspended that Shankar’s Weekly was closed down – in order to shield the cartoonists from vindictive prosecution.
When politicians become so prickly that cartoons critical of them get them hopping mad, they ironically end up validating the point of the cartoon.
Paschim Banga chief minister Mamata Banerjee today finds herself reduced to an absurd caricature of herself following the arrest on Friday of Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra for forwarding to his friends a political cartoon satirising Didi.
The cartoon itself is not over-the-top venomous, so the real reason for the arrest of Mahapatra and his associate Subrata Sengupta may lie elsewhere.
Indian Express reports that the two had, while serving as officials of a housing cooperative society, blocked contracts to contractors who were politically affiliated to the Trinamool Congress owing to alleged misappropriation of funds. Mahapatra is believed to have even barred TMC contractors from entering the housing complex over corruption charges. (More details here.)
The report adds, citing unidentified sources, that Mahapatra and Sengupta had been under pressure not to contest the housing society elections scheduled for 20 May. In effect, the arrests of the two on the charge of forwarding cartoons appears to be a smokescreen to cover up for latent political tensions elsewhere.
Yet, Mamata-di’s excessive preoccupation with scoring political points at the Left (and increasingly at the Congress, which is notionally her party’s ally) has rapidly eroded the political goodwill on which she rode to power a year ago.
And her frequent resort to theatrics and brinkmanship, which may have served her well when she was in the Opposition, invite only ridicule when she persists with them even after she’s come to power. It is this that prompts cartoon caricatures of her of the sorts that ostensibly underlies Friday’s arrest.
Today, Mamata Banerjee is a cartoon come to life. The joke, if anything, is on her.