Ask Mint | Wanted: wit, humour in political debate

Ask Mint | Wanted: wit, humour in political debate
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First Published: Sun, May 10 2009. 10 13 PM IST

Updated: Sun, May 10 2009. 10 13 PM IST
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse...the battle was lost.” This well-known nursery rhyme tells us that shoes can change the fortunes of a battle. Shoes are in the news today in the context of a different type of battle, the battle of the ballot.
The sequence of shoe-throwing started in Iraq in December. A media person aimed a shoe at then US president George Bush. Bush ducked and dodged the shoe. From there, the “let my shoe speak my mind” show has spread to India. In the weeks preceding India’s grand election, protesters have hurled shoes at the Prime Minister, the chief minister of a state and electoral aspirants on both sides of the divide.
Throwing a shoe at someone is one way of registering your protest against that person’s views or actions, and often his failure to live up to his promises. But shoes carry several symbolic associations, not all of them derogatory. In the East, removing one’s shoes symbolizes submission and keeping them on symbolizes dominance. Brewer’s dictionary tells us that in England, Scotland and elsewhere, people threw shoes at the bride and bridegroom when they left the bride’s home. This signified the parents’ consent to give up all rights on their daughter.
In October 1960, there was a famous footwear incident on the international stage. In the UN general assembly, Nikita Khrushchev was listening to the Filipino delegate Lorenzo Sumulong, who said Russia had no right to decry colonialism after swallowing the whole of East Europe. In a fit of fury, Khrushchev took off his shoe and started banging the table with it. He called Sumulong “a jerk, a stooge and a lackey of imperialism”.
I have not come across any report of a flying shoe in Parliament. But other missiles have been flung: tables, chairs, microphones and parliamentary documents. On the slightest provocation, members rush into the well of the House and stop short of coming to blows. Often, the speaker adjourns the House as no business can be transacted in the prevailing chaos.
The frequency of hate speeches in public rallies has been increasing. Many politicians have been facing court action for inflammatory speeches that could lead to violence. Even the less venomous speeches are disappointing. The budhiya (old woman) and gudiya (doll) jokes that we have been hearing appear flippant and puerile. So do the jokes about jadoo ki jhappi (magical hug) and pappi (kiss) targeted at Mayawati.
The antidote to such indecorous behaviour in Parliament and outside is humour. Senior leaders from every shade of the political spectrum have lamented the absence of parliamentary etiquette among the members. Bharatiya Janata Party leader V.K. Malhotra said good humour can only emerge in a cordial political atmosphere inside the House. Pranab Mukherjee of the Congress deplored the deteriorating standard of discussion in Parliament. He said to reporters, “There is a lot of humour in the British Parliament; in the Indian Parliament, there is hardly any humour.”
The mother of parliaments in Westminster, on which the Indian system is modelled, has established a tradition of healthy debate in the House. The barbed attacks do not hurt because they are often born out of mischief rather than malice. There is bonhomie and a spirit of tolerance even where there is wide difference of opinion.
Winston Churchill is the role model for parliamentarians. Some of his humorous sallies are famous. Once Lady Nancy Astor, annoyed to see Churchill inebriated, said, “Winston, if I were your wife, I would put poison in your coffee.” Churchill replied, “Nancy, if you were my wife, I would drink it.” There is a similar story of Abraham Lincoln’s riposte to an inquisitive diplomat. The latter walked into the president’s office and saw the great man shining his own shoes. He asked, “Mr President, you black your own boots?” “Yes,” said Lincoln. “Whose boots do you black?”
Among the generation of leaders who appeared on the scene after independence, there were many who were nimble of wit and quick in repartee. Subhash Kashyap, a former secretary general of the Lok Sabha, has published a collection of anecdotes that illustrate the humour in parliamentary debates of his time. Here are some examples:
On one occasion, when Acharya Kripalani was criticizing the Congress, a member pointed out to him that his wife Sucheta was with the Congress. Kripalani replied: “So far, I thought Congressmen were fools. Now I know they are gangsters too, running away with other people’s wives.”
There were humorous exchanges outside Parliament, too. Indira Gandhi was asked why she did not want to meet Pakistan’s Yahya Khan. She said, “You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.”
Like Malhotra, Mukherjee and Kashyap, we need to think of reform in Parliament. Humour and wit can help reduce tensions and keep tempers cool. That can lead to constructive debate in a dignified ambience in Parliament. In Kashyap’s words, we need to consider how we can “bring about a renaissance of democratic faith and parliamentary culture”.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, May 10 2009. 10 13 PM IST