The Congress is hopping mad. The Party’s fury has been roused by Narendra Modi’s rhetoric. It believes he’s been rude to Manmohan Singh. It’s demanded an apology and if that isn’t forthcoming, the Congress has decided to boycott the Prime Minister when parliament reconvenes.
The truth is that like many of us the Congress lacks a sense of humour. Mr. Modi’s turn of phrase may not have been brilliant but it was undoubtedly witty. And, of course, it was a put down. That, after all, is the intent of repartee.
The problem is we love a good joke at someone else’s expense but when we’re the butt it’s perceived as an insult and we bristle with self-righteousness. That’s precisely how the Congress is behaving.
In contrast, just look at how British politicians, including serving and former prime ministers, have referred to each other down the centuries. As far back as the 18th, when the 4th Earl of Sandwich angrily said to John Wilkes “Sir, I don’t know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox” this was the reply the First Lord of the Admiralty had to contend with: “That depends, my Lord, on whether I embrace your Lordship’s principles or your mistress.”
My favourite are the exchanges between William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, who were competing prime ministers in the late 19th century. This is how Disraeli once described Gladstone: “A sophistical rhetorician inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity and gifted with an egotistical imagination that can at all times command an interminable and inconsistent series of arguments to malign an opponent and to glorify himself.”
History does not record Gladstone’s replies but, thankfully, that did not deter Disraeli. On a famous occasion, when he was attempting to distinguish a misfortune from a calamity, he said: “If Gladstone fell into Thames, that would be a misfortune, and if anyone pulled him out, that, I suppose, would be a calamity.”
This tradition of ribbing prime ministers has become a revered part of British parliamentary practice. Clement Freud dubbed Margaret Thatcher “Attila the Hen”. Norman St. John-Stevas called her “The Blessed Margaret”. Nicholas Fairbairn said of John Major: “He’s more a ventriloquist’s dummy than a prime minister.” Whilst Churchill described Attlee as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing”.
The truth is all sorts of insults have been bandied about in the House of Commons. They include cad, stool pigeon, guttersnipe, snivelling little jerk and – the delightful – semi-house-trained polecat. Rarely does the person so addressed demand an apology. Indeed, that was also true when John Davies was called “a fat-arsed twit” by a fellow Labour MP!
Even the most dour have been capable of delicious flights of wit. Harold Wilson once said of his own cabinet colleague: “Tony Benn is the only man I know who immatures with age.” Dennis Healey dismissed an attack by Geoffrey Howe with the piercing remark it’s “like being savaged by a dead sheep.”
So, instead of whining when they’re bested by their opponents, the Congress should learn the art of giving one better than they get. But if that’s not possible, try and smile through clenched teeth. Throwing a tantrum isn’t just childish it’s also a sure sign you can’t take a joke.
Or would the Congress prefer Mr. Modi to borrow a phrase from the good Rev. Spooner and call them “shining wits”?