There is a famous scene in the Coen brothers’ film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, where Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) is recovering in a hospital after being seriously wounded in a gun fight with the hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in the role of a life time).
A bed-ridden Moss is visited by another hitman, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), who is surprised to find Moss alive after his encounter with Chigurh.
“What’s this guy supposed to be, the ultimate badass?” asks an irritated Moss.
“No, I wouldn’t describe him as that,” says Wells.
“How would you describe him?” Moss wants to know.
Chigurh is a remorseless killer, the most dangerous man imaginable. But Wells doesn’t say any of that. Instead, this is how he describes Chigurh: “I guess I would say he doesn’t have a sense of humour.”
Like lightning that illuminates an entire landscape in a single flash, this one line is all we need to see Chigurh for the kind of man he is. He sounds more terrifying in this sentence spoken by a fictional character than in all those other scenes where he actually goes around killing people. And we find it chilling precisely because McCarthy here hints at the Chigurh lurking in each one of us, waiting to be summoned by the right cause, the right ideology, or the right man on a white horse.
Narendra Modi is scary for the same reason that Chigurh is scary: on publicly available evidence, he does not have a sense of humour. And neither do his legion of fans, who are less his fans than aspirational clones, as attested by the popularity of the Modi mask.
As Sandipan Deb observed in an article here, No one jokes about Narendra Modi. In the whole vast limitless universe of the World Wide Web, there is not a single joke about Modi—at least none that are searchable. But there are tons of gags about Rahul Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi; entire websites and facebook pages dedicated to having a laugh at their expense. Is it because the latter three are inherently funny people while there is nothing at all funny about Modi? Or is it that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who worship Modi, and those afraid to joke about him?
Humour, like some chemical elements do when brought near a white flame, acquires a strange new property when brought into the force field of power: it turns subversive. If you’re not living in an oppressive or totalitarian state, humour flows freely around the nodes of power and public discourse retains its civility under pressure. The moment the weight of power falls heavily upon those governed by it, humour disappears. And when it reappears, as it eventually will, it does so as a weapon that punctures the self-righteous piety which envelops power; it deflates the puffed-up sanctimoniousness that tyranny wears to shield itself from being interrogated by the kind of free and fearless speech that makes any democracy worthy of being called one.
Therefore, a sense of humour, defined as a willingness to laugh at oneself, is a fundamental value in a democracy and a non-negotiable quality for anyone who would aspire to a leadership position in politics. That people are not comfortable cracking jokes about Modi is a big minus for the PM wannabe. However, it is consistent with his history of bigotry, and fully in keeping with the allegations of his political opponents, who accuse him of possessing a fascist mindset. Indeed, humour does not mix with extremism, and if Modi wants to leave his extremist past behind, he must learn to lighten up—and that doesn’t mean joking about other people. For instance, if only he’d had a sense of humour, he would have done better than to run away from hard questions like he did in his interview with Karan Thapar.
Of course, one can argue that Modi’s public persona of a humourless authoritarian is just an act. But it is that act which wields power and takes decisions as well, and it is the nature of such power to seek control. And because humour cannot be controlled, power hates it. To take a recent example, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, another humourless authoritarian, arrested a Jadavpur University professor last year just for sharing an email that poked fun at her.
Today, when Modi is only a PM aspirant, and that too notionally, and not officially, his acolytes can barely stand jokes about him. I honestly would like to know if there’s anybody out there who believes that in a scenario where Modi is PM, Modi jokes would be tolerated in public discourse the way Manmohan or Rahul jokes are today. If you are that anybody, let’s see if you can walk your talk by sharing a joke about Modi (not by him) in the Comment section below.
Modi and his followers are too much in love with the image of the grim visionary who will lead India from the chaos of adolescence to the macho-rity of adulthood—obviously, for when you fall in love, you always do so with an image. What distinguishes an authentic individual (more commonly known as a human being) from an image is vulnerability. In so far as Modi is a human being just like the rest of us, just like Rahul Gandhi or Manmohan Singh or even Arnab Goswami, he is vulnerable.
But the hard visage of Modi’s leadership persona has no room for anything as ‘soft’ as vulnerability, which is why he is a dangerous man for democracy. There are no jokes about Modi because Modi is first and foremost an image, and images are too worried about cracking up to crack up themselves. Modi’s India is no country for irreverent men—and that’s no laughing matter.