A brief history of R-Day floats

Shovon Chowdhury | Updated on January 27, 2018 Published on January 26, 2018
Domino effect: The GST float from 2017. Photo: Ramesh Sharma

Domino effect: The GST float from 2017. Photo: Ramesh Sharma   -  The Hindu BusinessLine

Handmade’s tale: The ministry of parliamentary affairs float, 2005. Photo: Kamal Narang

Handmade’s tale: The ministry of parliamentary affairs float, 2005. Photo: Kamal Narang   -  The Hindu BusinessLine

In session: The ministry of justice float, 2004. Photo: Anu Pushkarna

In session: The ministry of justice float, 2004. Photo: Anu Pushkarna   -  anu pushkarna

The good, the bad, the ugly and the bizarre

For me, the best part of Republic Day are the floats. Every year, thousands of man-hours go into constructing things that are seen briefly on TV and then dismantled and sold for scrap at the army cantonment less than a week later. Before they can reach that stage, they have to be approved by the officials of the defence ministry. Various States and government departments submit their proposals, and the ministry selects the best ones. You would imagine that the defence would be too busy to judge floats, considering that in the case of a war, according to last year’s CAG report, the armed forces would run out of ammunition in 10 days, but true patriots will always find a way. It used to be a much simpler process.

The first Republic Day Parade started at Red Fort and marched through the city, witnessed by huge crowds at Connaught Place. The floats were simple and homespun, Dr Rajendra Prasad was humble and dignified, and the celebrations were genuine and heartfelt. The first proper parade at Rajpath was held in 1955, with the Governor General of Pakistan as chief guest. As the pageant evolved, so did the floats. A float is a product of many elements, limited only by human imagination. Over time, designers began to realise this.

By 1959, just five years later, featured floats included a dam, a giant onion, and a tableau in which labourers labour away while a supervisor in a black waistcoat menaces them. In 1963, just after the war with China, the NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) float was themed ‘Tawang back to normal’ and both the Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh floats featured soldiers guarding the border. From the late ’60s to the early ’70s, the energy seemed to flag a bit. In 1969, for example, the Haryana float, entitled ‘Wheel of Progress’, consisted of a large wheel with three or four people standing behind it, trying to look progressive. But this was just a phase.

As the nation has grown in confidence, so have the float-makers. The year 2004 was a watershed. That year, Madhya Pradesh celebrated The Jungle Book, with a large animatronic Baloo threatening to devour a surprisingly calm Mowgli. The Supreme Court float was another highlight, featuring a live three-judge bench, providing a rare opportunity for many Indians to actually see a judge. This was also the year in which the Indian Railways, for the first time, but not the last, featured a railway compartment with passengers getting in and out.

After the riches of 2004, 2005 was a bit of a letdown, except for a surprisingly truthful float from the ministry of parliamentary affairs, depicting dozens of disembodied hands, crushed under the weight of parliament, reaching out in despair. Other than this, the Manmohan Singh era was largely dull; except for the 2011 float from the National Disaster Management Agency, with the theme ‘Plan to manage chemical disaster’. It featured a bright, shiny chemical factory and did not mention Warren Anderson.

Also deserving honourable mention is the effort of the ministry of agriculture in 2014, involving a model ‘Common Service Centre’, two chickens in a glass case, and half a gigantic woman speaking on her mobile. This trend towards featuring giant half-people on floats has been growing in recent years. In 2015, the same year that thousands of children were terrified by the giant crab on the Goa float, Uttar Pradesh featured a giant half Wajid Ali Shah. In 2016, Bihar gave us a giant half-Gandhi. At least they put in more work than Chandigarh, whose float consisted of four young people doing stretches, and two senior citizens reading newspapers. In 2017, Lakshadweep presented a large turtle stuck on a small hill, flapping its flippers hopelessly. The same year, Maharashtra brought us a giant half-Tilak, with an expression of deep sadness, with two young men wrestling just behind him. Also notable in 2017 — the GST float, consisting of a large bowling ball with ‘GST’ written on it, knocking over pins labelled ‘Excise’ and ‘Octroi’.

As the floats have improved, our interest has increased. Social media has been enriching the Republic Day float experience in recent years, with accusations of the Haryana float trying to overtake the other floats from the left, for example, and of too many Biharis trying to get on the Maharashtra float.

At the time of going to press, I am looking forward to the 2018 floats, and so should every Indian. Float-watching is a great hobby. There’s so much to learn, such as, how many people can do bhangra on the back of one truck, and what the government babus running different schemes really think about us.

In Shovon Chowdhury’s most recent novel, Murder With Bengali Characteristics, the Chinese rule Bengal, and there is no Republic Day

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Published on January 26, 2018
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