Did you catch President Barack Obama’s rousing performance at the White House Correspondents Association dinner last week? In case you missed it, here are some of the highlights. Speaking at the roast, where Presidents are traditionally expected to skewer their critics – all in good humour, of course – Obama decided to take on Donald Trump, the latest in a long line of Republicans to cast doubts on whether Barack was really born in America (and hence, whether he is really entitled to be the President of the United States).
Referring to the fact that his birth certificate had finally been released by Hawaii, Obama chortled, “But no one is prouder to put this birth certificate issue to rest than Donald and that’s because he can get back to the issues that matter, like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell?”
As Trump tried to raise a tight smile from his seat in the audience, Obama went on to poke more fun at the tycoon’s bid for the American Presidency, showing a video of the ‘Trump White House’ with gold columns and bikini-clad girls in the fountain.
As I watched Obama’s performance I couldn’t help but wonder (yes, I know, that’s a bit Carrie Bradshaw, but what the hell!) why we can’t muster up the same kind of wit and joshing humour in Indian politics. Our politicians conspicuously lack the light touch that Obama demonstrated to demolish his putative opponent in the Presidential race. And certainly, none of them displays the same kind of rapier-sharp wit (or has the speech-writers to do it for them).
It wasn’t always like this. Many decades ago, the legendary Parliamentarian Piloo Modi was celebrated for his quick wit and scintillating repartee. On one occasion when the Speaker had reprimanded the members for using unparliamentary language in the House, Modi insisted on referring to Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed – then a government minister – as ‘Mr Ruddin Ali Ahmed’ throughout the day’s proceedings. Needless to say, he brought the House down every time he said that.
The late Rajiv Gandhi, too, had a nice line in witty repartee. I still remember watching his first press conference in America as Prime Minister, when he was asked a question about the Khalistan movement, then at its peak. Rajiv smiled, looked at the group of Khalistani supporters at the rear of the hall and said, “I would like to remind my friends at the back that when there was last a Sikh kingdom, its capital was in Lahore.”
Mani Shankar Aiyar, a close aide of Rajiv Gandhi in those days, was also a master of the acerbic put-down. The story goes that he once attended a function at his old college, St Stephen’s, along with another political colleague, K Natwar Singh. As they were leaving, both of them were asked to write in the visitor’s book. Natwar Singh wrote: “Everything I am today, I owe to the College.” It was Mani’s turn next. So, tongue firmly in cheek, he wrote below this: “Why blame the College?”
In a sense, this was a legacy of our British colonial past. Just as the British had left us with a Parliamentary democracy, they had also bequeathed us the art of pithy one-liners perfected by them down the centuries. Who can forget Sir Winston Churchill’s legendary put-down of his political rival: “An empty taxi drove up and Mr Attlee got out.” Or, my personal favourite: “Mr Attlee is a modest man with a lot to be modest about.”
That tradition still thrives in Britain, where politicians attack each other with humour and sarcasm rather than abuse and insult one another. David Cameron, for instance, inaugurated his spell as Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons by announcing: “I want to talk about the future.” He then turned to Tony Blair and added: “You used to be the future once.”
Unfortunately, we have lost that tradition of cutting humour in India these days. Now, we have invective rather than wit, bile instead of humour, and abuse in the place of repartee. Gone is the lightness of touch that our politicians showed in the past. Gone is the gentle good humour that often characterised parliamentary debate. Instead, we have the sorry spectacle of our leaders going at each other with a venom seldom seen before on the nightly chat shows on television.
Debate these days has been taken over by derision, with every politician vying with the other to come up with the most inventive insults. The only time wit makes an appearance in our Parliamentary debates is when the finance minister or railway minister make some very laboured jokes when delivering their annual budget. Otherwise, the House remains a humour-free zone, with nary a one-liner in sight.
If you ask me, more’s the pity. All of us lose out when humour and wit cease to have a place in our public life. And yes, it’s no laughing matter.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami
- From HT Brunch, May 8
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