A short history of political barbs

One of the most forwarded messages on social media is titled ‘When insults had class’. A sample is an exchange between Nancy Astor, a British MP and the inimitable Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Astor: “Winston, if I were your wife I’d put poison in your coffee.” Churchill: “Nancy, if I were your husband I’d drink it.” A more bitter exchange between the two quotes Astor calling Churchill a drunk and Churchill calling her ugly.

As anywhere else, politics in Tamil Nadu has had its share of class and crass — mostly the latter. It is not the first time in the history of the state’s politics that below-the belt barbs have been made by the likes of DMK campaigners A Raja and Dindigul Leoni.

In the 1970s and the 1980s, the DMK and the AIADMK engaged speakers who used vulgar, obscene narratives. At public meetings, generally held late at night in semiurban areas, these speakers would reel out salacious stories, juicy episodes on the nocturnal activities of rivals, laced with humour and sarcasm, clearly aimed at titillating the audience. Most of the men who gathered at these meetings enjoyed the fare dished out, with their guffaws indicating approval. Women kept away from such events.

These speakers were sometimes more in demand than the senior leaders. On odd occasions, even some women speakers were deployed. In the early days, DMK president M Karunanidhi (Kalaignar) and poet-laureate Kannadasan (Kavignar) would often be engaged in an ugly war of words. Once pushed to the wall, Kannadasan said he would be forced to reveal some “adventures” which he shared with Kalaignar. The next day the DMK asked its speakers not to target Kavignar. When Kannadasan died, Karunanidhi wept inconsolably.

In his early days, Karunanidhi would make sexist remarks. He was said to have compared a file (the one with the red tape, used in government offices) to a petticoat, drawing widespread criticism. Later Karunanidhi took on a more refined role, although there was still the odd remark against Hindu gods and goddesses. Karunanidhi himself was at the receiving end when it came to sexist remarks. When opposition leaders wanted to know who Dharmambal was (a reference to his second wife, Rajathi Ammal), Karunanidhi came up with the cryptic response: “The mother of my daughter Kanimozhi”.

BJP leaders, who today wax eloquent about the need for dignity in speeches, made disparaging remarks about Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, and even called PM Manmohan Singh “impotent”.

Chief minister MGR and J Jayalalithaa were targeted when opposition leaders referred to his ‘Mundhaanai Mudichu’ (meaning a knot with a pallu) and the many films in which he acted with a heroine. After three days, when it was his turn to reply to the debate, MGR said: “I have a ‘Mundhaanai Mudichu’, you people are upset that you don’t have such a ‘mudichu’”. The AIADMK MLAs thumped the desks with an accompanying roar.

DMK founder C N Annadurai was dignified in making a political repartee, whether in Parliament, in the assembly or outside. In a debate on the need for Hindi as the national language because a majority of the people in the country spoke it, Annadurai pointed out that the tiger was the national animal and not the rat whose population was bigger. Similarly, the national bird was the peacock and not the crow which was everywhere.

Even when he used epithets like dogs, he did it in a suave manner. Where was the need for two doors — the door for the English language as communication was big enough for the dog to go through, and there was no need for a second door to provide for the dog.

When a leader of the opposition hit out at Annadurai saying “Your days are numbered” (he wanted to say that the tenure of the DMK government would end soon, but it came when the CM was fighting cancer), Annadurai didn’t lose his cool. He said, “But my steps are measured”.

The verbal bouts between C Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) and communist leaders were also marked by high levels of repartees and quick wit. Once when Rajaji asked communist leader Jeeva why he was talking of the constituency Washermenpet in north Chennai when he usually talked only about the global situation, Jeeva remarked. “At least I have a constituency to talk about”

(Rajaji was not elected to the assembly but was nominated to the Legislative Council). The remark drew guffaws in the House, and Rajaji laughed along.

Chief minister Annadurai was reminded of his promise of three measures rice for one rupee, made before the 1967 general elections, and speakers said the people had been cheated. Annadurai said, “Moonru padi latchiyam, Oru padi Nichayam” (Three measures is the goal, one measure is a certainty).

Annadurai was again criticised for introducing a government lottery scheme, as other speakers felt the people would be duped of their hard-earned money. Annadurai said, “Vizhundhaal veettukku, vizhaavittaal naattukku (If you win, the money goes to you; if you lose, the money goes to the state).

(The writer is a veteran journalist)

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Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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