First Man Standing?
Many years ago when I was still in the United Kingdom, BBC used to conduct an audience poll to determine the ‘Man of the Year’. One particular year, the results of the poll led them to seriously reflect on the entire process. It emerged that a particular community had urged all its members to vote for a candidate who eventually emerged the winner. The only problem was that this particular individual was not known to a vast percentage of the British population, most of who had not bothered to vote.
Yes, you are right! The candidate was none other than Lal Krishna Advani, at the time one of the Opposition leaders in India who was attempting to steer his political party – Bharatiya Janata Party – along a particular ideology. Overseas friends of the BJP made sure that he obtained sufficient votes to outnumber all the other candidates.
The BBC was left red-faced and its directors went into a huddle. They finally ruled that the spirit of the process had been vitiated by what had happened and refused to accept the result. They instead declared that Michael Heseltine, the British politician who had played a major role in removing Maggie Thatcher from the British political landscape, merited the honour and declared it as such.
This incident crossed my mind when I read that the CNN-IBN had just concluded its search for the Greatest Indian after the Mahatma and the results were overwhelmingly in favour of Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar.
It is not my case that Dr Ambedkar did not deserve this honour. I have the highest admiration for him. I have had occasion to peruse his writings. I even had the good fortune to read up his doctoral dissertation for his first doctorate at the Columbia University when I was a senior professor over there. His life journey has already been too well-documented. Coming from the background that he did, his educational accomplishments are truly stratospheric – an earned doctorate from Columbia, another from London in economics and yet another from Heidelberg, plus his being called to the Bar in London!
All of this by itself makes any discerning observer salute him notwithstanding his role in according the most oppressed a sense of identity which they had been deprived of for hundreds of years. But my discomfiture over the whole process remains.
My first and the foremost unease is whether a public poll is the correct way to assess the “greatness” of an individual. I have adumbrated how Advani came out a handsome winner in a BBC poll. A large number of people tend to vote for reasons other than objective evaluation of the merits of individuals concerned. Moreover, a substantial number chose not to vote at all – myself included – as they have questions about the wisdom of the whole process.
The correct way in my view is to appoint a learned committee of scholars to assess the relative merits. This was done here in India, but only to select the 50 possible candidates; their merits were expounded in some detail on the channel. But the experts had no say at all in the ultimate selection of the winner – and this is where we run into difficulties. Notwithstanding the merits of Dr Ambedkar, my own hunch is that many may have voted for him for sentimental reasons rather than having read and grasped what he stood for and wanted. Evaluating merits of a statesman/scientist/literary figure for posterity is a serious process left to the discretion of scholars who have a better insight than an average voter.
No one objects when the most sought-after awards such as the Nobel are decided by a panel of experts. It is nobody’s case that the Nobel Committees have not goofed up on more than one occasion. Their belated apology for not awarding Gandhi the Peace Award which by any reckoning would have elevated the award rather than Gandhi, is a prime example. There are similar instances of inexplicable lapses in the science and literature awards as well. But there has been no clamour to rule on the Nobels by virtue of public polls as it is well understood that the degree of expertise needed to credibly rule on these questions can only come from the experts.
My second issue is whether we can properly decide on one candidate in the first place. I would have serious problems deciding on one candidate if I was asked to rule on the matter. A large number of Indians have made stellar contributions to the making of India as it stands today and selection of one candidate through polls inadvertently demeans the contribution of the others, although that clearly was not the intent over here.
About 10 years ago the Royal Society of London decided to have some fun. It carried out two polls, one by the general public and the other by its members, to rule on who they considered the greatest scientist of all time. The choices they were supposed to vote on were Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. Newton won in both the polls, albeit extremely narrowly in the poll by its members. The salient feature of these polls was that only about 1,500 of the general population voted and a substantial number of the Fellows abstained from the poll for the members. The whole purpose of determining the “greatest scientist” of all time came a pathetic cropper.
Many newspaper editorials commented and criticised this immature exercise by the Royal Society of London; in my view rightly so. This was no way to address a serious issue. As many historians of science pointed out, science is too wide a discipline to allow anyone to decide on who the greatest scientist was. The best attempts made thus far are to identify the top 1000 scientists of all time, as Philip Barker did in his book, ‘Top 1000 Scientists from the beginning of time to 2000 AD’, which would certainly be credible. And the Royal Society of London has by now ceased to enjoy the prestige it did to bodies like the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This particular attempt certainly did not elevate their stature.
CNN-IBN needed to take a lesson from this clumsy attempt. What made it clumsier was the limited choice it offered. It is debatable if scientists like Darwin, Galileo and Mendel were not of the same stature as Newton and Einstein.
And that is yet another criticism I have of the CNN-IBN exercise. For me non-inclusion of Satish Dhawan among the scientists was a major error. And I would be loathe to accept that Chandi Prasad Bhatt did not merit a place in the top 50 in lieu of some who were there. I would have included a remarkable man like Abhay Bang as well in my list of 50. But that of course is a debatable question.
And finally I have a query that many of my acquaintances had. I personally have no problems at all in accepting that Gandhi was indeed the greatest Indian of the modern era. I have been a Gandhi fan all my life and in fact regard him the greatest world figure of the 20th century. But many of my friends/colleagues/acquaintances abroad have questioned whether it was fair to have pre-inferred as to who the greatest was and to have a poll for the second greatest.
In conclusion, I shall continue to applaud Ambedkar for his writings and his work and he shall remain in my list of the very top 10 Indians of independent India – that is the best I can work out. And my earnest hope would be that people who venerate him actually end up reading what he wrote. That would be the best tribute we can pay to this stalwart.