Unveiling statues and other memorials and laying foundation stones are a pleasurable part of a public figure’s life in India, particularly of the elected variety. He or she loves these opportunities for the excellent platform they offer to air views on a variety of matters ranging from local sanitation and water supply to national and international issues like 2G and CAG or Arab Spring or Greece’s debt problem. The public, in small and big towns alike, revels in the carnival atmosphere of such functions, no matter it has little clue to what is being said and the media gets into its element in reporting on the event. But for the poor civil servant, either of the local body or of the government, the occasion proves to be a nightmare, a test of his organising skills. Managing the press corps, local and national, is an added responsibility.
Civil servants with experience had long discovered that unveiling statues and plaques was a fairly simple operation provided one did not resort to engineering gimmickry. The simpler the operation the better it is. Where manual control succeeds, electrical or electronic procedures often fail and as Murphy’s Law cautions us what is likely to fail, fails invariably. And there hangs the tale of two botched up unveilings and a hugely successful one.
The year was 1966, the place, a district town called Mandla in Madhya Pradesh. The local municipality had erected a bust of Jawaharlal Nehru at a road junction and the councillors were extremely glad that they could persuade a national leader, Morarji Desai, to grace the unveiling ceremony as the Chief Guest. Came the auspicious day and a crowd of reasonable size — Mandla had a population of hardly 10,000 at that time — had gathered at the venue to watch the event. Word had gone around that the silk screen covering the sculpture would be parted not manually but electrically with the Chief Guest pressing a button from where he sat on the dais.
The District Collector, a cynic, had other views and he tried to impress upon the councillors and their assistants to give up the idea of any high tech experiments as electrical devices were known to fail at the best of places and at the best of times. He pleaded for a conventional opening with the Chief Guest tugging at one of the two fine silk strings that held the silk screen in place in much the same manner as one would unfurl a flag. Needless to say, his efforts were in vain for the councillors were bent on displaying the local electromechanical engineering skills.
At the appointed moment, Desai pressed the button but very little happened. He tried again and again but with no success. Sensing his impatience, the councillors requested him to get down from the dais, walk up to the bust and part the screen by pulling one of the two silk strings. This manoeuvre was a bit tricky for if one pulled the wrong string, the two strings would knot themselves tightly and the screen won’t part at all.
That was exactly what happened. The dour Morarji Bhai was not amused. To prevent further worsening of the situation the councillors suggested a minor surgery with the Chief Guest cutting the screen into two with a pair of scissors. Though the result was achieved, the general mood continued to remain dull.
The scene shifts to Raipur (formerly in Madhya Pradesh, now in Chhattisgarh) in the year 1969. A new electrical substation had been erected by the then Madhya Pradesh Electricity Board in the heart of the city and the Chief Minister was to inaugurate it. At a gala function attended by ministers, the Board’s brass and the local elite, the Chief Minister, as usual, pressed a button from afar only to see the screen covering the inauguration plaque remaining unmoved and that too despite prayers and repeated pressing of the button. A ruffled Chief Minister casting a not so pleasant look at the Electricity Board officials decided to dispense with the unveiling and proceeded to address the gathering. And then something remarkable happened.
Midway through the Chief Minister’s speech, there was a muffled but quite audible report accompanied by acrid smoke. Presto! the screen parted. No one knew how the miracle occurred. The Board’s officers turned red in their cheeks, the audience looked intrigued and the Chief Minister, halted in his tracks, took a few moments to absorb all that was happening around him. Some junior officers who had managed to grab seats in the front row burst into laughter to be visited with admonishing looks from their seniors. Later, it dawned on everyone that the wires connecting the screen with the button, taped together and hidden under the carpets, had separated first but later, as someone stepped on them, got reunited leading to a short circuit but with the successful opening of the screen.
Taping of electrical wires and pushing them under the carpet is dangerous to the careers of civil servants. Many years later, when the microphone went dead just as the then President of India was about to address the audience at a function at the Siri Fort auditorium in New Delhi, Raipur was re-enacted sans its comedy. The function came to an abrupt end. For the officers in charge of the function, the fallout was predictable.
Now, having gone along the learning curve, one can be taken through a successful high tech opening ceremony. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was on a visit to Indore in Madhya Pradesh in 1971. One of her engagements was to unveil a magnificent statue of Chhatrapathi Shivaji near the cricket stadium. The local municipal corporators were keen on the Prime Minister doing the needful just by pressing a button from the dais from where she was to address the huge crowd that was expected to gather. As she pressed the button from more than fifty metres away, the screen surrounding the statue parted in slow motion revealing the Chhatrapati on horseback in all his glory silhoutted in the magical Malwa twilight. Indira Gandhi was pleased and smiled much to the relief of an anxious Chief Minister.
Some days later, the District Collector of Indore, recalling the disasters he had witnessed in Mandla and Raipur, begged the Indore municipal engineers and personnel of the Electricity Board to reveal the secret of their success. The fellows refused to divulge any information. An intelligent guess was that as the Prime Minister pressed the button it rang a bell at the foot of the statue prompting an official seated there to pull a string that parted the screen. The truth never came out. What mattered were the result and the soundness of appropriate technology.
(The writer is a former Secretary to the Government of India. His email:firstname.lastname@example.org)