From an economics point of view, India has had only two prime ministers, really. Jawaharlal Nehru and Narasimha Rao. From an exclusively political point of view (which, yes, spills over into economics) Indira Gandhi and the incumbent are pretty “nodal” in their nature as well. But Nehru and Rao are the where-its-at of Indian economic management mantras.
The socialist moorings of the first PM, followed by the economic liberalisation of the ninth. These visions are certainly diametrically opposed, but not as much as it would seem. The two men were from the same party, after all. Rao’s regime wasn’t merely one of open markets, but open markets that had followed a long bout of socialism. That’s different from open markets following what were already open markets. The former have almost always led to explosive growth anywhere in the world; the latter, not as much. India did see a lot of growth because of Rao’s economic perestroika, one that utilised the infrastructure set up during the Nehruvian years. A growth that continues till this day.
Though Rao had already started dismantling the License Raj during his stint as industries minister, his lieutenant during his tenure as prime minister was a studious gentleman by the name of Manmohan Singh. This PhD from Oxford wasn’t merely the finance minister who executed Rao’s plans but he was also instrumental in designing them. Prior to being finance minister, he had been a professor, had been chief economic advisor in the ’70s, had been governor of the central bank, had headed the Planning Commission.
It is this Manmohan Singh who is the subject of a new film titled The Accidental Prime Minister, which is also a book of the same name. An odd description of the man.
So, what’s wrong with the title, you ask? Wasn’t Dr Singh’s becoming PM accidental in that he wasn’t a career politician and that when Rao had sent word that he had been chosen as finance minister, he had thought it was some sort of a prank? That Rao had then angrily called him personally the next morning, asking him to rush to the Presidency for the cabinet swearing-in ceremony?
Well, that could be accidental, but not his subsequent ascent in the party. So what, the makers of the film might persist. Sonia Gandhi wanted a pliant premier; the elevation was accidental, in a manner of speaking.
Though one could debate even this, it is not the word’s use to describe Singh’s elevation to the PM office that one has a gripe with, but the fact that the man had been shown to be accidental in a literal, buffoonish sense of the word. Replace the erudite, soft-spoken economist with a Mr Bean-like figure. The trailer might have given the impression that the film was sympathetic to a sincere man who was wronged by a scheming and conniving first family. But actually, it was setting him up for comic relief. It was straining at the seams to avoid Sardar Ji jokes. The film’s sound design actually includes cartoonish boiiinnggg! sound effects that animate the man walking in a corridor.
That is a problem with propaganda films. It is difficult to make them with subtlety. The other side has to either be demonised – like the film did with the Gandhis – or caricatured – like they did with Dr Singh.
A propaganda film this most certainly is. Anupam Kher, a respected Indian character actor, is essaying the former prime minister in the movie. In real life, Kher is seen to be close to the BJP; his actress wife is a sitting BJP member of parliament. This is election year in India. Do the math.
This lack of subtlety certainly cannot be expected when it comes to those military films that show the forces in a good light. Don’t get me wrong: societies with freedom of speech can have filmmakers who can make films criticising the military, like Coppola did in Apocalypse Now. But even gifted screenwriters and auteurs cannot easily manage pro-forces films that are nuanced and textured, least of all Bollywood. We saw this in the recent Indian film Uri, based on the surgical strike (denied by Pakistan) in response to the attack on the Uri military base in India.
This is not getting into a debate on the veracity of the Indian claim of a retaliatory surgical strike. All states can lie. One could see how the Modi administration could have made it all up. The man had promised a tougher stance on Pakistan than the previous government and had realised, only after coming into power, that it wasn’t as easy as giving orders; that cross-border operations are tricky. He – and the Indian state – needed something to show the masses.
Similarly, an attack actually having been carried out is also plausible. As mentioned earlier, all states lie, but between India and Pakistan, the latter lies more when it comes to wars. For example, one doesn’t think any Indian textbook teaches kids that India did not lose the 1962 war against China. Pakistan has no such qualms when talking about the 1965 war.
No, the gripe isn’t about that particular claim at all. It is about the same lack of subtlety. The Pakistanis are shown as incompetent cretins. None of them can seem to shoot straight. Furthermore, the hero of the movie is a brooding young fellow, who gets emotional about desh a little too much.
On this side of the border, ISPR-sponsored fare has heros that feel absolutely no fear, and have absolutely no doubt about their cause. As if they weren’t human beings but stick-figure automata that are playing to a script.