Political cartoon, as described by Thomas Knieper, is a drawing (often including caricature) made for the purpose of conveying editorial commentary on politics, politicians and current events. Such cartoons play a role in the political discourse of a society that provides for freedom of speech and of the press. The illustrations are primarily opinion-oriented medium and can generally be found on the editorial pages of newspapers and other journalistic outlets, whether in print or electronic form. Their subject matter is usually that of current and newsworthy political issues, and in order for these to be understood, they require that readers possess some basic background knowledge about their subject matter, ideally provided by the medium in which they are published.

Political cartoons are influential spaces in which negotiations of power and confrontation are expressed. They provide insights into power relations, key social issues and events. By mocking or ridiculing the excesses and failings of the elites, cartoonists can hold the leaders accountable. The ongoing Lok Sabha election 2019 is no exception. It is seen that all political parties are chasing young voters by flooding smartphones with political cartoons. With claims and allegations flying left, right and centre during the election period, many of us are looking to cartoonists for much needed daily doses of satire and sanity. These content tickle our funny bones and at the same time discreetly sow a political agenda into our minds which are sharp, witty and in sync with the political plan of the day.

Editorial or political cartoons, whatever we call them, are without doubt the most eye-catching part of a newspaper. Caricatures of politicians with their oversized avatarsor larger-than-life torsos not only bring smiles to our faces but also pull them down from the exalted pedestals where we have placed them. This culture of lampooning political leaders through cartoons started during the British India period and is still going strong. Since the last few months with all the political fervour around, one might think that we are enjoying a carnival of democracy. Key opponents like Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party joined forces in Uttar Pradesh, making the contest real and not a walkover. Though the Index of Opposition Unity cannot be predicted, one cannot afford to ignore it either. The Congress’s victories in Assembly elections in three north Indian States last year have given it a shot in the arm.

Amidst all the churning, these cartoons do justice to this crucial political era in Indian democracy. When we look around, we realise it is Modi everywhere. It’s as if this is a one-man government. The flip side is that Modi’s followers don’t like cartoons about him, and they seldom hesitate to express their anger when they see one. To counter-attack, they have taken the plunge to strengthen their digital presence through cartoons. Election is the best time for cartoonists as they race against the clock to come up with content that is both political and satirical at the same time.

Ganesh Bhalerao, a 29 year old art teacher and cartoonist from Pune, has been hired by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to find amusing ways to lionise Modi and lampoon opposition leader Rahul Gandhi. Political parties rely on the importance of cartoons because these convey the message of a long write-up in seconds. Social media has made it a lot easier for political parties to spread their message to more voters. Analysts say that memes, cartoons and trolls are becoming a force to reckon with ever since political parties began treading the un-trodden path. Following in the BJP’s footsteps, Uttarakhand Congress too has hired a cartoonist and two designers to create content for social media. This election has seen an upsurge of young cartoonists with more than 100 FB accounts and huge followings. For some, what started as a hobby has now turned into a profitable venture that promote leaders and ridicule their rivals.

The role they play:-

Political or editorial cartoons are a key indicator of democratic health of a country. They are like the ‘canary in the coal mine’, providing a public display of opposition and dissent. They are somehow uniquely powered with an art that raises questions and speak the truth, which is denied to others. The critical voice of the political cartoonist can provide a vital safety valve for society. They can give expression to frustrations, grievances and dissent. Their work has the capacity to influence youngsters as these are crisp, clear and have good reach.

The Jio revolution has given an impetus to social media, and with it has come the acceptance of the audience for cartoons. The last few years have seen many cartoonists using social media to reach new readers. No sooner a cartoon gets posted on Facebook page, it spreads like wildfire. While most Indian celebrities don’t enjoy cartoons on themselves, with changing times we do have some politicians who smile and take cartoons in their stride. Former UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav came out with a collection of cartoons featuring him, most of which were critical of him and his governance. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that cartoons do not hurt but have a "healing power", while releasing the coffee table book titled ‘Timeless Laxman’ on the life and times of renowned cartoonist late RK Laxman.

This election has seen mostly drawings of Modi, Amit Shah and Arun Jaitley. In the words of well-known cartoonist Satish Acharya, “I can draw them even without looking at their photos. Another regular is Rahul Gandhi. But he isn’t an easy face to draw. Cartoonists miss Lalu and Advani, who used to be a delight.” Political cartoons have been a vital part of Indian political culture for ages, and it’s striking how often they make sense of the inevitable tangle of issues, interests and personalities by alluding to well-known characters and scenes from literature. With the global attention paid to cartoons, cartoonists are getting more freedom and encouragement to create better works. Cartoons, in a way, are enjoying Acche Din.

-Dr. Moushumi Bhattacharjee

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