External Affairs

Sorry Mr Parrikar, the Joke’s on India

NOT IN SPLITS: File picture of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. PTI photo.

NOT IN SPLITS: File picture of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. PTI photo.

Defence minister Manohar Parrikar has done it again. The IIT graduate, considered one of the brighter stars of the Modi government, has come up with yet another quip, this time regarding the narrow shape of the eyes of Ganesha idols imported from China. “I found that nowadays the eyes (of Ganesha idols) are becoming smaller and smaller. One day I turned it back and found Made in China,” he told an audience at the Vivekananda International Foundation. The crowd was “in splits”, reports the Times of India.

Parrikar’s racist ‘joke’ comes barely two weeks after he said that “terrorists could only be neutralized through terrorists”, a remark that suggested India would also indulge in terrorism. At least the Pakistanis saw it that way, seizing on his statement to claim there was finally proof that India sponsored terrorist acts on Pakistani soil.

While a controversy rages over Parrikar’s remarks, it is clear that he is not in the least embarrassed about making them. Nor has the PM told him to pipe down. At the same VIF speech, Parrikar said “Pakistan ko mirchi lagi, woh bhi Andhra ki,” a colloquialism that can not easily be translated but which every Indian and Pakistani will get.

No doubt Parrikar is feeling pleased at his felicity with one liners and his ability to bring the house down, but surely he knows that as raksha mantri, what he says is taken very seriously by other countries.

His “terrorists to neutralize terrorists” statement must have startled the world, which already thinks of this region as a dangerous place. A defence minister’s utterances are viewed as policy; he has no luxury to make jokes.

His remark about slant-eyed Ganeshas, too, is more than an instance of racism. That Indians are racist is no secret. Not just Africans and other foreigners but even Indians from the north-east experience it all the time. But worse than directly being racist is “casual racism” – the throwaway remark that even the speaker may not realise is offensive. It is quite possible that Parrikar genuinely thought he was making a good joke on how deeply Chinese products had penetrated the Indian market. Or that he did not think he was being racist. (Though that is difficult to digest—he is a bright IITian, after all.) The audience reaction is hardly shocking – slant-eyed Chinese is a nice little stereotype that can make us all laugh.

But the world has changed. Such statements just cannot be made in public. When BJP MP Giriraj Singh said that the Congress would not have accepted Sonia Gandhi as its leader had she been “Nigerian” he had to eventually apologise. The Nigerians were naturally upset, but even many Indians were appalled at this remark.

Giriraj Singh is not a senior minister nor is he a member of the high-power Cabinet Committee on Security. Parrikar is. A Chinese interlocutor sitting across him may well think, “Here is the defence minister of India. He is a racist and makes jokes about the way we look.” Chinese tourists and businessmen may ask themselves if India is a friendly country – after all, if a senior public figure says things like this (and gets away with it), what do ordinary citizens feel and how will they behave with visitors?

Parrikar is one of the great young hopes of the Sangh Parivar, educated, suave and honest. He was plucked from the tiny state of Goa to occupy an important post in Delhi. (Incidentally, Goa plays host to a large number of foreign tourists; that, if nothing else, should inculcate some sensitivity.) It’s time he came to grips with his position. His tendency to make off-the-cuff remarks that could have adverse implications on India’s interests needs to be curbed. We don’t want Parrikar the wit. We want a serious-minded defence minister.