Joker is a description that no one with self-respect will accept with a laugh, unless it is a person whose profession is joking. Politicians particularly get riled when they are dismissed as jokers, lacking any seriousness. The outburst of Sri Lanka’s army chief Sarath Fonseka, calling Tamil Nadu politicians Vaiko and P. Nedumaran “political jokers whose survival depends on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam”, has evoked strong reactions. Fonseka seems justified in abusing the Tamil rebels in his country, since he is leading the battle to wipe them off the map of Sri Lanka.
The LTTE is no joke for Fonseka, as it has made an attempt to kill him, and reports say a suicide squad is in Colombo to target the general. But, Fonseka crossed the diplomatic Lakshman rekha when he said India would not listen to these political ‘jokers’. Though Vaiko and Nedumaran don’t support the UPA government, Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi and other leaders have been asking for a halt to the military operations as innocent civilians are being targeted. But Fonseka is convinced that the Manmohan Singh government will soft-pedal his military mission, as the Congress is against the LTTE.
Generals are fighters and are not always known for their restraint. Directness helps them give specific orders to their armies, and etiquette is the first casualty when you are fighting a battle or preparing for one. Once, an Indian Army chief reportedly called Pakistani leaders “those bandicoots” during the Narasimha Rao era. Though the general denied the remark, there was a furore in the opposition.
Luckily for Fonseka, Vaiko and Nedumaran are not in Parliament. Otherwise, the Privileges Committee of the Lok Sabha would have summoned him despite his nationality. The committee went ballistic over Ronen Sen, Indian Ambassador to the US, for his remark on headless chicken(s). Sen was summoned all the way from Washington. While the committee thought he had compared MPs to stupid birds, Sen clarified that he had hurled the abuse at the media.
Parliament has regularly seen members getting uptight over criticism. Once a newspaper described the MPs of a party as “people whom any first class magistrate would round up”, and this caused a furore, though the Speaker did not allow prosecution of the newspaper’s editor. Describing politicians as deficient of either brains or seriousness can cause summons, as these remarks are said to compromise the majesty of Parliament. But this has not prevented detractors from venting their ire on Parliament or its members.
The most abused politician of the 21st century would perhaps be George W. Bush. As he walks into the sunset, the American president has not expressed his feelings at being called Satan, idiot and many other pejorative terms.
The word joker has caused problems in the sporting arena, too. Mohinder Amarnath, the hero of India’s 1983 World Cup victory, had regular disagreements with the men who ran the game. In a moment of frustration, Amarnath described selection committee chairman Raj Singh Dungarpur and the members a “bunch of jokers”. Amarnath never got the captaincy he desired. He has not been offered the selector’s job by successive Board of Control for Cricket in India presidents. Nor would he like to sit on a ‘joker’s’ chair.
Not all jokers are harmless, nor do they exist in the real world. The biggest debate in the past few weeks in the US was about the master villain of Batman, the comic strip series. He is called Joker, but his jokes are deadly, rather than funny. Batman’s fans in America were not amused when a news report suggested that the indestructible hero would actually die in the latest edition of the comic and that the Joker would rule the world. Worried by fan reactions as well as the prospect of killing the caped hero who brought in lots of dollars, the publishers said Batman would not die.
In real life, Fonseka would be the evil joker as far as Vaiko and Nedumaran are concerned. The Sri Lankan defence ministry has expressed a grudging regret on behalf of Fonseka, but the general appears to be unrepentant. As the English poet Charles Churchill said, “A joke is a very serious thing.”