humour in Politics

The Hindu
Online edition of India's National NewspaperSunday, July 22, 2001

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Humour in politics
IT is, of course, never seemly for a columnist to say, "I told you so". But I trust regular readers will recall my assertion in a May column that, as far as political humour is concerned, our national cupboard is bare. The Indian nationalist leaders and the politicians who followed them were in general, I suggested, a pretty humourless lot. Arguing that from what we know of them, our politicians have less reason than most to take themselves seriously, I conceded that "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."
The response - a dozen letters and postcards, half a dozen emails - can hardly be described as overwhelming, but since I had offered to reproduce the best ones in a future column, I am glad to keep faith with the readers who have written in and do just that today. But I must warn you that I am obliged to conclude that my basic thesis still stands.
Dr. K.E. Eapen of Bangalore recalls that former Prime Minister V. P. Singh once entered Parliament without his usual fur cap (no doubt during the brief period when Maneka Gandhi had persuaded him that it symbolised cruelty to animals). Questioned about this by an opposition member, the former PM shot back, "what is important is not the cap but what is under it."
Dr. Eapen also recalls V. K. Krishna Menon's riposte when upbraided for his Ambassadorial Rolls-Royce in London: "I can scarcely hire a bullock-cart to call on 10 Downing Street." The sharp-tongued Krishna Menon is a particular favourite of Malayali readers. Advocate P.S. Leelakrishnan of Quilandy in Kerala reminds me of Menon's cutting comment when American arms aid to Pakistan was described as not being directed at India: "I am yet to come across a vegetarian tiger."
Speaking of Krishna Menon, my late father, Chandran Tharoor, who knew him well in London, often used to recall the acerbic nationalist's retort when complimented by a well-meaning Englishwoman on the quality of his English. "My English, Madam," he said to the hapless lady, Brigid Brophy, "is better than yours. You merely picked it up: I learned it."
Getting back to Parliamentary humour, V. Ramachandran of Kancheepuram offers a line whose author he cannot recall. During a debate on the Indian automobile industry, an Opposition member declared, "The only part of an Indian car which does not make a noise is the horn." Full marks for wit but not, I believe (given the deafening klaxons that were always an integral part of Indian traffic jams) for accuracy.
Mr. Leelakrishnan also justly upbraids me for omitting Sarojini Naidu from my earlier column. Her classic comment about the Mahtama's frugal lifestyle and his army of aides - "if only he knew how much it costs us to keep him in poverty" - is of course one of the great one-liners of the nationalist movement. Mr. Leelakrishnan also ascribes to her a crack about Sardar Patel: "the only culture he knows is agriculture". I had heard the line before, but was unaware it had been spoken in a political context, nor indeed that the Sardar was its intended victim.
In my column, I had asked for the Indian equivalents of the great political wisecracks of other democracies, recalling some instances of the savagely cutting humour that punctuates the British parliamentary tradition. Again it is Mr. Leelakrishnan who offers me the only example worth citing.
When Panampilly Govinda Menon was Chief Minister of Travancore- Cochin (the forerunner of Kerala State) in the early 1950s, he pointed to the Chief Minister's chair in the Assembly and told the ambitious leader of the Opposition, T. V. Thomas: "for you to sit in this chair you will have to be reborn as a bug".
To the remaining readers who have written in, my thanks but (as Groucho Marx used to say) no cigar. What is funny is, of course, a subjective matter, but V.R. Krishna Iyer calling Pattom Thanu Pillai in 1957 "the dying Fuhrer of a sinking party" is mere invective, not humour. As perhaps the last surviving fan of the Swatantra party, I regret to say that I did not find funny the great Rajaji's declaration - also cited by a reader - that the only difference between China and Russia was about whether to eat the rest of the world as chutney or as sambar.
In the interests of fairness, I should also confess a couple of my own omissions. In expressing my admiration for the extraordinary intellect of Jawaharlal Nehru, I had written: "but dig deep into his writings and speeches and you would be hard pressed to come up with a good joke". Jokes there may not be, but Panditji uttered one classic epigram that I should certainly not have overlooked. Reacting with undisguised culture-shock to his discovery of America after a trip there in 1949, Nehru said: "one should never visit America for the first time". I may also have been unduly dismissive of Indira Gandhi in finding only one witty line to quote from her entire career. Recent events in Agra reminded me of another, her answer to an American journalist in 1971 about why she had refused to meet with Pakistan's General Yahya Khan: "you cannot shake hands with a clenched fist". Both these remarks have the merit of provoking thought beyond the immediate reaction to their cleverness.
But neither, alas, was typical. In his shoddy "Reminiscences of the Nehru Age," the former secretary to our first Prime Minister, M.O. Mathai, cited only one remark of either father or daughter that he found witty. When Nehru and Indira expressed astonishment that Mathai had slept so soundly after the death of his mother, he apparently replied, "that shows I have a clear conscience". To which Indira retorted, "it can also mean that you have none". Sharp enough, but hardly an example of great wit.
If this is the best that the diligent readers of The Hindu can come up with, I rest my case: as far as political humour goes, our national cupboard is indeed bare. I am afraid I told you so.
Shashi Tharoor's new novel, Riot, will be published by Viking on Aug 13. Visit him at
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