[ by Charles Cameron -- a little Bollywood, a little Hollywood, a little classical, a little rock and roll -- and what all that might have to do with Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal ]
The phrase “the common man” is a common enough phrase anywhere English is spoken. US Vice President Henry A Wallace used it 16 times in a wartime speech here in the US in 1942:
I say that the century on which we are entering — the century which will come out of this war — can be and must be the century of the common man.
His words, in turn, inspired Aaron Copland to write his Fanfare for the Common Man:
And from there, Emerson, Lake and Palmer took up the baton…
But all that is hometown news, and it’s an away match I want to draw your attention to again today — specifically the upcoming Indian elections.
It is instructive that Narendra Modi, PM candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), portrays himself as a “common man” on the header of his official Twitter feed:
— especially since his intriguing rival, Arvind Kejriwal, is head of the Aam Aadmi (literally: Common Man) Party (AAP) — and is also widelt represented as “a common man in politics”:
The phrase “the common man” is a common enough phrase, to be sure. But there’s one more thing you might want to know… It is a phrase which may carry even more freight in India.
It is the way the common man / terrorist describes himself in the extraordinary 2008 film, A Wednesday — currently streaming on Netflix — in which police commissioner Prakash Rathod (Anupam Kher) recalls his encounter with the “common man” (Naseeruddin Shah). Here’s the way the common man explains himself:
I am someone who is afraid to get into a bus or a train these days. I am someone whose wife thinks is going to war … while I am actually going to my work. She is afraid that I may not return. She calls up every two hours. To find if I had my tea. To find if I have lunched. Actually she wants to find out whether I am still alive. I am someone who sometimes gets stuck in the rain or in the blasts.
I am someone who suspects the person carrying a rosary. I am also the one who is afraid to grow his beard and wear a cap. If I buy a shop I am afraid to choose a name as someone might see the name and burn it during the riots. No matter which two parties are fighting, I am the first one to get killed.
You must have seen a crowd. Choose a person from it. I am that person. I am just the stupid common man…
By my count, the phrase “common man” occurs 14 times in the subtitles, and sometimes but not always in English on the soundtrack — and “the common man” is the name goiven to Naseeruddin Shah’s character in the final credits.
And finally, a remake of the movie with Ben Kingsley playing Naseeruddin Shah’s role — set in Colombo, Sri Lanka rather than Mumbai, India — has recently been released, under the title A Common Man. Not that anyone in India seems to like it better than Neeraj Pandey‘s brilliant original…
Correlation — or causation?
It would be hard to say whether Henry Wallace’s speech, or Aaron Copland’s Fanfare, or Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s rock-out, or Neeraj Pandey‘s movie, or Chandran Rutnam’s knock-off for that matter, were in the minds of Modi and Kejriwal’s “minders” when they picked their slogans…
For the past two years millions of common Indians came out on streets to fight against the biggest evil in our country today – corruption. This people’s anti-corruption movement has exposed the ugly and greedy face of our politicians. No political party in India today works for the common man’s needs. The Janlokpal Movement was a call to all the politicians of India to listen to the common man’s plea. For almost 2 years we tried every single way available to plead our cause to the government – peaceful protesting, courting arrest, indefinite fasting, several rounds of negotiations with the ruling government – we tried everything possible to convince the government to form a strong anti-corruption law. But despite the huge wave of public support in favour of a strong anti-corruption law, all political parties cheated the people of India and deliberately sabotaged the Janlokpal Bill. The time for peaceful fasts and protests is gone. This is the time for action. Since most political parties are corrupt, greedy and thick skinned, it’s time to bring political power back into the people’s hands. We are not saying that every single politician is corrupt and greedy. There are many good intentioned people in politics today who want to work honestly for the people of India. But the current system of polity does not allow honest politicians to function. We are also not claiming that every single person who joins our party will be hundred percent honest. We are saying that it is the system that has become very corrupt and needs to be changed immediately. Our aim in entering politics is not to come to power; we have entered politics to change the current corrupt and self-serving system of politics forever. So that no matter who comes to power in the future, the system is strong enough to withstand corruption at any level of governance.
Henry Wallace presumably had the likes of Hitler and Mussolini – but not, apparently, Stalin – in his sights when he said “it is easy for demagogues to arise and prostitute the mind of the common man to their own base ends”.
Unpopular he undoubtedly was — in one poll to find the “least approved man in America” only Lucky Luciano beat him — but this particular warning continues to be applicable today.
And okay then, for your listening pleasure, here they are: Emerson, Lake and Palmer…