One of the casualties of right-wing populism sweeping the world has been humour in public life. There are so many fuming, testy, ultra-sensitive and glowering folks masquerading as leaders roaming around that one cannot but help wonder that perhaps the only humour left in politics is rumour — but then, rumours can be both, lethal and vicious, to say the least.
Back in the old days humour was an integral part of political discourse. One of the finest exponents of the use of humour was Winston Churchill, about whom it is famously said that he mobilised the English language and sent it to war. The flashes of intelligent wit and a masterly turn of phrase characterised both his writings and speeches — especially parliamentary interventions. The most oft-quoted is the famous verbal joust between Viscountess Nancy Astor, a member of Parliament, and Churchill. It transpired when the latter visited Blenheim and it so happened that Astor was also there. Nancy Astor was said to have commented, “If I were your wife I would poison your coffee…” To which Winston Churchill promptly replied with, “And if I were your husband, I would drink it.”
Another one that deserves to be reproduced is the exchange between Churchill and a press correspondent. When asked by the reporter if he was prepared to meet his maker, he responded with an answer which bordered on the somber but is comically entertaining: “I am ready to meet my maker. Whether my maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
One of Winston Churchill’s most well-known and glib quips pertained to his rather complicated friendship with alcohol. During a reception in Washington DC while WWII was at its zenith, the former British Prime Minister made this famed riposte: “All I can say is that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”
The actor-President of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan, had a tremendous sense of humour. Whether one agreed with his politics or not, he was a natural wit. After being shot in the chest and nearly assassinated, he said to his wife Nancy, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” While being wheeled into the operating room, Reagan still had time to fire off a joke to his doctors: “I hope you’re all Republicans.” At a presser, a reporter called Sam Donaldson asked him, “Mr President, in talking about the continuing recession tonight, you have blamed mistakes in the past. You have blamed the Congress. Does any of the blame belong to you?” Reagan: “Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat!”
Reagan wasn’t even beyond ribbing Queen Elizabeth. He was horseback riding with her in 1982, according to former secretary of state James Baker, when the Queen’s horse let out flatulence with a loud pop. The Queen apologised to Reagan, who shot back, “I’m glad you told me, or I would have thought it was the horse.”
Back home the wit of Piloo Mody was legendary. A founder-member of the Swatantrata Party, Piloo Mody once came to the House wearing a placard that read: “I am a CIA agent.” The chairperson ordered him to remove it. He promptly did so, and proclaimed, “I am no longer a CIA agent.”
Another time a member kept heckling Mody. An irritated Mody shouted, “Stop barking!” The member started playing the victim and began pleading with the chair: “Sir, he’s calling me a dog. This is unparliamentary language.” The chair agreed and declared, “This will not go on record.” Piloo Mody corrected himself thus: “All right then, stop braying.” The complaining member didn’t get the import of this. That went on record.
Even Mahatma Gandhi had a devastating wit. Here are some instances where he used it with the precision that a trained surgeon uses the scalpel. An American lady once asked the great Mahatma, “When will you be visiting America? People are eager to see you.” He replied, “Yes I have heard about that, they have kept the zoo and cage ready so that everyone can see this strange creature.” A press correspondent once asked Gandhi, “Why do you always choose to travel by third class in a train?” He replied, “Simply because there is no fourth class yet.” Just before attending a round table conference in England, a reporter asked him, “Do you think you are properly dressed to meet the King?” He replied, “Don’t worry about my clothes, the King has enough clothes on for both of us”.
In recent times a gentleman who has become mischaracterised as an accidental Prime Minister or the “silent one” in fact has a very impish sense of humour and when he deploys it you can detect the twinkle in his eye. Dr Manmohan Singh’s speech during the no-trust vote on the Indo-US Nuclear deal in 2008 that was not allowed to be delivered by slogan-shouting Opposition members but had it been delivered and telecast would have had the country in splits. He wrote, “To fulfill his ambitions, he (BJP leader L.K. Advani) has made at least three attempts to topple our government. But on each occasion his astrologers have misled him. At his ripe old age, I do not expect Shri Advani to change his thinking. But for his sake, and India’s sake, I urge him at least to change his astrologers so that he gets more accurate predictions of things to come.”
Even some members of Parliament employ the turn of the phrase to a killer effect. Sample this rhyme from an Opposition parliamentarian. He used it to conclude his criticism of the general Budget in March 2011: “If you drive a car, I will tax the street. If you try to sit, I will tax the seat. If you get too cold, I will tax the heat. If you take a walk, I will tax your feet.”
As the 2019 General Elections approach, and invective, expletives and abuse become the flavour of the season, politicians should try and remember that a more effective weapon is humour....