Why so serious?

Indian political humour is yet to find space for something similar to the annual White House correspondents' dinner.

Update: 2016-05-04 19:31 GMT
President Barack Obama drinks a glass of filtered Flint water during a meeting with Federal officials at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan in Flint. (Photo: AP)

Humour charms. But is humour that draws attention to one’s flaws a high-risk strategy if you are a prominent politician in this country?

Telling amusing stories about political rivals is one thing; cracking side-splitting jokes about oneself from a high podium quite another. Try to imagine any Indian Prime Minister or President or for that matter any Indian politician pondering aloud what s/he would do when s/he is no longer in office, à la US President Barack Obama.

There was never any doubt about Mr Obama’s cool quotient or his ability to be seriously funny when talking about others, or himself. Some memorable examples: In 2011, at the annual White House correspondents’ dinner, Mr Obama hit back at a certain Donald Trump who had fanned doubts about whether the President was really born in the United States. Mr Obama had released his birth certificate a few days earlier to refute such charges. At the dinner, he went a step further, showing what he called his birth video. It wasn’t a clip of a squealing baby Barack. It was footage from Walt Disney The Lion King, showing the grand unveiling of baby Simba in Africa.

Last week, at his eighth and final White House correspondents’ dinner speech, Mr Obama proved he had not lost his touch. He poked fun at “The Donald” once again, and at everyone else — Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, also his own greying hair. But what took everyone’s breath away was the video where he imagined his life after the switch from Commander-in-Chief to Couch Commander.

The video has Mr Obama asking vice-president Joe Biden, “I can’t golf every day, can I?” He tries offering his services as a sports coach but is rebuffed because the interviewer does not quite believe the authenticity of his birth certificate — once again a reference to that long-running joke about where Mr Obama was born. The video goes on to Mr Obama’s reveries about wearing his “mom jeans” again and eating McDonald’s breakfasts all day long. Then, the epic finale —  “Obama Out” — which got the British newspaper, Guardian, to cheekily observe, “Historians hundreds of years from now will refer to his ‘Obama Out’ in the same breath as ‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall’.” For those too young to remember, that was former US President Ronald Reagan’s iconic 1987 exhortation to the then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.

Not every US President has Mr Obama’s comedic flair. But self-deprecating humour is a weapon that many politicians have successfully used. In the United States, it is a tradition for Presidents to morph into political comedians at the annual White House correspondents’ dinner, popularly perceived as a joke-a-thon where Presidents take pot-shots at political opponents, journalists and themselves. At the dinner in 2000 — his last year in the Oval Office — Bill Clinton was shown reading a magazine as he waited for his laundry in his farewell video.

John F. Kennedy was the first US President to effectively tap television and the power of humour. In 1962, he joked about a recent visit to a Republican-leaning area of Florida: “I’ve come back to Washington from Palm Beach, and I’m against my entire programme.”

Let us face it. Much as we love Amreeka, our high and mighty politicians don’t come across as suckers for spoof videos about themselves even in digital India; too afraid that if they laugh at themselves, the world will not laugh with them but at them.

India has a rich tradition of strong satirical humour. Think Akbar’s adviser and court jester Birbal, who repeatedly ribbed the Mughal emperor and his cronies in the 16th century court, and was encouraged to do so by Akbar himself. But then, you had to have the confidence of Akbar to take such jokes.

The tradition of making fun of others continues. Comedy Nights with Kapil was for long one of the most popular shows on Indian television. In an earlier era, Doordarshan used to run the popular political satire series, Kakkaji Kahin. Indians have countless jokes based on ethnicity, but very few of them have the confidence to laugh at themselves on the basis of ethnicity, food habits, clothes or any other quirk.

Some of our politicians can be funny, wittingly or otherwise. There is the legendary Lalu Prasad Yadav brand of humour. When the Bihar politician was the railway minister at the Centre and was being pilloried because train accidents were mounting, he said, “Indian Railways is the responsibility of Lord Vishwakarma (the presiding deity of engineers). So is the safety of passengers.” More recently, his mimicry of Prime Minister Narendra Modi “went viral” on social media. The Prime Minister himself is at his wittiest while taking swipes at his rivals, especially during the campaign season.

Mahatma Gandhi could take a swipe as well. Upbraided for sticking to his loincloth when meeting the British Emperor, the Mahatma famously retorted, “His Majesty had on enough clothes for the two of us.”

Then there was the inimitable Piloo Mody. As a riposte to Indira Gandhi’s charges of being destabilised by foreign intelligence agencies, Mody promptly pinned an “I am a CIA Agent” button on his pet poodle.

Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, now sadly out of action, is also known for a mischievous sense of humour. Remember his famous retort at those questioning his leadership: “Na toh tired na retired, bus Advaniji ke netritva mein vijay ki ore prasthan.” He was great at bilingual puns.

But Indian political humour is yet to find space for something similar to the annual White House correspondents’ dinner.

One key reason is probably that we continue to be a feudal, hierarchical society. The Constitution treats us equally, but it is tacitly accepted that “leaders” are more equal than others, meant to be put on a pedestal, treated as sages who dole out wisdom to their minions. Leaders are not typically people who speak about their shortcomings. If social media is any indicator in this country, bhakts love them in the messiah-mould.

But it is time to change the game. Look at the fun Mr Obama is having imagining the life after. If only our politicians could relax a bit and occasionally poke fun at themselves, it would be like a welcome shower that would reduce the heat inside and outside Parliament in this scorching Indian summer.

So stand-up India, break the monotony of just fire and brimstone that have come to be the leitmotif of Indian politics.


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