No laughing matter | india | Hindustan Times
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No laughing matter

india Updated: May 11, 2009 22:04 IST

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There is no better measure of a society’s maturity than its tolerance of political satire. The United States annually offers an example with the reigning president taking a poke at everyone, himself included, during the Washington correspondents’ dinner. Barack Obama showed he was as able a rib-tickler as he is a soul-stirrer this weekend.

It can be said that in the oldest democracy the ability of the world’s most powerful person to be self-deprecating has become a measure of leadership ability. Perhaps few countries go as far as Britain where no national icon or cultural pillar is considered above lampooning. Even the US has some sacred cows. Johnny Carson, the first of the late night television hosts, was booed when he joked about Abraham Lincoln’s death. The contrast with India, where few politicians display any humour and even less are prepared to be made fun of, is striking. There is a clear taboo zone that covers all the highest office-bearers, State institutions, religious and cultural icons. When US presidents Gerald Ford stumbled and Ronald Reagan dozed off, their countrymen laughed at them without the Oval Office being the worse for it. When President Shankar Dayal Sharma tripped and Prime Minister Deve Gowda fell asleep, India debated whether such events should be publicised — making fun of them was simply beyond the pale.

Satire serves a subversive role in dictatorships: for example, standup comedy is a major vehicle for dissent in Myanmar. This should not be an issue in India and is a reminder of how unfree the national mindset remains.