As a comedian, one question I’m often asked is, “In a sensitive country like India don’t you feel scared about making jokes on politicians?”
I then recall a conversation I had with comedian Raju Srivastava. He had two intriguing anecdotes to recount.
The first was about him performing at an event that had three local politicians sitting in the front row. As a matter of comedic convention, he proceeded to pick on two of the three. While the audience was in splits, the politician who Raju didn’t pick on was annoyed. In a massive public event, to not be picked on in the same vein as his contemporaries led to, in his mind, his status being diminished.
The second story was about him making a joke about a famous godman. One of the godman’s assistants heard the joke and demanded a public apology. But on meeting the godman, Raju realised that he (the godman) was not offended. Instead, he received an offer to make jokes about the godman on stage in exchange for cash.
It is under the light of this tenuous relationship between Indian satirists and society that one must look at what I call 'The conspiracy of the Modi plans website'.
In case you missed it, a website titled narendramodiplans.com sprung up a few days ago and offered visitors a detailed response by Modi on subjects such as the 2002 Gujarat riots – visitors just had to click a button. When they attempted to click, though, the said button kept moving away such that one would be unable to actually ever get a response.
Ripped off from romneytaxplan.com, it was a smart way of satirising Modi’s evasiveness. It also acted as a counter to rahulgandhiachievements.com.
Soon thereafter, the anonymous site administrator left a message ruing the state of free speech, finding it difficult to criticise anyone but the Congress and took the site down.
Whether it was an individual who felt threatened by Modi’s infamous online army or a Congress conspiracy to defame Modi is immaterial. What does matter is the disclaimer beneath romneytaxplan.com: “Paid for by the Democratic National Committee”.
It is a healthy sign for any democracy when political parties identify and use satire as a political tool. What is satire if not political? Instead, the culture we’ve bred is now dominated by fear. The fear of offending the State, the fear of offending a sensitive motley crew of moral police or the fear of offending Arindam Chaudhuri’s trigger-happy lawyers in Silchar.
Small wonder then that when a Tumblr of Sharad Pawar Doing Things followed up Pratibha Patil Doing Things, the first thing one saw was a disclaimer with the creator explicitly stating that the goal was not to offend anyone.
With a regulatory mechanism kept deliberately ambiguous, especially of the Internet, the State psychologically takes away a citizen’s right to offend. The only website left that allows for any satire then remains the IRCTC.
The question India needs to answer is: What place does it see for satirists within the social order? My personal experience has been that we like our comedians to be like Johnny Lever in the 90s’ Bollywood films, i.e. appear in shorts bursts for comic relief without really being relevant to the larger narrative. As soon as a comic transgresses this role, the attempt is to slot that individual back into the ‘Johnny Lever mode’.
At the same time, when someone like Raju Srivastava becomes relevant enough to influence people’s perceptions, one sees a rupture and the comedian’s social contract, if you will, is renegotiated. Within this mess lie common citizens, just trying to express themselves on whatever platforms they have available, dodging intimidation and threats for the sake of laughs.
It is within this context that someone makes a video of Manmohan Singham, half frustrated with the state of governance and half naively hoping that it will embarrass the powers that be into action. It is why both narendramodiplans.com and rahulgandhiachievements.com are important – they give form to people’s biggest insecurities about two potential prime ministers.
While I don’t see India moving anywhere near something like the White House Correspondents' Dinner, maybe it would bode well for our politicians to see how satire can be used to influence people’s perceptions.
I’m sure they can do better than two schoolboys calling each other pappu and feku as if little Arvind stole their tiffin. If political parties clearly state their intent like one sees under romneytaxplan.com, it wouldn’t make anyone who chooses to satirise a hero. The ability to do that and more in a democracy should be expected, not deemed an achievement.
We’ve done fairly well with puppets on NDTV, Cyrus Broacha on CNN-IBN and the countless number of news parody websites on the Internet. Maybe it's time the Parliament gave us something better than Lalu.
Gursimranjeet Khamba is a writer, comic and the co-founder of All India Bakchod. Follow him at https://twitter.com/gkhamba
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