Is political correctness and a fractured polity killing political humour in India?

Last week a repartee by the PM on a laughing Congress Member of Parliament Ms. Renuka Chaudhary drew the ire of the opposition members as well as some feminists who accused the PM of being disrespectful to women. Ms Chaudhary reacted by stating, ‘Even if a woman laughs in Parliament today it is seen as being unbecoming of her. Some men have this perception of women, but men who make laws in parliament cannot have such perceptions. They are expected to give the country direction with their status. But if they continue to behave in this manner, how many years will it take us to give the girl child and females the equality they deserve’. Earlier in February 2017, the opposition decided to boycott Parliament accusing the PM for having insulted Dr. Manmohan Singh by what was referred to as his ‘raincoat’ jibe.

Speaking to Times Now in June 2016 Prime Minister Narendra Modi lamented that ‘there is no humour left in (Indian) public life….In this era of 24×7 news channels, anybody can lift a small word and make a big issue out of it. But I will tell you the truth; the reason for the absence of humour in public life is this fear. Everyone is scared. I am not conscious. I am in fear. My speeches used to be humorous earlier. I see it in Parliament, that humour is finished there, too. It is a matter of concern’. While there might be some truth in what the PM said about the media ‘manufacturing’ and ‘creating’ controversies by taking liberties to ascribe its own motives and meaning to what has been said, an important reason according to me for Indian politics becoming more and more humourless and sterile is the premium currently being placed on political correctness as well as our highly fractured and deeply divided politics today. Parties (in connivance with the media and their supporters) have made an industry out of being ‘hurt’.

There was a time when wit and repartee flowed in the Indian Parliament and the state legislatures. Quips, repartee, jibes, poetry, couplets formed a regular part of parliamentary debates. Here are a few exchanges and anecdotes that I would like to share;

During the Nehru era Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia was scathing in his attack of Nehru and his government. He called Nehru a ‘bald man’ often. Once in anger he stated in Parliament that Nehru’s ancestors were no aristocrats, but instead ‘chaprasis’ in the Mughal court. Unlike the vicious response that the present PM was subjected to by the Congress on his so called ‘raincoat’ jibe, the Congress members then did not either demand an apology or disrupt the house. Instead Nehru smiled and retorted that the honourable member has at last accepted what I have been telling all along; that I am a man of the people.

During the discussion on Chinese aggression in 1962, Nehru thunderously roared in Parliament that not an inch of Indian territory will be surrendered to the Chinese. On this Shri H.V.Kamath got up and asked, ‘In your map, one inch is equal to how many miles?’. Once on the breakfast table Nehru had got better of another MP Shri Mahaveer Tyagi when Tyagi ji seeing Nehru peeling an apple before eating it said, ‘Pandit ji, the skin of apple contains vitamins.’ Pandit Nehru said, “Tyagi ji, you can have the vitamins, I will eat the apple.’ Tyagi ji however got the better of Nehru in parliament when in response to Nehru’s comment that not a blade of grass grew in Aksai Chin, pointed to his bald head and stated that not a single hair grew on his head either, so should he surrender it to the enemy?’

TTK Krishnamachary, Nehru’s finance minister had a running battle with Firoze Gandhi, Nehru ji’s son in law. He argued that the latter owed his political rise to Nehru and called him Nehru’s ‘lapdog’. In response Firoze Gandhi stated that since TTK Krishnamachary considered himself to be a pillar of the nation, he would do to him what a dog usually does to the pillar.

In the days when the opposition members, especially of the Swatantra Party, were being accused of being CIA agents, the redoubtable Mr. Piloo Mody came to the house wearing a placard which read ‘I am a CIA agent’. He was ordered by the Chairman to remove it. He did so announcing loudly that he was no longer a CIA agent.

Once Mr. Mody was heckled by the Congress MP, Mr. J C Jain. Irritated, he reprimanded him and asked him to ‘Stop barking.’ Mr. Jain took umbrage at this and complained to the Chairman that Mr. Mody had used unparliamentary language and called him a dog. The Chair agreed and said Mr. Mody’s comment would not go on record. Hearing this Mr. Mody said, ‘All right then, stop braying’.  Since Mr. Jain did not understand the meaning of the word braying, it remained on record. Piloo Mody was accused by a Minister to have shown his back provocatively to him while the Minister was making an intervention. To this Mr Mody remarked ‘Mr. Speaker Sir, please take a good look at me. I have no front, no back and no flanks. I am round all over. So how could I have shown the honourable minister my back?’ The house was all in giggles!

Much is made today of personal comments and the umbrage that politicians and their supporters seek to take on these comments. Members of Indian legislatures have had a tradition of making jocular remarks on persons sometimes even questioning their intellect. This was hardly ever misconstrued or taken offence at. When Kurshid Alam Khan congratulated Minster in Charge Prof. Madhu Dandvate for the plying of mini buses in Delhi, but reminded him that he had chosen, April fool’s day to start the service, Prof Dandvate quipped that this was done ‘keeping you in view.’ During the discussion regarding the lease of forest in NEFA to a British concern, Shri Bhupesh Gupta rose to ask a supplementary question in the following words, ‘Let me ask a relevant question. Is the PM aware..’, but before he could complete Chairman of the house Dr. Radhakrishnanan remarked, ‘For the first time he is going to ask a relevant question.’ The house burst into peals of laughter, Shri Gupta included.  Acharya Kriplani was known for his acerbic tongue and sharp interventions in parliament. During a debate his anger was directed at the civil servants of the country and their lack of quality. He started by narrating an anecdote about a boy who was no good and so did not manage to get a job for himself. When he came home dejected, the boy’s father told him that he should not lose heart for he was useless and so sure would land up with a government job, meant as they were only for worthless people like him. During his reply John Mathai, the then Finance Minister said, it seems the venerable Acharya ji is fast becoming ripe for a government job.

