Narendra Modi’s jibe at his predecessor that it is only Dr Manmohan Singh who knows the art of taking a bath donning a raincoat has stirred a political storm in Parliament, with the Congress threatening to boycott the proceedings till the remark is retracted and an apology proffered. Modi was alluding to multiple scams that occurred during the UPA tenure and how Singh remained indifferently aloof by the alarming developments around him, still managing to re-emerge with his image intact.
The issue is not easily going to get a quiet burial and it does reflect that humour is not necessarily a part of our political discourse, though there have been numerous occasions when wit, repartee and retorts have featured in the political narrative of the country, though not so much in Parliament. Our fathers of the Constitution were inspired by the British Westminster model, when they opted for the Parliamentary form of democracy and thus must have sincerely hoped that the highest traditions and conventions of debate would be witnessed both in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha as well.
After all, the British are known for their characteristically quintessential kind of humour and there are innumerable instances of heated but memorable exchanges between two great statesmen, both contemporaries, Benjamin Disraeli and William Ewart Gladstone. In fact, there are so many anecdotes featuring these two erudite men with contrasting personalities and divergent backgrounds that continue to be part of the British Parliamentary folklore. In fact, the Disraeli-Gladstone era set the tone for the high quality of debate in British Parliament and though not of the same calibre, succeeding parliamentarians have taken dry digs at each other inspired by the two doyens, both of whom rose to be their country’s Prime Ministers despite representing different parties.
Winston Churchill never concealed his scorn for former Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald whom he once sneeringly described as “sheep in sheep’s clothing”. On another occasion, Churchill referred to him as a “boneless wonder sitting on treasury benches”. This kind of appreciation of humour is yet to evolve in our Parliament, and members, with due respect to them, must learn to take criticism or left handed compliments in stride as long as they are not downright abusive.There are innumerable instances of funny exchanges between our politicians, which are a part of our political collage post Independence. The late Feroze Gandhi was known for his ready repartee and saucy sarcasm. Prior to the elections in Bihar in the late 1950s, there were reports of how Morarji Desai, a Gandhian to the core and the Congress “observer” had made it clear that party nominees had to only don khadi. Such was the extent of his zeal that to ensure that it was khadi all the way, he would insist on the nominees he interviewed to even show him their vests under their kurta to ascertain if that that too was made of the same material. Feroze, who had a rather bland opinion about Morarji, called out to his friend Tarakeshwari Sinha, then an upcoming politician from the state and politely asked her in the presence of many others in the Central Hall whether Morarji was similarly examining the petticoats of women to confirm their khadi fabric. Veterans till this day have a hearty laugh while recalling what came to be known as the “baniyan petticoat joke in the Central Hall”.
Similarly, Piloo Mody, an eminent leader of the Swantantra Party and a strong critic of Indira Gandhi arrived in Parliament one day with a plate around his neck citing that he was “a CIA agent”. This was in response to the former Prime Minister’s paranoia with foreign intelligence agencies attempting to destabilise the government, which was echoed by many of her colleagues including Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma, who headed the Congress at that point of time. The Rajya Sabha chairman asked Mody to remove the plate and he willingly obeyed, while stating that he was no longer a CIA agent. However, a Congress MP, J.C. Jain continued to heckle him. When Mody asked him to stop barking, he complained to the Chair, stating that he had been called a dog. The comment was immediately expunged. At this point Mody told Jain to stop braying. The donkey reference went over his head and therefore the remark continues to be in the records.Atal Behari Vajpayee too had his inimitable style of making light of stuff. On the flight ferrying BJP leaders to Trivandrum (en route to Kanya Kumari) for the commencement of Murli Manohar Joshi’s Ekta Yatra to Srinagar, during which Narendra Modi was the mascot, he declined to accept Vijayaraje Scindia’s invitation to move to the front rows from the second last row, where he was chatting with journalists. He jokingly told her that he preferred to be near a door, because ever since her son Madhavrao Scindia had taken over as the Aviation Minister, he wanted to be near an exit. The jibe was in the wake of a door opening midair on another flight of the Indian Airlines a few days earlier to the one in which Vajpayee was.On a serious note, since Modi’s raincoat barb has not been taken in political stride, he should reveal that Manmohan Singh indeed was shielding the corrupt. Though he keeps referring to the scams, so far no arrest of any major political leader has been made regarding these charges. Otherwise, the scam allegations therefore would also become a laughing matter. Between us.