No Indian politician can afford to have the candour of George W Bush, who joked at a dinner party, “This is an impressive crowd — the haves and have-mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.” Nor would anybody dare say of the Rajya Sabha what senator Bob Dole said of the US Senate: “If you’re hanging around with nothing to do and the zoo is closed, come over to the Senate. You’ll get the same kind of feeling and you won’t have to pay.”
That’s not to say that all our leaders have been dour, humourless folk. Mahatma Gandhi had an impish sense of humour. His quip when asked what he thought of Western civilization — “I think it’s a good idea” — is a famous example, as is his putdown when upbraided for wearing a loincloth when he met Edward VII — “He was wearing enough for both of us.”
That was mild compared to Winston Churchill’s retorts. When a woman told him that if she were his wife she would poison his coffee, Churchill replied, “Madam, if you were my wife I would drink it.” Here’s what he said about prime minister Stanley Baldwin: “He occasionally stumbled over the truth but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.”
Indian politicians have shown flashes of brilliance. When Nehru made the fatuous statement that not a blade of grass grew in Aksai Chin, veteran parliamentarian Mahavir Tyagi pointed to his bald pate and retorted, “There is not a single hair on this head but shall I surrender my head to the enemy?” Krishna Bose wrote that, after Netaji drew up the document proclaiming the Provisional Government of Free India in 1943, he looked at the list of signatories and remarked that all those who had signed the proclamation of Irish independence were later shot dead. “Who knows what destiny has in store for us?” he laughed. That was superb gallows humour.
Devaprasad Ghosh of the Jana Sangh once remarked in the Rajya Sabha that “the number of Ministers led by Pandit Nehru … has practically come up to the number of Ali Baba’s classical team”. When a minister waxed eloquent about the five-year plan, saying, “We also have to ensure greater efficiency … and not only efficiency, but also… economy and … parsimony,” Bhupesh Gupta, the CPI leader quipped, “and a little honesty too”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is often humorous abroad. Speaking to the US Congress he put across this sly one, “I am also told that you are well-known for your bipartisanship. Well, you are not alone. Time and again, I have also witnessed a similar spirit in the Indian Parliament, especially in our Upper House.” Ronald Reagan put it more pithily, “I have often wondered what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the US Congress.”
Perhaps self-deprecatory humour would be the least risky? US President Lyndon Johnson had the guts to say, “Did you ever think that making a speech is a bit like pissing down your leg? It seems hot to you but it never does to anyone else.” And Ronald Reagan at his ideological best: “My right hand doesn’t know what my far right hand is doing.”
Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint
The views expressed are personal