There are two jokes, broadly speaking, that typify the classes of political humour. The first, of course, is the emperor in his “new clothes” — that is, the ridiculousness of all power, and those that preen with it — and the little boy in the crowd smart and foolish enough to tell truth to it. The second is the man going to work who slips on a banana peel and we all laugh at his pain, his embarrassment. The first, the boy who sees the absurdity in the proud parade of patriotic sentiment and brings it out for the rest of us, is the comedian. The second, far more crass, is to laugh at the tragedy of the sad clown.
Humour, when it is deliberately crafted, relies on exaggeration, even of the darkest themes. Dave Chappelle, for example, when talking about the crack-cocaine epidemic in the US through the 1980 and 1990s, has a disturbing and hilarious set about an aggressive baby suffering withdrawal. Even the laughter that Akshay Kumar elicits in Hera Pheri or Singh is King is based on playing characters that are relatable while still being completely over-the-top.
Since May 2015 — it would appear at first glance — there has been enough and more in Indian politics (remember the PM’s subtly and tastefully emblazoned Republic Day suit?) for the comedians in the crowd to ply and hone their craft. After all, we have had a single-party majority government, a dominant majority, after three decades and a leader who inspires a zeal in his followers that lends itself to the most basic form of humour — absurdity.
And indeed, many careers have been made of the backs of the seemingly ridiculous in Indian politics: Kunal Kamra shot to YouTube celebrity with an incisive take on demonetisation, as did Abijit Ganguly; there’s Sanjay Rajoura and Varun Grover, both of whom have taken the patent absurdity of the “bhakt” and the “offended” and run with it. The symbolism of the cow as mother, an animal long revered, has taken on a realism that can only cause laughter in those, who in their deracinated anti-nationalism, sometimes mistake the collective mater for a docile, economically important quadruped.
Each of these comedians, and so many more, have done an admirable job of making us laugh. But in the guffaws that they so expertly illicit, lies the tale of tragic failure. Through no fault of their own, these masters of political humour find themselves in both the best of times and the worst of times for their trade. There is indeed much to laugh about: A midnight session of Parliament — a ridiculous re-enactment of the “tryst with destiny” — to celebrate a complex way of paying taxes; the constant reference by a top leader to himself in third person; the spokespersons and their friends on tv shouting incessantly and saying nothing; the elevation and celebration of militant yogis and sadhvis (one would have thought this is a contradiction in terms). And demonetisation. There are people worshipping PMs and US presidential candidates, and play-acting at assassinating the father of the nation.
Finally, the election season “interviews”, where each question is a chance to repeat a slogan, or a personal triumph or even to extol with hitherto unseen mastery, the art of the humble-brag. The prime minister is asked about dealing with anger by a movie star, a Canadian citizen dressed in light linen and boat shoes as though ready to make his escape on a yacht should things go ill. The PM, dressed in Nehru jacket (yes, it’s still a Nehru jacket), claims that he has never acted imperiously when in office in Gujarat or Delhi and declaims, at length, about how to win friends, influence people and various other self-help-type cliches. Even the movie star doesn’t have a follow-up question.
Yes, there is indeed much to laugh about, if only as a response from the other side of tragedy. But the question is: Where’s the joke? In the scenario we have found ourselves over the last demi-decade, we can be tickled by the repetition of the (often sad) absurdities mentioned above and more, but there is no exaggeration.
But how does one exaggerate the serious debates on the caste of Hanuman? Or the insistence that a fictional Rajput queen, in a fictional film offends the sentiments of real people? Pray tell, how can you make more ridiculous tales of childhood crocodile wrestling in Gujarat? Or authored guides, turning each nervous child into an Exam Warrior? What can be added to statements by leaders who use an exact count (unsourced) of the condoms and cigarette and bidi butts found at a public university? But then, everyone is a chowkidar.
The near hegemonic presence of the current dispensation and its leaders are so grand in their novelty that they defy the craft of comedy. Yes, the context of the comedy club is different from the political rally or press conference. But in essence, all that seems possible is a repetition of the events and themes of our times, comical as they are, without adding all that much in terms of a joke.
So, if the comedians’ form of humour is impossible, what are we left with? What are people laughing at in the gigantic rallies of the ruling party and sometimes even of the Opposition?
In these scenarios, we appear to be laughing at someone. The jokester, in the vituperative world of the contemporary political conversation, is no longer the boy in the crowd pointing out the emperor’s foolishness. It is the demagogue, saffron-clad, on the pulpit. One who talks of Ramzade and Haramzade, of curses and killing. All those against this formation, including and especially the principal leader of the opposition, are the sad clowns slipping on a banana peel. And with the leader, we laugh at him for being incapable of walking down this treacherous street. The cruelty of this second kind of humour appeals to the worst in us; its joy is the revelry of the mob not the clever revelation of the outsider.
And, in the end, the joke may be on all of us.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 9, 2019, under the title ‘The five-year punchline’.