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)


Is India democratic only because of Nehru?

Chacha Nehru is in news again. The critics of the present NDA government have been vociferous in their condemnation that this government not only refuses to acknowledge the contribution that Nehru made to this country but also wants to undermine his legacy. According to them the biggest Nehruvian legacy has been the survival of India as a democracy. Critics of Nehru, on the other hand, argue that Nehru’s contribution to democracy in this country has been overemphasised. Speaking recently in parliament, the Prime Minister stated, ‘Loktantra Congress ya Nehru ji ki den nahi hai, Loktantra hamari ragon mein hai, hamari parampara mein hai.’ (Democracy is not a gift (to this country) by Nehru or the Congress. Democracy is in our blood, our traditions). So where does the truth lie? I would argue that while Nehru significantly contributed to strengthening Indian democracy and that that his tendencies were basically democratic, yet attributing the survival of democracy in this country only to his legacy would qualify as hyperbole. Lest we forget, Nehru also betrayed significant anti-democratic or authoritarian tendencies. Here are a few examples:

First, let us have a look as to how he forced his way to become the PM of the country, post-Independence. Nehru was not the unanimous choice for the job of the President of the Congress in 1946. The President of the Congress who was to be elected by the Pradesh Congress Committees (PCCs) would have subsequently become PM of India after independence. 12 of the 15 PCCs wanted Patel as President while 3 PCCs abstained from naming anyone. It was only at the insistence of Mahatma Gandhi that Patel backed out from the race, paving the way for Nehru to become President of the Congress and subsequently the PM of India. Not only had Nehru made it clear to the Mahatma that he coveted the post but had also made it clear that he would not serve as deputy to anyone. In his book “Nehru: A political biography”, Michael Brecher wrote, ‘If Gandhi had not intervened, Patel would have been the first Premier of India, in 1946-47’.  Is it democratic to get popular opinion overturned by bringing Mahatma’s moral pressure to bear on one’s opponents?

Second, while there is no denying the fact that Nehru attended Parliament regularly and took active part in parliamentary debates, he also used constitutional provisions to, at times, bypass parliament. One such provision was ruling through Ordinances. Article 123 of the constitution allows the executive to issue ordinances when either house of parliament is not in session but it should be resorted to only when circumstances dictate that immediate action is warranted. Promulgation of ordinance as a matter of routine to avoid seeking timely parliamentary approval is neither good governance nor a very democratic practice. Lately, President Pranab Mukherji had voiced his concern about the repeated promulgation of the Land Acquisition Ordinance by the present Government. Shubhankar Dam in his book ‘Presidential Legislation in India: The Law and Practice of Ordinances’ writes that the practice of promulgating Ordinances had become so commonplace under Nehru that the first speaker of India G.V. Mavalankar had written to Nehru warning that ‘the house carries a sense of being ignored and the Central Secretariat, perhaps, gets into the habit of slackness,’ neither of which ‘was conducive to the development of the best parliamentary traditions.’ Nehru, however dismissed his warning. Three ordinances were issued by his government on the very first day of the promulgation of the Constitution i.e. 26 January 1950. During his tenure (till 1964), Nehru government issued 102 ordinances, thus setting the tone for and providing justifications for future governments. Dam’s research shows that during the period 1952 to 2009, different governments brought 177 ordinances either 15 days before the commencement of a legislative session or within 15 days of the end of the legislative session. Not a very great democratic legacy to leave behind!

Third, the undemocratic practice of misusing Article 356 by the Central Government to destabilize governments not to their liking started during Nehru’s term. In his tenure as PM, Nehru used Article 356 eight times to dismiss elected state governments. Nehru dismissed the Gopi Chanda Bhargav government in Punjab even though he enjoyed the majority in the house. In 1954, he dismissed the Andhra Pradesh Government on the specious plea that the AP government was about to be taken over by the Communists. Similarly, in 1959, the first elected non-congress government in Kerala was dismissed by the Centre even though it enjoyed the majority in the legislature. The Governors had become instruments in the hands of the Centre with Granville Austin writing that the Congress had “blended its interests with questionable national needs to take over a state government”. This abominable tradition was carried on by the future governments with his daughter Mrs Gandhi, imposing President’s rule 50 times, Rajiv Gandhi imposing it 6 times, PV Narsimha Rao 11 times and Dr. Manmohan Singh 12 times.

