Recently, reviewing Stanley Wolpert’s new biography of the Mahatma, “Gandhi’s Passion”, for the Washington Post, I found myself complaining that Gandhi’s puckish sense of humor is nowhere on display in the book. To illustrate the point, I recalled a couple of my own favourite anecdotes about the Father of the Nation. Asked once what he thought of Western civilization, the Mahatma replied, “It would be a good idea.” Upbraided for going to Buckingham Palace in his loincloth for an audience with the King-Emperor, Gandhi retorted, “His Majesty had on enough clothes for the both of us.” Neither remark figures in a book that averages half-a-dozen quotations per page.

But then the thought occurred to me that, even though Wolpert’s omission was worth pointing out, Gandhiji was an exception: the Indian nationalist leaders and the politicians who followed them were in general a pretty humourless lot. I yield to no one, except perhaps Dr Sarvepalli Gopal, in my admiration for the extraordinary intellect of Jawaharlal Nehru, but dig deep into his writings and speeches and you would be hard pressed to come up with a good joke. His daughter Indira Gandhi was no better. While researching my doctoral dissertation on her foreign policy, I read pratically everything she ever said between 1966 and 1977. I can honestly say that I came across only line that was remotely witty. “In India,” she remarked once, “our private enterprise is usually more private than enterprising.” But from what one knows of the lady, the comment had probably been scripted for her.

Cast your mind about the other remarkable figures who have marched the national stage — from the kindly elders Rajaji and JP to the grim men of iron Sardar Patel and Charan Singh, and from the notoriously unsmiling Morarji to the amiable Vajpayee — and you will have to admit that, as far as political humour is concerned, our national cupboard is bare. We have had our share of political buffoons (does anyone still remember the egregious Raj Narain?) but buffoonery does not count as humour, any more than slapstick can pass for wit. The couple of honourable exceptions one can identify are, alas, amongst the minor political figures. Piloo Mody was probably one, but when I think back on his career I can recall only the episode of his reaction to Mrs Gandhi’s paranoid charges of being destabilized by foreign intelligence agencies: he promptly pinned an “I am a CIA Agent” button on his pet poodle. I am sure Mr Mody did better than that in parliamentary repartee, but no memorable examples come to mind. One that does, however, features the now-forgotten P. Upendra, who as a Telugu Desam MP was briefly Leader of the Opposition in the Lower House. On one occasion when Rajiv Gandhi appeared in the Lok Sabha on his return from yet another foreign trip, Upendra ceremoniously began a speech by saying, “I would like to welcome the Prime Minister on one of his rare visits to New Delhi.”

But where are the Indian equivalents of the great political wisecracks of other democracies? British parliamentary tradition is replete with examples of often savagely cutting humour. In 1957, Labour leader Aneurin Bevan was attacking Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd in the House of Commons when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan walked in. He promptly interrupted himself: “there is no reason to attack the monkey,” he said, “when the organ grinder is present.” Bevan is still worshipped by misty-eyed old Labourites, but he was not universally loved within his own party. The most famous put-down of him came from his near-namesake, the Labour Party’s postwar Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. Someone remarked to Bevin that “Nye [Aneurin Bevan's nickname] is his own worst enemy.” Bevin snapped back: “Not while I’m alive he isn’t.”

Of course, a lot of political humour involves invective, which the rules of decorum oblige politicians to embroider creatively. In 1978, Britain’s then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, reacted to criticism from the Tory who would succeed him, Sir Geoffrey Howe, by dismissing it as “like being savaged by a dead sheep.” The remark is still recalled fondly by political observers more than two decades later, though both protagonists have long since ended their careers. Decades earlier, Winston Churchill had scornfully described the mild-mannered Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing”. This was kinder than his most famous assault on the same PM. In a 1931 speech about Macdonald, Churchill described going to the circus as a child, for “an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities”. He had, he said, most wanted to see “the boneless wonder, but my parents judged that the spectacle would be too revolting and demoralising for my youthful eyes. I have waited fifty years to see the boneless wonder sitting on the Treasury Bench.”

The British are also fond of showing erudition in their homour. Churchill was echoing a famous line of the 16th-century thinker John Bradford when he commented about Sir Stafford Cripps, “there, but for the grace of God, goes God.” Few could have escaped the allusion to Helen of Troy when a left-wing parliamentarian in the 1960s called a female Education Secretary, Barbara Castle, “the face that had sunk a thousand scholarships”.

Indian literature and mythology offer plenty of material for similar humour, but few have taken up the challenge. When in the early 1970s Karan Singh, as Minister for Health, proved slow to act during a junior doctors’ strike in New Delhi, posters went up on the streets asking, “are you Karan or Kumbhakaran?” But no MP thought of expressing such an idea in the Lok Sabha.

Surely we can do better? From what we know of them, our politicians have less reason than most to take themselves seriously. But perhaps it is I who am uninformed; maybe there are examples of great Indian political humour that I have overlooked. If so, I would be happy to be enlightened. Readers are welcome to send me examples, care of this newspaper. I will gladly reproduce the best ones — if there are any -in a future column.

Source: Indian Express