Gone Missing: Humour In Indian Politics

The space for wit and banter is rapidly shrinking in the Indian political sphere

Atal Behari Vajpayee with Janta Party's Chandrasekhar & Congress' Sukhram in Parliament, 1995

Greek philosopher Aristotle once famously said, “Those who jest with good taste are called witty”. In the political sphere, friendly banter and humour have a long history both in India and around the world. However, this space is rapidly shrinking in the Indian political sphere. The recent incident in parliament pertaining to the Vice President and Rajya Sabha Chairperson Jagdeep Dhankar bears testimony to it.  

At a time when 141 opposition MPs have been suspended for the rest of the winter session due to their alleged ‘misbehaviour’ while demanding a statement from the Union Home Minister Amit Shah on the recent parliament security breach, Dhankar’s mimicry by TMC MP Kalyan Banerjee took over the headlines. Banerjee’s mimicry that was being captured by none other than Rahul Gandhi, irked the VP and he issued a long statement terming it ‘ridiculous’ and ‘shameful’. Senior BJP leaders have also thrown their hats into the ring citing Dhankar’s caste and ‘farmer’ background as the reason for the ‘humiliating act’.  

However, this was not the case earlier. Political opponents used to share friendly relations where nothing was sacrosanct except the parliament and the Constitution. The attacks on the opposition several times became personal but mostly, those were received sportingly.  

Once, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, while attacking Nehru said, “I can prove that the Prime Minister’s grandfather was a chaprasi in the Mughal court.” But none from the treasury bench jumped up and made it a political issue asking how Lohia could call the PM a chaprasi. Rather, Nehru himself responded to it with banter, saying, “I am glad the honourable member has at last accepted what I have been trying to tell him for so many years. That I am a man of the people.” 

Similarly, the former finance minister TT Krishnamachari when called Feroze Gandhi-Nehru’s ‘lapdog’, was nothing but witty. Terming Krishnamachari as the ‘pillar of the nation’, Gandhi said that he would do what a dog is supposed to do to a pillar.  

Yogendra Narain, former secretary-general of the Rajya Sabha in 2003 made a compilation of humourous remarks in the Upper House and rightly named it, ‘Humour in the House: A glimpse into the enlivening moods in the Rajya Sabha’. There are more than 500 such instances that show how political opponents used wit to respond to allegations. A few of them give one context to explore the lighter side of loaded politics.  

During a discussion on the killing of snakes by madaris, Lalu Prasad Yadav asked whether government has a plan for those snakes who are about to take rebirth as per the scriptures! As the house burst into laughter, Murli Manohar Joshi added, “My only submission to you is that none of them should be allowed to come to this House!”  

The banter between Sushma Swaraj and her husband Swaraj Kaushal still resonates in the old parliament building. While delivering a long farewell speech for the departing MP Shabana Azmi, Swaraj said that her husband would miss her the most as she was one of the very few women colleagues who used to sit with her! Kaushal immediately stood up and addressed the chair, “Sir, ye shikayat karne ka forum nahi hai. Is par to ghar par bahut charcha ho chuki hai” (Sir, this is not the forum for making complaints. This topic has been discussed extensively at home).  

While light humour has always been part and parcel of the House, respect for each other has been the pillar of Indian democracy since Independence. The relationship between Nehru and Atal Behari Vajpayee is well-known. On the one hand, Nehru saw a ‘Prime Minister’ in Vajpayee, on the other, Vajpayee compared him with Lord Ram after his death. In his mourning note, Vajpayee said, “Bharat Mata is grief-stricken today. She has lost her favourite prince. Humanity is sad today. It has lost its devotee. Peace is restless today. Its protector is no more. The downtrodden have lost their shelter. The common man has lost the light in his eyes.”  

When Vajpayee became the external affairs minister for the first time, bureaucrats scurried around to remove the signs of Congress leaders from his office. However, Ramchandra Guha points out in one of his books that Vajpayee didn’t take it lightly when he found out that Nehru’s portrait was missing from the wall. He told his secretary, “This is where Panditji's portrait used to be. I remember it from my earlier visits to the room. Where has it gone? I want it back.”  

Once, MPs rushed to the office of former VP and Rajya Sabha Chairperson Krishnan Kant to enquire about his safety after the 2001 parliament attack. Sonia Gandhi, then the leader of the opposition, called up Vajpayee to confirm his safety. However, these are all part of history now. From humour to respect—there is a void—perhaps left to be filled by hatred and uncouth competition.