The Last Laugh

At the risk of being either very popular, or very unpopular, I have to admit, it is a joy watching Modi play the crowd. He has a keen sense of the buttons to press, and which ones are sensitive, and which useless to his game. This goes beyond his spatial awareness, he has the rare quality of emotional spatial awareness, and that too at scale. There are innumerable examples.

Let us take his very finely tuned remark on the ‘cackling’ laughter in parliament. As an impartial outsider, one knows that give and take within parliament across party lines can be very sharp, often hurtful in the most civilised of countries. Or pretentious ones. In other countries, fights are not uncommon. To laugh mockingly, and to repartee is all par for the course. But to do it and hit several goals with just one sentence is an art, and here we see it in its highest form at play.

The context does not matter, since the giving and taking would have happened in any context. What happened was that a seasoned parliamentarian, Renuka Choudhary, currently in opposition, laughed loudly at something the Prime Minister said. When admonished by the chair, she did not need to respond, for the Prime Minister graciously asked the chair to let her continue, as he had not heard such laughter since the Ramayan.

Oh Modiji, when you are good, you are very good.

In one smooth move, he pulled together the entire sweep of the BJP’s successes in the past. Aligned all behind the sacred word Ramayan. Not just that, in a rare stroke for this party and its supporters, he cracked an in joke! This was the remit of left-liberal-intellectuals, and look, how he showed them that he could play them at their own game. One needed to know the Ramayan to know who he was referring to – and yet left enough ambiguity in it to allow his supporters room to play. Denial, demurral and other such cat and mouse games, for once, it was the religious who were able to gain the upper hand. And did they have fun.

The feminists of course, had to rise. If not as one. Modi’s feminist credentials are debatable, as are those of most men in power today. His schemes support women’s education, his cabinet has very powerful women and he is not afraid of women talent and power when it supports his causes. He does not exclude women, nor does he seek them, which is fair in my book. Yet, his party and supporters have consistently been denigrating of women which has riled – hopefully – everyone, not just women. Outrageous statements have been tolerated. This jibe too, was like the fine Indian game of kabaddi. It touched the line and raced away, thus gaining points and staying safe. Just a mention of laughter and the Ramayan, and no more.

In the Ramayana, the story of an ideal king, essentially illustrating ideal behaviours in specific roles, there are few occasions were there is laughter, especially in adulthood. The ‘bhadralok’ (see what I did there?) do not laugh, they smile gently. Control, including self control being one of the themes of the book(Valmiki version, let us say. Not that the party or the country demonstrates much self control, but then Ram Rajya is a distant utopia, not here and not now. Laugher is seen as uncontrolled, thus represents evil, or the asura tendency. The most famous laughter is that of Shroopnakaha, the asura sister of Ravan who was assaulted by Lakshman (Rama’s brother) as he chopped off her nose and ears in response to her sexual aggressiveness. This – is as retold and reinterpreted. (Yup, don’t outrage, we were not there. All we have is interpretations)

In any case, laugher was allocated to the ‘other’ side in the Ramayana. As in the tale of all victors, the other is bad. I will not even dare to do more than mention the intersectionality of gender and caste/level issues that emerge here – there is much literature on that. Laughter, in the text, is an act of othering. Just like in racism, mocking a behaviour creates a line between sides, often leading to aggression, mocking laughter is used as such an othering device, and eventually builds the narrative to war. Modi, with impeccable timing, used this laughter to remind us of this, and emphasise his declaration of war on the ‘other party’, in this case via elections expected soon. It is no coincidence that the language of elections used colloquially often is the language of war. Now, the bugle has been sounded, and a classic milestone in the narrative towards the battle has been achieved. Laughter, or mocking across battle lines always starts the face-off.

The laughter of women in Hindu mythological literature has always been seen as an act of unwarranted aggression, and has been a milestone towards war in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, where it was Draupadi’s laughter that angered Duryodhana. Women thus, seen as overly aggressive, as the cause of war, but surprisingly this is not seen as power. They are the blame holders in the narratives, for failing to rein themselves. For women must always be seen in restraint.

All of this, the discourse and the chatterati were triggered by this one remark. Now, I too join them, but I am enjoying myself hugely in exploring the ideas and understanding the reactions. Modi’s masterstroke was in deflecting the chatterati from the mega defence contract conversation that his opposition were trying to lead, and he was trying to avoid. This, the throwing of a pebble into the shallows has achieved exactly what he needed.

How much better can it be, a seemingly impromptu remark, the gleeful support of those who had scattered but now return to the rally, the riling of those who annoy him with their pretentious superiority and serious issues of both gender and war sidelined as the ripples inevitably settle. I believe, in this round, it is Modi who laughs last.

(Standard Disclaimers: This is my personal blog. It is not my professional space. Look at the tagline: Pretentious, unending gab. Look at the name: Aantel-adda. This is fun)