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Sanjaya Baru
Sanjaya Baru


Prime ministers in the buff

Almost a hundred years ago, in 1919, Nancy Astor became the first woman member of the British Parliament. The very male chauvinistic prime minister, Winston Churchill, not only did not like the idea of a woman member in Parliament, but had particular disdain for the Viscountess Astor. The two were known for their biting sarcasm and the barbs they hurled at each other. One such exchange involved the bathroom!

In one of his particularly nasty moods Churchill was quoted as saying to her: “Having a woman in Parliament is like having one intrude on you in the bathroom.”

Not to be unsettled by Churchill’s rudeness, Astor was supposed to have gently replied: “Winston, you’re not handsome enough to have such fears.”

Grating wit, sarcasm, barbs and innuendos are par for the parliamentary course. So, one should not make much of a muchness of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dig at his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, when he said in Parliament that “Only Doctor saheb knows the art of bathing in a raincoat.”

As stated, this sentence does not amount to anything more than a gentle barb. It was made in the context of Modi’s taunt that while Singh had served so many corrupt governments, his own reputation for integrity remained unmatched. The reason why the Congress seems to have got so worked up is related to the context of that saying. For the unfamiliar, here is the reference to context.

The taunt of bathing in a raincoat, I believe, draws on the famous Urdu barb Iss hammam mein sab nange hain (In this sauna everyone is naked). The hammam is a Turkish bath, an ancient Roman institution that became popular across Europe, the Mediterranean and the Arab world, where persons of the same gender normally bath collectively, and in most societies they are quite comfortable sitting in the nude. Most hotels and gyms across the world now have a sauna, the modern variant of the hammam, and not all societies are comfortable with communal nudity.

90primeministers Illustration: Bhaskaran

In some European and east Asian countries both men and women are quite happy to share a hammam, with minimum of clothing or none at all.

But the old Urdu saying is a taunt. What it implies is that in a hammam everyone is au naturel and no one can pretend to be what they are not.

The saying iss hammam mein sab nange hain implies that all are equally exposed and no one can have pretensions of being smarter or holier than others.

I recall a visit to the Prime Minister’s Office, during Manmohan Singh’s first term, of a delegation of MPs led by Telugu Desam Party leader Chandrababu Naidu and Samajwadi leader Amar Singh. The delegation was going to submit a memorandum to the PM regarding harassment of some individuals by various investigating, enforcement and tax authorities. I met them before they called on the PM, and Amar Singh was going on and on remonstrating about the innocence of the gentlemen concerned.

I smiled and taunted him saying, “Is hammam mein sab nange hain.” Amar Singh laughed but Naidu did not get the drift and the saying had to be explained to him. He, of course, remained mum, lacking Amar Singh’s self-deprecatory sense of humour.

Modi’s ‘bathing in a raincoat’ jibe draws attention to the fact that Manmohan Singh managed to protect his own personal reputation for honesty while working at senior levels in several corrupt governments. Clearly, the dig was at the governments that Singh served, not at Singh himself.

If there is one quality that Congress MPs have it is survival instinct and instinctive loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family. Their remonstration was in the name of a jibe at Manmohan Singh, but their walkout was a demonstration of loyalty to the party’s first family.

Whatever one may think of the episode, it is sad that our parliamentarians lack a sense of humour.

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Topics : #Last Word | #opinion

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