Fourth, nothing surprises me more than the ambivalence that Pandit ji displayed in controlling corruption in public life. It is indeed a paradox that while he was a person of absolutely unimpeachable personal integrity, he condoned and tolerated financial impropriety amongst his colleagues. V.K Krishna Menon, then the High Commission of UK was indicted in the Jeep scam of 1948 but ended up becoming Defence Minister in Nehru’s cabinet. Similarly, TTK Krishnamachary was indicted in the LIC Mundra scam (exposed by his son in law Firoze Gandhi) by the Chagla Commission of Inquiry, but Nehru took him back in his cabinet as Finance Minister in 1963. Despite serious charges of corruption against him, Nehru always had high praise for Pratap Sing Kairon, the Chief Minister of Punjab, whom he considered to be ‘a man of the people, simple in his life’. Incidentally, this simple man was indicted by the Das Commission of Inquiry for corruption in 1964, thereby forcing Lal Bahadur Shashtri to seek his resignation.

Fifth, one cannot but feel bemused when the critics of the present government lament the supposed curtailment of free speech by this government. It would be worthwhile to remind them that the first amendment which curtailed the right of free speech, as enshrined in the Constitution was brought in 1951 by the Nehru government. Interestingly, Nehru was even opposed to incorporating the term ‘reasonable’ before restrictions for he thought the word reasonable was ambiguous and gave the courts too much leeway in deciding the cases as per their interpretation. The Press (Objectionable Matter) Act, placing restrictions on what could be published was also promulgated by his government in 1951. In his interview with Michael Brecher, Nehru justified the promulgation of this Act stating that the press here was doing terrible things, was no good and so had to be restrained.

The left liberals of this country who never tire of calling this government a fascist incarnate and go the ridiculous extent of calling the PM a Hitler need to be reminded of the democratic tolerance of their liberal hero, Pandit Nehru.  When India joined the Commonwealth post-independence, Majrooh Sultanpuri, the leftist poet composed and read out the following poem in a worker’s rally;

Aman kaa jhandaa is dharti pe
kisney kahaa lahraane na paae
ye bhii koii Hitler kaa hai chelaa,
maar le saathii, jaane na paae!
Commonwealth ka daas hai Nehru
maar le saathii jaane na paae!’


अमन का झंडा इस धरती पे

किसने कहा लहराने पाए

ये भी है हिटलर का कोई चेला

मार ले साथी जाने पाए !

कामनवेल्थ का दास है नेहरू

मार ले साथी जाने पाए।

The democrat that was Nehru was so agitated by these lines that a warrant of arrest was issued against Sultanpuri and he was put behind bars in Arthur Road Jail for two years. Similarly, the Times of India was forced to discontinue the column that civil servant A.D Gorwala wrote under the pseudonym ‘Vivek’ as Nehru found those pieces too critical of him. So much for the present government and the PM being a fascist!

In the final analysis, while uninterrupted Nehruvian leadership of 17 years’ post-independence did allow democracy to take roots, institutions to entrench and their capabilities to enhance, equal credit is also due to all the other players in the democratic game as well as the capable personnel who manned many important institutions of the state. If Nehru played by the rules of the book, so did the opposition who never questioned their democratic defeat at the hands of the ruling Congress party. Thankfully, we did not have an opposition like in Pakistan where the losing party never accepted/accepts the democratic verdict. India was indeed lucky to have as its founding fathers, both in the government and the opposition, leaders who were seeped in the tradition of constitutionalism and rule of law (most of them lawyers), be it rightists or leftists. Thankfully this great tradition continues till date.

Let us not forget that democracy cannot be a gift to a country by any one person how so ever great he or she might be. It needs constant nurturing and reaffirmation to its core values. If Nehruvian tradition was all that the country needed to continue as a democracy for ever, how come Emergency happened in 1975? How was it that all democratic rights were curtailed and all institutions muzzled? God alone knows what would have been the future of democracy in this country had Mrs. Gandhi not been misled by the false reports of her impending victory and called for elections in 1977? If the Nehruvian democratic tradition was so strong then what was the need for the further checks and balances on the authoritarian power of the executive by the 44th amendment?

So while we must respect and celebrate Nehru, let us not delude ourselves that democracy was only his ‘gift’ to this country and continues to survive only because we were fortunate to have him as our leader in the early years of our Republic.

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

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