Aamir Khan was never the Goodwill Ambassador for Freedom of Expression in India. One could argue that freedom of expression and tolerance are part of what makes Incredible India "incredible" but that was never the main objective of his role. It is the tourism ministry’s prerogative to decide who it wants as a brand ambassador for Incredible India or “mascot” as tourism minister Mahesh Sharma rather quaintly put it, making Aamir Khan sound like Sheroo the lion. And it’s hardly incredible that given his recent sharply-worded remarks about tolerance in India, the ministry decided Aamir Khan was trying to be more sher than sheroo, and not the “mascot” they wanted.
But to present this as clinching proof of intolerance as Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha is doing is patently ludicrous. Aamir Khan might not take any money for his role but that does not mean the government has to be masochistic and appoint him as a brand ambassador for anything. This is a role that requires a bit of two-way goodwill between both parties and when that has run its course, it’s best to part ways gracefully. And the ten-year mark is as good a point of time to do that as any.
Aamir Khan might not take any money for his role but that does not mean the government has to be masochistic and appoint him as a brand ambassador for anything.
Aamir Khan certainly showed plenty of grace when he said it had been an “honour and a pleasure” to be the Brand Ambassador for Incredible India for the past decade and that he was always “available for service to his country” and most importantly, “whether I am brand ambassador or not, India will remain Incredible and that’s the way it should be".
That’s the part most of us miss in the acrimonious debate about tolerance these days. Madhu Kishwar tweets that “If Aamir Khan had a grain of integrity, he shd hv cancelled contract for Incredible India brand ambassadorship b4 he decided to demonize India”.
Kiswhar thus falls into the same trap of equating India with a particular administration. Aamir, like many others, was expressing his qualms about certain incidents happening in India, incidents that worried him, incidents that the government was silent or lackadaisical about. His words might have been rather inelegantly phrased, his concerns might have been unwarranted or selective, but he was not demonising India just because he was speaking up. If those incidents and the government’s attitude towards them were tarnishing the very idea of Incredible India, then more power to him for speaking up. He was the brand ambassador for Incredible India not Incredible NDA even though he serves at the pleasure of the government of India (and McCann Worldwide).
What’s especially stupid about it all is how the government is bending over backwards to try and pretend that this has nothing to do with it.
What’s especially stupid about it all is how the government is bending over backwards to try and pretend that this has nothing to do with it. After Mahesh Sharma said Aamir was no longer the "mascot", his ministry took pains to emphasize its contract was with McCann anyway and the ministry had nothing to do with Aamir directly. “Ministry has not hired Aamir… It was the agency that hired him,” said Sharma trying very firmly to put several degrees of separation between him and Aamir. That was hogwash as well as if McCann would have selected someone the then-government did not like for a Rs 2.69 crore contract with the government. And it does not answer the hypothetical question about whether the government would have continued with Aamir if he had not been so stingingly critical.
In a way this hullabaloo diminishes and trivializes the real debate about tolerance in the country, one that sprang into sharp focus at the opening of the Hyderabad Literature Festival this week when author Nayantara Sahgal and chief guest Governor E S L Narasimhan butted heads about tolerance at the opening ceremony of the festival. Sahgal excoriated the “failure of the state to safeguard India’s diversity”.
Narasimhan ditched his pre-written speech and said “freedom is a universal right but dissent is a subjective matter”, accused the civil society of having “double standards” and exhorted Indian children to “learn their culture”. Media reports described the governor as “incensed” but that at least sounds more like a real debate about ideas than this one involving Aamir Khan and Atithi devo bhava.
Anyway there’s really no need to find a celebrity to be the next brand ambassador for Incredible India. India already has one. Whatever he might be doing or not doing at home, our globetrotting Prime Minister Narendra Modi certainly seems at his happiest and most comfortable playing brand ambassador for Incredible India abroad.
Why bother with actors like Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan when the PM himself has assumed that role in real life? PM clearly brand ambassador bhava whether or not Atithi Devo Bhava.
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