Column | Stalin sends a rare message for vainglorious leaders

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin sent a rare message for present-day politicians when he said there was no need to replace the pictures of his predecessor E Palaniswamy with his on lakhs of school bags which had been made when the AIADMK was in power.

Stalin said the money saved could be used for relief operations. After having worsted Palaniswamy in the recent assembly elections he did not feel threatened by the pictures on the satchels. But the decision had two side effects: his cabinet colleagues shied away from organising functions in their districts for giving away school kits with Palaniswamy's picture. There was also rush in the education department to give away the bags quickly, so that new bags with Stalin's face could be ordered for the next financial year.

Other than this gesture, Stalin appears to have not made any objection to his photo being obsessively used in government publicity.

When parties or even chief ministers change, different articles with the fallen leader's photograph on them are junked or stowed away in forgotten godowns.

Pranab's stock clearance

A similar exception, as made by Stalin, happened once in the highest office of the land. When Pranab Mukherjee became the President, he was not happy with the maintenance of the 340-room Rashtrapati Bhavan. He directed Omita Paul, the first woman to become the Secretary to President, to inspect and restore the building to its splendour. As she traversed through the 2.5-kilometer-long corridors she found lot of valuable paintings and furniture carelessly stacked away. She also found a huge store of books on previous presidents published during their tenure as well big cartons of medals and keychains ordered during A P J Abdul Kalam's time to be given to students who thronged the President's House during the scientist's open house.

Officials told when a new president came, it was a fresh innings and there was only minimum focus on the earlier occupants. When Mukherjee was told about this practice, he ordered that books and other memorabilia should be distributed not only to students but also to foreign dignitaries who met the President. This gesture was not only generous but cleared the crowded storerooms of the big house on the Raisina Hill.

Modi's face on vaccination certificates

Unlike school bags and mementoes, a new controversy has been on the photograph of Prime Minister Narendra Modi (with his pre-Covid-era trimmed beard) on COVID-91 vaccination certificates issued across the country. This move of the Union Health Ministry to drive home the message that the prime minister is the driver of the pandemic fight has been objected to by the Opposition. (Interestingly, this did not help then Health Minister Harsh Vardhan save his job).

Citing Modi's image on vaccination certificates immigration officials at airports jocularly tell Indian flyers that their faces did not match the photo on the vaccine certificate! Some democracy activists even question the legal basis of the practice.

The international convention on passports prohibits use of any other photograph except that of the passport holder. Otherwise most dictators and even democratic populists would have put their photographs.

The Reserve Bank of India, an autonomous body, has resisted demands for putting photographs other than of Mahatma Gandhi on currency notes, whereas notes issued by monarchies have photographs of kings and queens. Even Communists practice the personality cult as in the case of Xi Jinping in China and Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala. But Tamil Nadu's Stalin has conveyed the message that self-glorification and common sense can go hand in hand, if it saves public money.

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