Fair game: Politicians need to laugh at themselves

Humour is subversive. The more authoritarian the state, the more citizens will make fun of it. From medieval England to Humour is subversive. The more authoritarian the state, the more citizens will make fun of it. From medieval England to fascist Italy, from totalitarian Serbia to junta-ruled Myanmarfascist Italy, from totalitarian Serbia to junta-ruled Myanmar, the oppressed survived by poking fun at their oppressors. The jokes lived on; the rulers did not.

More recently, during the Arab Spring, humour ruled the tweets and streets. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak fell to a volley of rapid-fire jokes. A cautionary tale for West Bengal chief minister Mamata Bannerjee, who has not seen the last of the memes, cartoons, and limericks celebrating her many quirks.

Why did ‘Didi’ take objection to the morphed picture of her in a Met-Gala gown and not to other cartoons, for instance, the one portraying her as Hitler, toothbrush moustache and all? The answer may be found in an unlikely place: the iconic Harry Potter series.

Of all the scary creatures in J K Rowling’s magical world, the scariest is the boggart, a formless being that takes the shape of the thing its victim fears most. To banish the boggart, one must make it a figure of fun. Laughter dispels fear and destroys the boggart’s power. Rowling’s metaphor is expressed in the incantation “Riddikulus!” by imagining the frightfully powerful as ridiculous paper tigers, we find the courage to overcome our fear of them.

That is the cartoonist’s job description. Through caricatures, he makes the powerful appear non-threatening and laughable. In so doing, he dispells fear and undermines their power. Mamata as Hitler is still scary, but as a Met-Gala diva, she is just plain ridiculous. That is unacceptable because like all authoritarian leaders, she must shock and awe potential challengers into submission.

In recent years, we have been treated to endless ‘NaMo’ and ‘Pappu’ jokes. Mayawati and Amit Shah, too, are favourite targets for gagsters. Stand-up comics have mercilessly pilloried the political class as a whole and the incumbent regime in particular. It is understood that public figures, particularly politicians, are fair game. A nation in which communities laugh at themselves – no one loves a good Sardar joke more than a Sardar – is allowed to laugh at its leaders. Great satirists, like the late Sharad Joshi, have done so with aplomb.

That the Mamata matter went all the way up to the Supreme Court (after the offending meme-artist was arrested by the West Bengal police for ‘defamation’) is a joke in itself. While the litigious Didi may be impatient of funny business, the legal community is perfectly capable of laughing at itself.

Jokes celebrating the stereotypical lawyer’s avarice, cunning, self-interest and economy with the truth abound on the internet and in the apex court’s canteen. A humourless judge might find grounds for contempt in this gem: “What’s the difference between a good lawyer and a great lawyer? A good lawyer knows the law, a great lawyer knows the judge!” But no member of the legal profession has seen fit to say “I object, milord!”

Their lordships were less tolerant of the Mamata meme. Like irate schoolteachers, they read the repentant jokester a lecture on the evils of hurting other people’s feelings and told her to write a letter saying ‘sorry’. According to news reports, their lordships calmed down after a bit and decided the erring girl was sufficiently chastened, so they waived the apology. Judging from past experience, the West Bengal CM will doubtless tout the judicial finger-wagging as a ‘victory’.

Not every politician is an ‘old King Cole with a merry old soul’ like former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, but few of them kick up a ruckus over caricatures. Even during the Emergency, cartoonists were permitted to pillory Indira Gandhi. Only the most insecure and deluded of politicians protest when lampooned.

The tradition of untrammeled editorial freedom to cartoonists was jolted in 2012 when Aseem Trivedi was arrested for ‘seditious’ drawings portraying politicians as corrupt. Citizens were not amused and their outrage added to the UPA government’s headaches.

Today, digital technology has expanded the scope for satire many times over. Amateur internet satirists are at their most creative when the chips are down because that is when people need to laugh the most. Social psychologists see humour as a stress release. Laughter can blunt pain, anger, grief and fear. It is the most treasured of human rights and the hardest to take away.

No one likes being mocked, but we all learn to laugh at ourselves. If we don’t laugh at our own foibles, how else do we forgive ourselves for them? Mamata, who once arrested a Jadavpur University professor for forwarding cartoons of her, maybe taking herself a tad too seriously.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines.  She is now an independent writer and author.

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