Information and broadcasting minister Smriti Irani is not a pleasant person by any account. And she doesn’t, if her conduct in the past is anything go by, doesn’t much care. On May 2, Ms Irani invited more wrath as the National Film Awards function which is her jurisdiction went off the rails. But this once, she was not directly at fault, though her department might be for overlooking a communication sent from the office of India’s President Ram Nath Kovind. But it is not fair to tarnish the minister just because she is eminently tarnishable.
Traditionally, the President gives away the awards. But a letter, according to reports, from Mr Kovind’s office had been sent to the I&B ministry which stated that it was the pleasure of President Kovind to grace all awards functions for a maximum of one hour. The President’s office said, in a communication after the disastrous event, that the letter on the one-hour condition had been sent to the I&B ministry as early as March. It is not clear if it was addressed personally to Ms Irani. No matter. No action was taken in good time on the import of the letter.
As it happened, out of the 70-odd award winners, 11, including A.R. Rahman and Yesudas, were chosen to be honoured by the President himself. Most of the others boycotted the event as they found they would be receiving their awards from Smriti Irani or her junior colleague Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore.
It is not clear how the President’s 11 were chosen. Some sort of casteism, in keeping with the Hindutva ethos now sweeping the nation, must be at work. It also says something for the general lack of fellowship among the artistes themselves — the President’s Eleven did not sign the protest letter.
Equally, it is not clear how the I&B ministry missed taking action on the letter from the President’s office about his one-hour ceiling. The artistes — except the 11 who were presidentially honoured — later wrote a letter of protest to, ironically, the President himself. The latest episode in this serial is that the awards will arrive at the protesters’ door by courier. Since it is official business, the courier agency would be Speed Post. In effect, the best of the national filmmakers would be accepting their awards at the hands of the local postman.
This is not a totally bad thing to happen. It just means that the idea of the awards is being democratised. It also means that not much importance needs to be attached to these honours. They might be handed over by the President. The I&B minister. The bureaucrats. The police constable. Or the postman. In the Age of Dumbing Down, what could be more just than equating the President of India with the Postman of India, that unsung, if endangered, species?
If all the awards — fixed and unfixed — arrive by Speed Post, the endemic lobbying for these awards, in a country that is not particularly bothered about merit in general, might ebb, and we will be saving a great deal of money. Crores, in fact. It might be then a good idea if what is saved is sent to the poor artistes, quite a few of whom live and die in straitened circumstances.
Meanwhile, consider this sentence from the letter that President Kovind’s office sent to the I&B ministry: “The President attends all awards functions and convocations for a maximum of one hour.” Why? Aren’t the people to whom he is accountable entitled to know? Does the President suffer from a weak bladder? Possible. If so, why not saysimply that he will be unable to be present for the May 2 evening because of poor health. The artistes would surely have understood.
As it is, Smriti Irani has taken the blame for what seems to me a case of overlook by the bureaucrats in her department. The media is happy. The liberals, who erupted in the social media in indignation following the incident, are happy. But Ms Irani taking the blame does not explain the President’s one-hour condition. There will be other events. We will be watching. The postman, too.