Gajendra Chauhan, the television artist of the Mahabharat fame is in news these days. His appointment as Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) “Chairman” has sparked protests. The protestors are not only the habitual Modi-bashers that we come across every day; they include also the students of FTII, India’s leading centre for those who want to make a career in acting and acting-related activities. These agitating students are now being supported by their counterparts in the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University in the national capital. Of course, one could argue that since these students mostly belong to the Leftist outfits, there is nothing surprising if they oppose everything that the Modi government does or proposes to do. But that is a different matter. For me, Chauhan’s appointment is a reflection of patronage politics that needs some scrutiny.
The FTII functions as an autonomous body under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India. In fact, for writing this column I did go to the site of the FTII (http://www.ftiindia.com, as accessed on June 18) but was surprised not to find Chauhan’s name there. Film-maker Saeed Mirza, who was appointed Chairman by the previous Manmohan Singh government in 2011, is still mentioned as the head of the Governing Council, which, otherwise, is full of government officials such as joint secretary (Films), Ministry of I&B, chief executive officer, Prasar Bharati, additional secretary and financial adviser, Ministry of I&B, and managing director of National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). In fact, the Director of the FTII, who is the de facto head, is also a central government official of the joint secretary rank. Therefore, it is a half-myth that the FTII is an autonomous body. It has always been under the control of the central government in Delhi, which, in reality, means the ruling political party of the day.
Now let me enumerate the main points of those who are against Chauhan’s appointment. One is that he, unlike previous Chairmen such as Adoor Gopalkrishnan and Saeed Mirza, is not an alumnus of the institute. Nor is he, like another former chairman Shyam Benegal, a former faculty member. Now, this is a very weak argument. Nowhere in the world do we find rigid conventions that only a former student or faculty member can be appointed as the head of an educational institute.
The second argument is that Chauhan is a pygmy as a professional actor or producer/director compared to his predecessors. I will let this argument pass, although one can argue about the limited fame and competence of Saeed Mirza. But the fact remains that Chauhan has at least 34 years of experience in the field of television and films. He has been a part of the Cine & TV Artistes Association as an executive committee member, vice president and president. In contrast, the FTII had once a Chairman named U.R. Ananthamurthy (now deceased), a noted litterateur. In fact, Ananthamurthy had two terms as the Chairman, even though he had nothing to do with films and television. Of course, he was famous for remark that he would leave India if Narendra Modi became India’s Prime Minister!
The third argument against Chauhan is that the hallowed principle of freedom of thought, vital for the creative field of cinema, will be under jeopardy if he is at the helm of affairs. Why? Because, Chauhan is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Chauhan once was the national convener, culture, for the BJP. In other words, the previous chairmen of the FTII were all fine, because they have been wellknown for their “Leftist and Liberal inclinations” and consistent opposition to everything that the BJP stood for.
I find it very hard to comprehend this argument. In a democracy that India is, how can one demand that one set of ideas is the only set of ideas that must prevail over others? As I have argued many a time, Indian intelligentsia and media have always been overwhelmingly dominated by the Left-leaning ideas under what I call Nehruvianism (since it was promoted by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru). All these years it is these elites who have been controlling the leading universities, thinktanks, educational and cultural bodies. They are simply not reconciled with Narendra Modi becoming the Prime Minister and exercising his legitimate powers to appoint persons of his choice in the government-controlled bodies. This explains why one hears the arguments (of the Leftists or so-called liberal elites) that under Modi vital institutions are getting “saffronised” (saffron being the colour of the BJP’s flag and that of its sister organisations). They have no problem if these institutions are under the control of those whose preferred colour is red (of communists).
There is a bigger irony involved here. These critics do not leave any stone unturned in opposing the “saffron appointments”, saying the democracy and freedom are in danger with the people controlled eventually by the RSS, the mother body of the BJP. They demand that Modi must annul these appointments. Going by these arguments, RSS persons like Modi can become the Prime Minister, Chief Ministers, central ministers and Governors of the provinces, but they cannot head governmental or government-aided organisations, even if they have the necessary qualifications!
In my considered view, the bigger question involved here is the concept of political patronage. When in power, every political party appoints its people and followers in important positions. The problem in India is that those people long used to the domination of one type of ideology over the country’s polity and used to enjoy the patronage of the likeminded governments are not reconciling to the changed situation. They want to deny Modi the rights which his predecessors enjoyed all these years.
Of course, one can argue legitimately whether political patronage is a good thing for the democracy. After all, this is an argument which one witnesses all over the democratic world. In the United States, the patronage system of political appointees shows no signs of weakening. In fact, as David Lewis, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Political Science and co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University, has pointed out recently, every US President of late has had between 3,000 and 4,000 positions at his disposal to fill throughout the federal government. The idea is that the leader has to reward people who have helped him win the elections. And the best way is to give them some jobs that are co-terminus with his own. In some way or the other, this practice of “clientelism” has happened in India in the past and is happening under Modi.
It may be noted that the United States does have significantly more political appointees than other democratic countries. And many a time it has been beneficial, particularly when “progressive” Presidents such as Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt implemented a new philosophy to secure equal treatment for the downtrodden. Under them the “spoil system” used patronage to reward a few thousand loyalists; but subsequently it took advantage of the massive new regulatory and redistributive powers of Washington to reward millions of new party clients—not only with federal jobs but with beneficial laws that reshaped society to advance their particular interests. The ruling party could take care of some particular classes in society—farmers, union workers, urban ethnics—with a single stroke of the Presidential pen.
Pundits point out how President Obama is a master in practicing the patronage politics. For example, the Stimulus bill, designed by congressional Democrats with Obama’s blessing, pumped $800 billion into the economy, largely through Democratic clients like labor, environmental groups, and African Americans. Obama followed that up with a bailout of the auto industry that gave the United Auto Workers much more than they would have won in bankruptcy court, then proceeded as if the economic crisis had passed. Obama’s financial reform legislation was considered by his critics highly preferential to his big-money donors on Wall Street; “his cap-and-trade bill tried to award environmentalists, well-heeled businesses, and the poor in one fell swoop; and his health care bill is the apogee of anti-republican, liberal clientelism, a sprawling, trillion-dollar payoff to an array of groups that leaves the average American in no better shape.”
This dimension of patronage politics is also noticed in India. In fact, the Congress party has been a master in perpetuating the spoil system – distributing the largesse to those segments that have been its principal voters. But there is a danger. Today’s voters need empowerment, not mere freebies. That explains why the Congress lost last general elections, even in states like Rajasthan where the Congress government had crossed all limits in distributing hand-outs. Similarly, in the United States, if Obama or for that matter the Democrats are facing a tough time now, it is because keeping the party clients happy is not matching the governance and the overall development of the whole nation simultaneously.
The point is that there are limits to everything. As the late US President Andrew Jackson (ironically a Democrat like Obama) had once said, “There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing.”
By Prakash Nanda