The thing about contests like “The Greatest Indian after Gandhi” is that they’re not about the destination but the journey: what does it matter in the end if a scientist trounces a political leader or a sportsperson wins the most votes? What difference in any real terms does it make to anyone’s life?
The only thing that matters is the fact that such exercises make us think, question our value systems and our priorities in life. What makes a person great? His contribution to uplifting others or the excellence he has achieved in his chosen field? And where does the ability to garner votes in an age of social networking fit into all this? And do people’s positive impact on the lives of others indemnify them from their own personal shortcomings?
The other thing about such contests is how powerful they make those involved in the process feel. Having sat in on many such exercises for various newspapers, I know just how heady the whole process can be. Ensconced in meetings that can stretch to weeks, you, along with your colleagues, feel a bit like God when you weigh each name against its various weightages and interest groups: the usual suspects, the token gender, the regional exigencies and the marketing and advertising realities, amongst other factors.
Then, with a sense of misplaced omnipotence, you argue in a considered and (to your own ears surprisingly) intelligent manner against or for legendary names you have so far only had a passing connection to. You try and appear non-partisan, statesmanlike and lofty, but all the time you are aware of how subjective the exercise really is.
Because, after all, any such contest is populist and facetious: what constitutes great? Can you really compare people across professions and ages in such a cursory way? Is it not akin to comparing apples and oranges? Is it fair, and more importantly, required?
Because, of course, in any contest of this nature, vested interests get galvanised: religious, caste, gender, regional, political, ideological and state interests are bound to be exercised and not always in the healthiest way.
In a nation this riven with divisions and conflicts, is this called for? Are there other less fractious ways of engaging with your audience without risking unwarranted conflict? Or are such debates healthy and necessary for a nation’s growth?
We all know, for example, of the mixed signals and controversies that Time’s “Person of the Year” has created: Adolf Hitler made the cut in 1938, Joseph Stalin won the title not once but twice in 1939 and again in 1942, and Ayatollah Khomeini was also anointed in 1979.
Of course it can be said that there is a nuanced difference between “Person of The Year” and “The Greatest Indian after Gandhi”, but the potential for abuse and misapplication are the same.
And what about political correctness at the end of the day? What happens when the ‘right’ great person is chosen despite being politically incorrect? How will that impact public discourse, and what influence will it have on popular narrative?
There are no easy answers in a debate such as the one that CNN IBN has embarked on. All we know for certain are three things: whatever the results, someone’s not going to be happy; we will know a bit more about ourselves as a middle class; and, TRPs will rise.
Malavika Sangghvi is a Mumbai-based writer firstname.lastname@example.org