A well-crafted put down is a thing of joy in politics. We have grown up on a diet of such verbal barbs not so much in our country but from Britain from where we have adopted our model of democracy. Even so gentle a soul as the Mahatma used his droll humour to come up with an insult, a real favourite of mine. When asked what he thought of western civilisation, the great man said it would be a good idea. Of course, Winston Churchill was famed for his acerbic humour, always biting but never crude.
However, in our politics today, subtlety and wit have been thrown to the winds as witnessed by the appalling remarks made by the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, Ajit Pawar. I am hard put to understand how he could have thought that anyone in their right mind would find his crass remarks remotely funny given that it came in the backdrop of a crippling drought in the state of which he is the deputy chief minister. A poor farmer sitting in protest against the lack of water was the subject of Mr Pawar's 'humour'. Should he urinate in the empty dams, asked the good man, if there was no water in them?
Then in a breakthrough unknown to even demographic experts, our stand up comedian went on to say that the load shedding which makes the Indian summer a nightmare had resulted in a bulge in population as people had little else to do but procreate. He has apologised in a strange half-hearted manner, clearly wondering why he has not been offered the lead role in some sort of Seinfeld-like comedy.
While we are targeting our ire at Mr Pawar, I wonder if you have noticed that vulgarity and insensitivity have passed off for political discourse among many of our worthies. Either I don't understand their sense of humour or many of them think that anything is worth a few laughs. The lumpen crowd listening to Mr Pawar tittered with abandon when he uttered his bilge.
Mr Pawar's laugh-a-minute set me thinking of some other luminaries from his state. Dear Bal Thackeray, god bless his soul, likened Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar to a sack of flour, a clear reference to the leader's girth. And if Bal opened up with the home-grown artillery, can nephew Raj be far behind? He called Jaya Bachchan a guddi (doll) which was also the title of her first film. And yet the film fraternity fawns on the enfant terrible of Mumbai politics though I must say that by Raj's elevated standards that was pretty mild. Mrs Bachchan, we gather, was not exactly rolling in the aisles with laughter.
And then there are some really unexpected ones. Who would have expected the soft-spoken Manohar Parrikar to refer to his own party leader, veteran warhorse LK Advani as being akin to rancid pickle? That certainly got Parrikar in a pickle. Narendra Modi, the flavour of the month, referred to the minister of state for human resource development Shashi Tharoor's wife as a 50-crore girlfriend. I could go on with examples from Mamatadi's unique rhetoric, the president's son's remark on dented and painted women and so on. As we have seen, the instinctive reaction of our lads and ladies is to deny that such awful remarks were ever made or that they were quoted out of context. But in the age of the electronic media, such excuses will not fly. The very media that politicians so actively seek out often leaves them with no room to hide.
There is nothing wrong at all in putting your political opponent on the mat. It can be done with finesse and still hit home. Take the example of the matchless wit of George Bush senior. In 1988 when he took on Michael Dukakis, he said, "My opponent has a problem. He won't get elected unless things get worse and things won't get worse unless he gets elected." Hurtful to Dukakis, no doubt, but it is funny, you have to admit.
Today, our politicians seem to cater to the lowest common denominator. They imagine that the crowds which come to their rallies, and, worse, laugh at their jokes, are actually representative of all Indians. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some of our great leaders, AB Vajpayee, LK Advani, Indira Gandhi, Somnath Chatterjee, Pranab Mukherjee and many of our younger politicians have been very particular about their public utterances. In fact, the younger lot is far more circumspect than the generation before them. I have never heard a Sachin Pilot, a Jyotiraditya Scindia or a Rahul Gandhi say anything that could be construed as unseemly. We can only thank our lucky stars that they did not learn at the feet of many of our stalwarts who have an alarming propensity for putting their foot in their mouths. It is for the parties themselves, not the media, to institutionalise corrective mechanisms. A person like Pawar should face severe strictures, not get away with a wisp of an apology.
If politicians cannot lace their speeches with sophisticated humour, I have only one suggestion. Stick to the point and leave comedy to those who know the fine art.