Prime Minister Narendra Modi conceded in August 2014 “the growing absence of wit and humour in Parliamentary proceedings. The sixteenth Lok Sabha (2014-2019) preferred to quote poetry rather than opting for humorous or witty comments lest the media plays them otherwise. In 1950s and 1960s, when the Indian Parliament was young and had stalwarts like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia, Piloo Mody and others, they were able to handle bitter criticism and sharp verbal ammos with ease. PM Modi was the first time MP who became the PM in 2014 wanted more humour in the Parliament. He was speaking at a function in August 2014 at which Arun Jaitley, Dr. Karan Singh and Sharad Yadav were presented the outstanding Parliamentarian awards by the then President Pranab Mukherjee. PM Modi said: “Humour and wit are gradually fading away from Parliamentary proceedings as members are apprehensive as to what colour the 24x7 media would give to even one proverb they utter.” He did refer a barb by Sushma Swaraj on Sharad Pawar dubbing him as Lalita Pawar (veteran actress known for her negative roles) some two decades back which was enjoyed by the NCP Supremo Sharad Pawar and media hardly mentioned it.
The Indian Parliament, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha plus the President of India, has got incidents of humour and wit on the official websites and there are special publications on the humour and wit in both the Houses edited by the Secretary General also. Of course, though the 16 th Lok Sabha would be considered most poetic in Indian Parliament’s history, the debates were full of humour and wit. Even in good old days, Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel tried to pull each other’s leg and preferred to remain lighter. Both had puckish sense of humour even while they were in Yerwada jail, Pune. Unfortunately, their political heirs did not inherited it much.
Once the Mahatma was asked what he thought of western civilization. He replied, “It would be a good idea.” Upbraided for going to Buckingham Palace in his loincloth for an audience with the King-Emperor, Gandhiji retorted, “His Majesty had on enough cloths for the two of us.” In the book “The Elephant, the Tiger & the Cellphone: Reflections on India in the 21 st Century”, Shashi Tharoor,MP has devoted one full chapter on the archives for Indian political wit : “Whie researching my doctoral dissertation on her (Indira Gandhi’s) foreign policy, I read practically everything she ever said between 1966 and 1977. I can honestly say that I come across only one line that was remotely witty. In India she remarked once, “our private enterprise is usually more private than enterprising.” But from what one knows of the lady, the comment had probably been scripted for her. Sharp, if not particularly amusing, was her answer to an American journalist in 1971 about why she had refused to meet with Pakistan’s General Yahya Khan: “You cannot shake bands with a clenched fist.” Both these remarks have the merit of provoking thought beyond the immediate reaction to their cleverness. Tharoor brands Raj Narayan who defeated PM Indira Gandhi as one among the “political buffoons” but prefers to quote Piloo Mody who promptly pinned an “I am CIA Agent” button on his pet poodle. P. Upendra, TDP MP, was briefly a leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. On one occasion when Rajiv Gandhi appeared in the Lok Sabha on his return from yet another foreign trip, Upendra ceremoniously began a speech by saying, “I would like to welcome the Prime Minister on one of his rare visits to New Delhi.”
On 4 May 2012, when Tathagat Satpathy was participating in the discussion on Indian Economic Council Management Bill, 2012, the Chairman interrupted him by saying, “You speak, but you have to be short” and Satpathy was prompt to say: “Sir, I am very short. I would like to be actually six feet and two inches, but I am very short!” The whole House burst into laughter. In January 2018, when the Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge told Speaker Sumitra Mahajan in chaste Hindi that his motion for adjournment has been turned down, Mahajan responded quickly saying the motion had been rejected. “That’s what I said in Hindi.I know a little bit of Hindi,” Kharge said. Mahajan answered, “Your Hindi is better than mine. May be there is a problem with my hearing, and it’s all because of you (as you are always protesting loudly).”
Kharge shot back loudly, “I will recommend you to a good doctor.” On hearing this, there was laughter all around. There was another incident when during the Zero Hour, the Speaker called out the name of the MP from Manipur, Dr. Thokchom Meinya. He was present in the House, but as there was pandemonium in the House, he could not hear and later responded that he was present there and be allowed to speak. Mahajan said she had already called his name twice, but he did not hear. Meinya responded, “Madam, it is bit difficult for me to follow you in Hindi. I am sorry.”
Mahajan replied, “I only called your name. I did not say anything else. What is it about Hindi and English? Is your name different in English?” Pranabda may have many incidents proving himself Birbal in the Parliament. One such is recorded regarding “instant coffee”. On 14 July 2009, during the ‘Zero Hour’, an agitated Member, Arjun Charan Sethi raised a matter regarding damages caused by floods in the State of Odisha in 2007-2008, and he wanted immediate response from the Hon’ble Finance Minister, Mukherjee who was present inside the House. The Speaker Meira Kumar said that She could not compel the Minister to respond. When the Member persisted, Pranabda stood up and said, “I cannot react or respond instantly like instant coffee during the ‘Zero Hour’ without ascertaining the facts, and the whole House enjoyed the witty remark.
On another occasion, on 24 July 2009, while initiating the debate on Finance Bill,2009, Jashwant Singh who was also former Finance Minister told the FM Mukherjee, “I speak from personal experience, I lost my hair when I had experienced this”, the FM was quick to respond: “I have already lost”, the House burst into laughter. These days not only the treasury benches but even the Opposition is also missing leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee who kept everybody in good humour by his poetic and witty language.
Of course, one has to accept the reality that was expressed by PM Modi in just four months of his joining the Lok Sabha.
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(The writer is a Socio-political Historian. E-mail: [email protected] )