Has satire come of age in Indian politics?

New book pokes fun at politicians as verbal bouts dominate India parliamentary elections

Nadine Cheaib/ Al-Jazeera

India’s mammoth parliamentary election has provided plenty of material for satirists and comedians as political shenanigans evolved during the more than a month of high-pitch political campaigning.

The book Unreal Elections, a satire on Indian politics, explores the funnier side of politics amid the cacophony of heated debates. And people are already lapping it up.

Authors CS Krishna and Karthik Laxman, founders of the popular Indian parody website,TheUnRealTimes.com, infuse every chapter with tongue-in-cheek comedy.

In the book, they pose questions like, “Why is NarendraModi’s favourite movie The Lion King?”, “How Sonia Gandhi reshuffles her cabinet with a little help from Britney Spears?” and “Why Arvind Kejriwal cannot get rid of his shawl in the New Delhi summer?”

In an interview, Karthik and Laxman offer their take on humour which, if done right, they say, has the ability to take the edge off political discourse.

Q: Why use comedy to discuss elections, and what role does it play in the political landscape?

Karthik Laxman: Because it’s fun! It makes politics a lot more colourful. A 400-word tongue-in-cheek article is sometimes a lot more readable than a 1,000-word opinion piece – and if written well, could be read by a lot more people. Sometimes satire can make a better point, can bring out the ridiculousness of a situation in a much better way through creative analogies.

Humour ought to be mainstreamed in politics. There seems to be a lot more humour in US presidential elections than here, for instance. People here tend to take things and themselves a little too seriously sometimes. For instance, sarcastic barbs by Narendra Modi often receive a very acerbic response from their political opponents. His frequent use of the term “Shahzada” for Rahul Gandhi, is quite funny (besides being a brilliant tactic), but instead of calibrating a tongue-in-cheek response, the Congress party leaders have taken offence to it and responded in a different tone altogether. 

Q: Do you compare yourselves to other satirists, foreign or historical? 

Laxman: Not consciously. No doubt our style of writing may have been influenced by whatever we might have read. But the bulk of our work is pretty fresh. Some of the formats we do – fake news format for instance – has been done by other satire portals, The Onion for instance. Several others are fresh and have been mainstreamed by us, like The Fake Facebook Wall conversation format.

Q: Do you see yourselves as part of an indigenous tradition of some sort?

Laxman: Yes, we think so. We are one of the two big satire portals in India currently. Our book is pioneering in many ways. It is bold enough to use real names in a fictional context for example. It also pushes the boundaries of satire and humour, as does the website, every day. Hopefully we’re making satire more tolerable in politics, which will rub off on our leaders and humour will become very much part of the tradition in Indian politics going forward. Or maybe a professor of political history in the future will read passages from Unreal Elections to bring out nuances of politics in the period 2009-2014.

Q: Who do you mostly enjoy poking fun at and are all issues fair game?

Laxman: All personalities are fair game. Almost all issues are fair game. We don’t touch religion and God(s). We don’t touch traumatic events either. Our brand of satire has a strong streak of irreverence so we mostly take only those topics that lend themselves to this.

Q: Has any politician reacted to your book, website, and your overall political satire?

Laxman: Some politicians follow us on Twitter: Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley, Baijayant Panda (Biju Janata Dal), Meera Sanyal (AAP), Subramanian Swamy (BJP), the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) official handle. So we presume some of these chaps do come across stuff we write and even read them.

We don’t know yet if anyone’s read the book yet, as everyone’s sure to be extremely busy with electioneering right now, but some of them have come across our articles. For instance, Union Minister Jairam Ramesh once came across this article where we made fun of his hairstyle and said that it resembles Indira Gandhi’s hairstyle and that the Congress party took offence to it. A news house reported that Jairam Ramesh himself had a laugh over this article and emailed it to his friends, presumably to prove that politicians can take a joke.

Journalist Swapan Das Gupta once told us that he and Arun Jaitley had a good laugh over one of the articles  during the peak of this controversy.

Narendra Modi has occasionally used barbs at his political opponents that were very similar to some of our hit articles. For instance, he once said that Manmohan Singh should get an Oscar for acting as India’s prime minister which permeated into public consciousness through our article.  

At another occasion, he called him Manmohan Singham, which again was coined by us.

A lot of journalists follow us (Barkha Dutt of NDTV, Rahul Kanwal and Shiv Aroor of Headlines Today, Padmaja Joshi of Times Now, Pritish Nandy and several other folks). They occasionally share our pieces as well.

Q: If you were to select a fantasy dream team, would Modi-Rahul-Kejriwal play on the same side? Describe the scenario. 

Laxman: Ha ha, that would be funny indeed if some politicians were wrecked on an island, and were forced to put up with each other in order to survive.

I can imagine Modi-Rahul-Kejriwal trying to share cooking something in the Big Boss house – Rahul would probably insist on eating daal chawal, while Kejriwal would go on a hunger fast protesting something. Modi meanwhile would insist on raw materials from Gujarat and boast about his cooking prowess. Perhaps we’ll do something on this in the coming days.

Q: Are some politicians too boring or clean cut to make fun of?

Laxman: So far we’ve been able to find angles for almost all the popular politicians. Even the supposedly clean Dr Manmohan Singh, before he became a little dirty because of his negligence to the scams under his nose, offered a lot of scope for nerdy humour, as he’s this super duper educated dude. His subservience to party president Sonia Gandhi and his tendency to speak very little, and practically remain silent, have given us countless opportunities to make fun of him. But yes, some politicians offer a lot more angles than some others.

: Many have compared the scale of India elections to a Bollywood movie, known for long and drawn out narratives, elaborate song-and-dance-sequences with colourful characters and melodrama. Is that a fair comparison? 

CS Krishna: Our book alludes to this indirectly. Elections certainly are a spectacle, and probably even a bigger source of entertainment in many parts of rural India than even Bollywood. Right now, politics is on everyone’s mind, and both cricket and showbiz have taken a backseat. The political theatre with its over the top rhetoric, grandstanding, and as you aptly put it, cast of colourful characters, is the biggest extravaganza out there. Political rallies by national leaders are comparable in scale to cricket matches or concerts. Lakhs are mobilised from far flung areas, and before the main leader speaks, people from showbiz also add colour to the proceedings. The rallies are broadcast live and streamed over the Internet. In the evening, news anchors stage cockfights over the most tantalising sound bites of the day. It has all the makings of one giant reality show. 

Q: Do you sense that people are hungry for this kind of humour?

Krishna: Definitely, there is an appetite for this kind of humour. The steep growth of The Unreal Times andFaking News, and the popularity of The Viral Fever bear testimony to this. Satire is thriving in India. The nature of the satire is also in many ways a function of the direction in which the country is heading. Satire in authoritarian countries tends to be more subversive and indirect but with an edge. India is more open and liberal so satire here doesn’t have the same edge or darkness that characterises satire coming out of, say, Pakistan.

Q: Is there a greater appetite for political satire now than five years ago in the last election?

Krishna: Satire has always been there. Now with the advent of social media, it’s easier to generate humour and reach out to larger audiences. That has made people more receptive to humour and has also rubbed off on politicians, many of whom frequently share content that even takes gentle digs at them. 

Now what’s changed is that social media provides more mechanisms for people to interact with each other and their leaders. This enriches the public discourse in many ways, with humour and satire also gaining in salience. 

So that’s the key difference between elections in 2009 and 2014. In 2019, the top contenders may well slug it out for whose tweets are wittier and get shared more.


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