Narendra Modi is a funny man. In stark contrast to his often icy demeanour in TV interviews, his rally speeches are peppered with jokes, jibes, and folksy word plays. Take, for instance, his recent joke about the minister who tells his driver that he plans to drive the car today. To which the horrified driver replies, "Mantriji, yeh car hai, sarkar nahin, jo koi bhi chalale!"
Humour is an invaluable weapon in the theatre of politics. The politician comes across as good-humoured and self-assured while reducing his rival to the lowly butt of a funny joke -- that is sure to be repeated over and again. When asked about Sonia Gandhi's "Maut ka saudagar" remark on a talk show, instead of bristling with indignation, Modi slyly suggested that Sonia Behn may have inadvertently used the wrong word. "Unki matrabhasha Italian hai. Uske karan woh shayad shabdon ko samajh nahin payi. Haqeeqat mein to tha 'Mat ke saudagar.' Woh bechari bol gayi, 'maut ke saudagar'"
Funny works for Modi, even more so given the paucity of humour in top echelons of the Congress Party. Manmohan Singh and Sonia rarely crack a smile, leave alone a joke. When Rahul Gandhi does exercise his wit — as he did during the Cabinet reshuffle announcement, saying he was there to meet his "imprints" — it usually falls flat. Rahul is indeed the source of great hilarity, but not of the flattering kind. His birthday this year spawned its own twitter hashtag, #YoRahulSoDumb.
All this to say, Modi the comedian can be every bit as effective as his Vikas Purush avatar— but also more dangerous.
Humour is like thin ice for a politician. It's tempting in the hyped up atmosphere of a rally, surrounded adoring supporters, to take that one step too far. One ill-considered crack can lose the election, as George Allen of "macaca" fame can testify. Humour can just as easily make a candidate look petty, crude, or bigoted.
Modi's most recent comments are not racist a la George Allen, but they tread in dangerous territory.
The "Maun Mohan Singh" crack is the milder of the two one-liners making headlines. At first glance, it's fairly inoffensive in comparison to the kind of invective routinely directed at our hapless Prime Minister in recent months. But it marks a departure for Modi who has always been pointedly respectful when referring to the leaders of the current government. It's always "Pradhan Mantriji" or "Sonia Behn". At his most derisive, he refers to the Gandhi troika — Sonia, Rahul, and Priyanka— as "SRP."
There's a good reason for this caution. Exaggerated deference often oils the dagger as it slips into your opponent, as Mark Antony knew all too well when he damned that "honourable man" Brutus. Outright name-calling, on the other hand, makes Modi seem disrespectful— not just to Manmohan Singh, but to the office of the Prime Minister. Worse, Modi sounds like a schoolboy making up rude nicknames for his teachers. Neither enhances his stature as a politician, especially as one who aims to occupy that very office.
If he straddled the line with the Man Maun Singh silliness, he jumped right over when he described Sunanda as Shashi Tharoor's "Rs 50 crore girlfriend."
The joke is unnecessary and repugnant. It may make his most rabid fans happy, but it leaves a bad taste in the mouth of just about everyone else. Making unsavoury innuendos about someone's wife makes Modi look rude and crude — and certainly not prime minister material.
In a free country, the average citizen has the right to speak ill of public figures, and the level of political discourse online reflects that freedom. But the aam aadmi is also not running for election. When it comes to public discourse, higher the office, higher the required standard.
The art of political rhetoric lies in aiming below the belt while seeming above the fray. It's foolish to get your hands dirty as you drag your opponent through the mud. Modi is certainly no fool. And there's no reason for him to act like one.