Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Banana Shake for Mango People


Banana Shake for Mango People


The seasoned wit and raconteur Robert Vadra believes that Indians do
not have a sense of humour. That may or may not be true, but it is
distinctly better than having no sense at all.

Humour is complicated. One man's wit is so easily another's insult.
Folklore, and general conversation, indicate that Indians enjoy  murky
ethnic  jokes  almost as much as they delight in the noble habit  of
laughing at the powerful. How would you rate this sms that raced
around after details about Vadra's triumphant rise as the most famous
real estate dealer in Indian history went  public? Rahul Gandhi
despairingly told his Mummy: 'First CWG, then 2G, then Coal-G. And now
it's Jijaji.' Not bad. That Jijaji has just the nice twang that serves
so well in north Indian chai shop chat.

At this moment, however, Indians are not discussing their own sense of
humour but Robert Vadra's. Politics is a tough sport, not suited to
thin skins. Invective has been part of its unwritten rules ever since
elections evolved into an art form in the fatherland of modern
democracy, America. I just read an op-ed in an American newspaper
which listed the language used in the age of electoral infancy. In
1800, Thomas Jefferson, an architect of the American Constitution and
much quoted for his defence of a free press, was accused of running a
"Congo harem" at his estate. Jefferson did not turn the other cheek,
like a good Christian. His supporters accused his foe, John Adams, of
smuggling British prostitutes for his personal needs. Mark: British!
That is equivalent to charging an Indian politician today of running a
brothel of Pakistani women, or vice versa. The best riposte came in
1884 when Grover Cleveland was charged with fathering an illegitimate
child, inspiring a ditty that followed him on the campaign trail: 'Ma,
Ma, where's my Pa?' Cleveland gave his answer after he had won: 'Gone
to the White House, ha ha ha!'

But it is one thing calling your foe names, and quite another sneering
at the chaps who voted you into office and its luxurious benefits with
a pun, deservedly described as the lowest form of humour. The common
man will  get a bit tetchy about being called a mango married to a
banana republic [in Hindi 'aam' has two means, both common and mango].
This sort of joke turns sour pretty quickly. Nor is it a very good
idea, unless of course you have invested in sarcasm as a profession,
like the bilious Ambrose Bierce who called politics a strife of
interests masquerading as a contest of principles, and a means of
using public affairs for private advantage. Robert Vadra is not only a
distinguished member of India's most powerful political family, but
also nurtures a desire for high office in his own right. The mango and
banana will follow him on any election trail. They also hurt the
prospects of his wife Priyanka Gandhi, who is slated to inherit the
Rae Bareli constituency from her mother, Mrs Sonia Gandhi.

We do not know too much about Mr Vadra's educational qualifications.
He could easily be familiar with geopolitics and the economic history
of Latin America, where exploitation by multinationals through pliant
family dictatorships gave the English language this eloquent
construct, banana republic. Perhaps he is only aware of the colloquial
interpretation, which means  a country run by monkeys who sell
national resources at banana  prices. It is not the wisest metaphor to
use when there is a debate raging in India about what multinationals
might do through foreign direct investment. Someone certainly woke
Vadra up to the dark side of possibilities, for he took those remarks
off his Facebook page pretty quickly. He will not however be able to
efface them from public memory,  not least because his tormentors will
not allow anyone to forget them in a hurry.

Mr Vadra's party, Congress, is trapped in uncertainty. Its spokesmen
first threatened Arvind Kejriwal, who turned the story into a public
fact; and tried to portray Vadra as an innocent who had been wronged
by evil manipulators. They discovered that Kejriwal is immune to fear,
and soon backed his accusations with more documentation. Moreover,
each reaction from a Congress worthy only managed to keep the story
alive on that dreaded oblong box called television.

It took a couple of days for the full implications to sink in. This is
the first time since Bofors in the 1980s when the Gandhi family is
being charged with corruption, and  mud is turning into glue. The
Commonwealth scandal involved Congress leaders, but not at the high
rungs; during telecom, Congress managed to distance itself and direct
blame towards an ally, DMK. Coalgate was harder but the responsibility
went to the government and the Prime Minister. Robert Vadra is family.

The Vadra crisis  has derailed the Congress effort to shift the debate
from corruption to economic reforms. The principal attention is back
on sleaze.

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