Far from having a funny bone, it would seem that we are determined to turn most things into a bone of contention. Even as we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the first sitting of Parliament, there appears a worrying lack of tolerance and a considerable erosion in our sense of humour. A cartoon of Babasaheb Ambedkar which has been around for years in textbooks has aroused the ire of people like Ram Vilas Paswan and Mayawati who feel that it is a slur on the Dalit icon.
Punishment for those responsible and withdrawal of the cartoon have been demanded. And it does not end there. Cartoons in textbooks featuring Jawaharlal Nehru, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh have also irked some of our political worthies. A cartoon by RK Laxman showing politicians begging for votes before the elections and the public begging before politicians afterwards has been found to be particularly offensive.
In more mature democracies, taking a whack at political figures is par for the course. And writing about them in what many here would consider disrespectful is also quite commonplace. Perhaps no leader has been lampooned more than former US president George W Bush. He was invariably shown as a small figure being guided by his father or by his vice-president Dick Cheney. When he ran for president a second time, Mad printed this ditty with his picture: “Behold the sum of all our fears/he may be back for four more years.” The Queen mother was a favourite of humour columnists and cartoonists who repeatedly referred to her fondness for a drop or two of gin and racehorses. The personalities whose cartoon depictions have attracted so much attention here are men of such stature that they hardly require their honour to be defended by anyone. British prime minister David Cameron is routinely made fun of in the press, as are other European leaders.
If our politicians had more of a sense of humour, the level of debates in Parliament would surely be elevated. Humour and repartee are potent tools for driving home a point as many of our tallest politicians like Mr Vajpayee have demonstrated. It is also somewhat surprising that people’s sensibilities are so hurt now considering that these cartoons have been around for years. This raises the suspicion that they are playing to the galleries or that they have nothing worthwhile to contribute to public discourse. People like Ambedkar and Nehru were the architects of democratic India in which tolerance of other points of view formed the very foundations. It is a shame that those charged with building on those foundations seem bent on undermining it. All our parliamentarians are doing by indulging in all these shenanigans is to make caricatures of themselves, and not too engaging or humorous ones at that.