Stand-up comedians and talk show hosts in the US could not have asked for two better presidential candidates than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. When news came that Hillary may throw her hat in the presidential ring, a popular television show ran a spoof with the real Hillary as a bartender talking to an imposter Hillary who made fun of the former secretary of state’s fondness for a drop. In another late night show, the host described The Donald as a tangerine coloured Godzilla. US politicians, at least the majority of them, know how to take it on the chin.
But our story here is a bit different. Our politicians are quite capable of fairly sharp witticisms. RJD leader Lalu Prasad comes to mind immediately. His famous one-liners used to keep Parliament in splits at one time though with the passage of time, they became less funny and a little worn. Of course, the sophistication of Nehru’s wit or the searing humour of Gandhi has never quite been seen again on the political firmament but now and again we do see a spark of humour in many of our politicians. Union minister for urban development Venkaiah Naidu is known for his alliterative humour, though some of it is often lost on many of us. The PM himself is known to get in a jab every now and again at his political opponents, which raised a titter in the US and also in his election rallies.
Read: The politics of humour
But, try and make fun of our political worthies and you will find that the collective political funnybone is missing for the most part. In fact, we are expected to assume a certain air of respect when it comes to our politicians. We have heard outrage when someone or the other has made a humorous reference to them. In fact, even the threat to the fabric of our nation and the foundations of our civilisation are invoked to hit out at the offender. This is easing up ever so slightly and today there are cartoons that poke fun at the great and powerful. But, no doubt the producers of such cartoons or shows are treading on eggshells because you never know when the ever delicate sensibilities of someone or the other can be offended.
The Sikhs and Malayalis have perhaps been most at the receiving end of parochial jokes. Why did the Malayali cross the road? Simbly. This has been the foundational joke when it comes to the Mallu accent. In fact, my lack of a Malayali accent is often commented upon by people I come across almost as though this were offensive to them. But the Sikh and Malayali political class are not quite as prone to seeing the humour in jokes about them. In fact, if you sail too close to the wind in Kerala, you mind well find yourself in the clink, cooling your heels until your humorous urges vanish.
British politicians are famous for their droll sense of humour, Churchill’s rapier-sharp wit had decimated many an opponent. The debates in the British parliament often underscore the effectiveness of humour as a way of scoring political points. The US President hosts an event at which, among other things, he pokes fun of himself. I cannot quite see any of our august presidential personages doing that, though on an occasion, Pranab Mukherjee is known to be able to raise a laugh or two. Finance ministers do make a stab at humour in their budget speeches though not too many have been able to get them rolling in the aisles.
At one time, politicians like Morarji Desai, a humourless man if there ever was one, were known for their quips. The word quip would imply that there was a funny element to their observations but this was not the case. The inappropriately termed quip was almost always an observation which was as dull as ditchwater.
But, all is not lost. Social media has put some of the fun back in life. Of course, if you were to make fun of the gau rakshaks or the self-styled commissars of Hindutva, be assured that the response will not be funny at all. But still, people emboldened by the relative anonymity of social media are pushing the envelope. Perhaps, it is too much to hope that the kind of merciless ribbing that American politicians face both in their workplace and in the media will happen here. But, sooner or later, our worthies will have to learn to take themselves a little less seriously. That way, I think, they will actually become more interesting in the eyes of the people and prove that they have not all undergone a humorectomy.