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Opinion » Comment

Posted at: Aug 12, 2017, 12:28 AM; last updated: Aug 12, 2017, 1:21 PM (IST)

At 70, Indian leadership losing sense of humour?

Karan Thapar
No one likes being criticised. Slamming the door and running away is a common response. But it's the wrong one. It only enrages your critics and denies you the chance of learning from your mistakes.
Next week independent India will reach the biblical age of three score and 10. In these seven decades, we’ve achieved a lot. There’s no denying that. But there’s one level at which we’ve failed. We don’t know how to accept criticism and we’re incapable of laughing at ourselves.

The Modi government has taken this to an extreme. Not only is it reluctant to confront tough questioning, its ministers and spokespersons won’t even appear on television shows if they dislike the anchor. Of course, they have a right to boycott. But is it wise? Is it democratic? Is it an adult response?

No one likes being criticised. Slamming the door and running away is a common response. But it’s the wrong one. It only enrages your critics and denies you the chance of learning from your mistakes.

Recently, Michael Gove, a British Minister, had this to say of his government’s critics: “Our free press is a precious thing. It depends on proprietors being able to appoint who they want, editors being able to say what they want and reporters being able to write what they want. Without them having to feel under any obligation to government. As George Orwell once pointed out, free speech doesn’t really mean anything unless someone is offended. And if the people offended are me and my colleagues then we need to accept that’s the price we pay for freedom.”

What’s worse is we don’t have a sense of humour. The most harmless of jokes rile us. Recently, the Press Trust of India released a photograph of four people wearing Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar masks to mark friendship day. I’ve seen the picture. It’s harmless. If anything, it adds to their popularity. It certainly doesn’t detract from it.

However, this was enough to enrage Smriti Irani, our new Minister for Information and Broadcasting. “Is this how elected heads will be projected?” she tweeted: “Is this your official stand?”

Obviously this Minister doesn’t accept a news agency’s right to release a picture it thinks the public wants to see. Clearly, she doesn’t agree that politicians can be mocked, even if ever so gently. And obviously, she feels she can admonish the media without contradicting her government’s insistence it honours free speech. Because if the opposite were the case, she would have kept mum.

Instead, PTI was forced to issue an unnecessary apology: “PTI apologises for hurting sentiments and, therefore, has withdrawn the picture.” First of all, whose sentiments, other than the minister’s, were hurt? And, even if they were, so what? A joke can occasionally hurt but, then, it’s meant to. Adults take it in their stride. Children run crying to mummy.

Nehru used to applaud Shankar for his stinging cartoons. Even Indira Gandhi’s censors, at the height of Emergency, put up with Abu Abraham’s satire. But Mistress Irani is made of sterner stuff. Why should she grin and bear it when she can crack the whip?

Incidentally, I’ve used the term ‘mistress’ in its Shakespearean sense, when a lady of standing was thus addressed. Mummy was always happy to be called the mistress of the household, just as she fondly described her male friends as gay blades. Words had different meanings then. Today they’re at best double-entendres.

My hope is that by the time India completes its century, we will have learnt to accept criticism with grace and laugh at ourselves. If not, we could find we’ve grown old without actually growing up!

The views expressed in the article are of the writer, who is a TV anchor.


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