Not funny – jokes Indian politicians crack

March 27, 2014

(Any opinions expressed here are not those of Thomson Reuters)

Politicians facing outrage over their comments often say that they didn’t mean what they said to come out that way. Lately in India, they say they were joking.

One of the latest was Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, whose self-confessed attempt at a joke earned him the ire of the Election Commission of India just before the beginning of this year’s elections that could boot the Congress out of power. Addressing a community of labourers in Maharashtra last week, the chief of the Nationalist Congress Party urged listeners to vote twice for his party – and told them how to do it.

“This time, Election in Satara is on 17 and as per my information election here is on 24. So cast your vote on ‘clock’ (party symbol) there and cast your vote on ‘clock’ here. Wipe the ink,” he said, referring to the indelible ink to mark the fingers of people who have voted, noting that people should be able to remove it.

For those unfamiliar with how it works, the ink blot is supposed to make sure that people don’t con election officials into allowing them to vote more than once.

When the statement led to a media uproar, Pawar said he was joking. Political commentator Manisha Priyam called it a judgment error. “It is the politicians who belittle the act of voter rights and citizens’ power who [make] statements of this kind. You don’t crack that joke,” said Priyam, a senior lecturer at Delhi University.

His political opponents didn’t laugh either. “Many things are said in humour but not those things that violate model code of conduct,” said Anurag Thakur, youth leader of the Congress party’s main opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Pawar didn’t rely on the joke excuse for long. Later, he told the Election Commission that his statement was misinterpreted.

This is not the first time that an Indian politician’s attempt at wit has fallen flat. In another recent case, Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal’s attempt at irony backfired when he called himself an anarchist earlier this year, and senior AAP member Yogendra Yadav told Reuters, “I don’t know how the media managed to miss the very pronounced irony with which he said it… If you miss irony and turn it into a flat statement, anyone in the world would be misunderstood.”

It’s not hard to see how the media might have missed it. Indian media outlets have written plenty of essays wondering whether outrage at jokes or comically insensitive remarks and the inability to take a joke are features of Indian society. (American comedian Jay Leno’s joke about the Golden Temple being U.S. presidential contender Mitt Romney’s summer home and several other examples here suggest that they are.) Indian comics as you might expect say that Indians are too sensitive when it comes to joking.

That’s not to say that crude humour doesn’t get a laugh, particularly if it’s at the expense of women. Sriprakash Jaiswal, coal minister in the Congress government, had this to say at a poet’s meeting in 2012: “New victory and new wedding, both of them have their own importance. As time will pass, the victory will become old. As time passes, wife also becomes old, that charm does not sustain”.

Human Resource minister Shashi Tharoor said he is careful about attempts at humour given the Indian news media’s 24-7 scrutiny of every word that politicians say and its tendency to label every act or word as “breaking news.” Tharoor was a target of wide criticism in 2009 when he tweeted that he would travel “cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!”

Senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh threatened to sue the TV channels that showed him calling a female colleague “sau taka tunch maal” – a colloquial reference to a woman as 100 percent pure commodity. Whether he meant it as a joke is unclear, but the audience whom he was addressing laughed.

Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit, the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, dropped this one on an audience recently:  “I have also come to know that since there is a shortage of electricity in Maharashtra, the population is increasing. (laughter from audience) All of you must be thinking that I have taken liquor in the day itself.” This is the same speech in which he said: “There is this person from Solapur, on a hunger strike for 55 days demanding that water be released from the [Ujani] dam. But where are we going to get water from? Should we urinate? And how will we do that when there is no water to drink?”

Then there was the sarcastic one-liner by anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare. When reporters told him in 2011 that someone slapped Sharad Pawar, he asked in Hindi: “ek hi maara?” (“He hit him only once?”)

Such a reaction to comedy is a bit of a tragedy, judging by how Tharoor sees it. He said politicians must be careful to abide by basic standards of decorum, “but we should have the sense to see that a joke, however weak it may be, is a joke.”

(Additional reporting by Amit Ganguly; Editing by Robert MacMillan; Follow Robert on Twitter @bobbymacreports, Shashank @shashankchouhan and Amit @leosamit| This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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