In an interview to a television channel last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that he felt scared to crack jokes in the era of 24x7 news, as anything he said could be whipped up into a big issue.
But Modi does jokes well — especially if they are sarcastic barbs directed at his political opponents. He unleashed a particularly devastating one in Parliament this week when he made a reference to former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s own spotless reputation in spite of the fact that his government was rocked by mammoth scams.
“We politicians have a lot to learn from Dr Sahab,” Modi deadpanned. “So much happened, but there is not a single blot on him. Dr Sahab is the only person who knows the art of bathing in a bathroom with a raincoat on."
Outcry After Modi’s Jibe
The remark has sparked a furore. The Congress and other members of the Opposition such as TMC, SP, DMK and the Left parties are breathing fire and railing at the demeaning “bathroom” analogy (as if taking a bath were a shameful act). They have demanded an apology from Modi for “insulting” the former PM, failing which, the Opposition may boycott him when the Budget session in Parliament reconvenes on 9 March.
But let’s hit the pause button here and consider what was said. The essential facts of the statement cannot be disputed. UPA-2 was indeed marred by charges of large-scale corruption. Yet Manmohan Singh, then Prime Minister, was never tainted by them.
So why has the “raincoat” remark given rise to such indignation? Why have Opposition leaders seized it as a cause célèbre, instead of treating it purely as a piece of sarcastic wit? Surely taking a dig at the former PM’s immaculate image amidst the monstrous corruption of many of his ministers is not outside the bounds of parliamentary oratory?
Part of the reason for the outcry is of course Modi’s own personality, and the fact that he is perceived to be arrogant and abrasive – one who is not beyond stooping to below-the-belt taunts.
But the real reason most have found the comment offensive is that humour is next to non-existent in Indian politics. Our politicians have neither the taste nor the talent for it. They are good at trading crude insults. But biting satire? Forget it. You’d be hard put to find anyone demolishing his or her opponent with a single witty remark.
Witty Sense of Humour
The Father of the Nation had a pretty trenchant sense of humour. When asked about what he thought of Western civilisation, Gandhiji famously replied, “It would be a good idea.” Criticised for wearing a loincloth for his meeting with King George V at Buckingham Palace, the Mahatma quipped, “His Majesty had on enough clothes for the two of us.”
But the annals of Indian political humour have been fairly barren since then. One notable exception, barring the genial wit of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was the late Piloo Mody. A founder member of the Swatantra Party and MP from Godhra in Gujarat, Mody was known for the puckish humour of his parliamentary speeches.
For example, after India launched its first satellite, he congratulated Indira Gandhi with these words: “Madam Prime Minister, we know our scientists have taken great strides in technology, I would be obliged if you could enlighten us as to why our telephones don’t work.”
When Churchill Took a Dig at Attlee
Indeed, if Narendra Modi’s jibes are making the Congress and others see red, one shudders to think how they would have reacted if they had someone like Winston Churchill in their midst. For Britain’s iron man had a savage wit and used it to shred his fellow politicians at will.
Churchill’s many takedowns of Clement Attlee, Labour MP and later, Prime Minister, are famous. He once described Attlee as “A sheep in sheep’s clothing.” Another gem: “He is a modest little man with much to be modest about.”
Of three-time Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Churchill said: “I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been much better if he had never lived.”
Again, in a speech directed at Ramsay MacDonald (Britain’s first Labour PM) in the House of Commons in 1931, Churchill described wanting to go to the circus as a child to see the freaks. He had most wanted to see The Boneless Wonder, he said, but, “My parents judged that the spectacle would be too demoralising and revolting for my youthful eye and I have waited fifty years to see the Boneless Wonder sitting on the Treasury Bench.”
The victims of Churchill’s verbal venom must have hated him, but no one jammed proceedings at Westminster to protest his remarks.
Britain does have a delightfully wicked tradition of political humour, although the tide of political correctness in the modern age threatens to dull it somewhat.
Labour MP Clement Freud once called Margaret Thatcher “Attila the hen” (after the fearsome 1st century marauder, Attila the Hun). A politician making that remark today would surely be torn apart as a sexist.
Modi is Hitting a Purple Patch
Modi’s taunt of Manmohan Singh scarcely rises to these heights. Neither does his bhukamp remark, which came earlier this week when he mocked Rahul Gandhi who, in December, had thundered that if allowed to speak, his words would set off a “bhukamp”. “I was wondering why the earthquake was happening now,” said Modi, “after all, the threat had been made quite some time back.”
Needless to say, this too was slammed as “insensitive” and “shameful”, allegedly because he was trivialising a natural disaster.
Clearly, Modi is hitting a purple patch when it comes to airing his sarcastic wit in Parliament. And he must be bitterly disappointed that his opponents are taking such furious exception to his remarks.
There could be a way out of this humourless impasse. When the shoe is on the other foot, when Modi himself is the target of witty mockery in Parliament or outside, he and his followers could set an example and take the taunts in the spirit of good humour.
We look forward to that day.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi. She can be reached @ShumaRaha. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)