Updated: April 09, 2019 05:07 AM GMT
A billboard advertising a TV series on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seen at a junction in Mumbai on April 5. The PM is increasingly the target of comedians and satirists in the build-up to the general election. (Photo by Punit Paranjpe/AFP)
Heard the joke about the prime minister who made fitness videos? You soon will if you are following the raucous campaigning for India’s general election.
Stand-up comedians and youngsters are using humor and satire to counter religion-based hate and ideologies as India prepares to go to the polls from April 11.
Young people, particularly from large cities like Mumbai and New Delhi, are using social media platforms to take their political satire to people across the country.
Stand-up comedians like Mumbai-based Kunal Kamra criticize the pro-Hindu ideology of India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its obsession with promises to build a temple in northern India.
More than six million people have watched his video posted on March 11 about the BJP’s desperation to construct a temple at a disputed site in Uttar Pradesh state’s Ayodhya town, where Hindu zealots demolished a mosque in 1992.
Nobody is excited about building a rapid rail transit system or supplying oxygen cylinders to state hospitals where hundreds of children die from lack of oxygen, but the clamor for a temple excites everyone, he tells his YouTube channel, which has 800,000 subscribers.
“Forty percent of the population has no washroom. You [BJP] are giving them so much prasad [temple food offerings], where will the people defecate?” asks Kamra to loud laughter from the audience.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP has been placating Hindu sentiments to seek the votes of the majority. The party’s leaders are also accused of speaking hate against Muslims and Christians, projecting them as following foreign religions.
In one of his interviews, Kamra says he became politically active only when he saw hate crimes rising during the past five years of BJP rule.
Another stand-up comedian, Abhijit Ganguly, has more than 300,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, where he also criticizes Modi for what he calls “unnatural” decisions.
In one video, Ganguly makes fun of Modi by highlighting how the PM broadcast his fitness videos at a cost of 3.5 million rupees (US$50,000) when the entire country is feeling severe economic pressure.
He also questions the government’s 2016 decision to declare 80 percent of the currency illegal, which allegedly cost the lives of some 100 people because of shock and the struggle of standing in long lines to withdraw money.
“Modi keeps giving us tasks. Sometimes he asks us to link our bank accounts with our PAN [permanent account number] and sometimes wants our electricity bill connected with adhaar [identify] cards,” says Ganguly in one of his videos.
Crushing voices of dissent
Political satire is gaining popularity because the government has been ruthlessly crushing voices of dissent across the country, says Parvez Hussain, a political activist based in Jammu and Kashmir state.
Some 165 people have been booked under a British-enacted sedition law, according to government figures. A section was later incorporated to say anyone who “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government” shall be punished with imprisonment and fine.
Hussain said university students, writers, professors and poets “were slapped with this anarchic law by the BJP government. This law has become so handy for the Hindu nationalists to suppress the just voices in the country.”
Hitting out at the sedition law, Ganguly in a video said his wife’s 92-year-old grandmother calls the PM “Modi-Ji” (suffixing “Ji” to the name of elders is a way of expressing respect).
“When I told her that she doesn’t need to say Modi-Ji as he is much younger than her, she replied that she doesn’t want to go to jail at such a ripe age,” Ganguly says in the video.
Varun Grover, a stand-up comedian and lyricist from Uttar Pradesh’s Lucknow city, uploaded a video highlighting how Modi is issuing amusing statements without logic.
“Modi can say anything, anytime. When recently he was on an official tour to Canada, he said India and Canada are the 2ab in the [algebra] formula of [ab] square. I am not making this up. This actually happened,” he says to laughter.
Rajat Sinha, a New Delhi-based blogger, told ucanews.com that it is only through comedy that the truth of India can be told to its people. “If you go serious and start revealing things, the next day you will find yourself in jail,” he said.
He said hundreds of those arrested are labeled “anti-nationals” for criticizing the government, even in posts on social media. “You will not be able to find the exact number as the government keeps no record. But I can tell you with certainty that the number goes beyond hundreds,” Sinha said.
Owais Ahmad, a student of media education from Kashmir, said Indian media have turned themselves into mere propaganda machines for the government, allowing comedians to speak the truth in their own way.
“Deep in the satire-draped statements, these comedians inspire people to ask questions on crucial issues like rising fuel prices, the failing economy and spiraling joblessness. They have donned the role of serious media actually,” he said.
The internet has opened up a new horizon for these young comedians and their reach is no longer limited to few audiences present in the hall, Ahmad said.
“We have seen these comedians create their own YouTube channels and they upload content on a regular basis. They have hundreds of thousands of subscribers, which means people are liking them and their videos,” Ahmad added.
The general election, which will be held over six weeks until May 19, will have 900 million eligible voters who will choose the government for the next five years.
The poll is considered a referendum on the BJP and its allies after they won 282 of 543 parliamentary seats in the 2014 election.
Modi has been accused of plunging the country into chaos by taking a series of wrong decisions and not addressing mounting joblessness or the crisis in the agriculture sector.
The BJP-led government is also accused of tacitly approving the Hindi violence against religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians while trying to stoke religious passions.
Stand-up comedians have found their own way to bring all these issues before the public, especially among young people.
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