Nothing was beyond light hearted leg pulling, even the personal lives of members. Bachelors and the spinsters in the house had their legs pulled regularly. During a debate on Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) Bill, Shri Nawal Kishore said he rose with a heavy heart to support the bill.  Shri Bhupesh Gupta then remarked that before he continues further, he should be put through a medical examination so see if he was indeed speaking with a heavy heart. Shri Kishore retorted back saying, ‘What would Mr. Gupta know of matters of heart as he was a barren bachelor?’ When the debate on the Salary, Allowances and Pensions of members was going on, Kumari Saroj Khaparde who was single, demanded that ‘Companion’ passes for rail travel should also be issued for single members like her and Shri Bhavesh Gupta. Shri Gupta stated that while he sympathised with her, but wanted to place it on record that he had no companion. To this Dr. Bhai Mahavir quipped, ‘Both the honourable members can solve each other’s problems.’ During a debate on increasing population, Mr Mohan Dharia lamented the rapid pace at which the population was increasing in the country. Shri Chitta Basu stated in jest that while other married members of the house were responsible for population rise he was not, as he was a bachelor. To this Mohan Dharia responded, ‘My friend will agree with me that to be a bachelor is not enough to say that he is not responsible.’

When I witness passionate debates in parliament these days with the speaker all charged up, I am reminded of the incident wherein C M Stephen the Union Minister was speaking with great excitement and passion on the issue being discussed. His excitement was such that his dhoti was on the verge of falling down. The Speaker of the House, Balram Jakhar intervened and said that while he respected the Minister’s vehemence and passion, he would not allow his dhoti to be put on the floor of the house.

Repartees and quips during legislative discussions have enlivened the house as well as reduced tensions during passionate debates. During a heated debate on Ayodhya, V.P Singh asked Atal Bihari Vajpayee that being a believer in Hindu tradition of rebirth, what would he do if he was born in an Arab country in his next life. Pat came Vajpayee’s reply, ‘I will not borrow your cap to wear.’ The whole house burst into laughter. Staying with VP Singh’s cap, once he came to the house without wearing his trademark fur cap. On being questioned where his cap was he stated, ‘What is important is not the cap but what is under it.’

This tradition of political humour in India is a continuation of a tradition which was developed during the freedom movement. Though Gandhi was considered as dour by many, he did possess a very strong sense of humour and repartee. Who can forget his remark on what he thought of the western civilization wherein he responded, ‘I think it would be a good idea.’ Similarly, on being criticised for going to meet the queen and the king in a loincloth he famously said, ‘His majesty has enough clothes for both of us.’ The doyens of the national movement never took umbrage at being joked upon by their junior colleagues. Sarojini Naidu famously remarked about Gandhi, ‘If only he knew how much it costs to keep him in poverty.’ Was this not a personal attack on Gandhi calling him a hypocrite? Similarly, on Sardar Patel’s cultural tastes, she said, ’The only culture he knows is agriculture.’ There is no evidence that either Gandhi or Sardar took offence to her comments.

Staying on political humour I am tempted to quote British and American politicians too. The rivalry between the British politician Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone is well known. Once Disraeli was asked to explain the difference between ‘misfortune’ and ‘calamity’. On this he remarked, ‘Now, observe Mr. Gladstone on the opposition benches. If he fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. But if we pulled him out of it, it would be a calamity.

Churchill and Ronald Regan were master political campaigners. Campaigning against Jimmy Carter, Regan had said, ‘Recession is when your neighbour loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.’ During his campaign Churchill is said to have met a person who stated that he would rather vote for the devil than for him. Churchill replied back, ‘I understand, but supposing your friend decides not to run, can I count on your vote?’ I would really like to know how the guy voted!

(Here is an interesting video of the attack on the then British PM (Gordon Brown) by the British leader of opposition (David Cameron)).

Getting back to the humorous exchanges in India, what surprises me the most is that leaders like Shashi Tharoor too have now started defending this act of umbrage taking on quips. In his book, ‘The Elephant, the Tiger & the Cell phone: Reflections on India in the 21st Century’, he devotes an entire chapter on political humour in India. A history of Renuka ji’s intervention in Parliament also shows that she too is full of wit and not likely to take offence easily. Here is an incident from the Rajya Sabha in which Renuka Ji is being addressed and her reaction. Does she come across as a lady without a sense of humour or one who would be offended for calling her not so sober?

‘Shri A G Kulkarni: Sir, I only request through you that a friend and a fair lady Renuka in mythology is a sober lady. She is not a Chandika. She should be sober.

The Vice Chairman (Shri Jagesh Desai): She is sober. Sit down please.

Shrimati Renuka Chaudhary: आपके लिए तो कुछ भी करूंगी. मैं  तो फ़िदा हूँ. (I will do anything for you..I admire you)’

So Renuka ji if leaders like you too start getting offended so easily, parliamentary debates would indeed become very dour and uninteresting. A quip should beget a repartee and you are totally capable of that!

(The views expressed by the author are personal and have not been done with a view to hurt anyone)


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