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Why India needs its own White House Correspondents' Dinner

Devika Bakshi | Updated on: 14 June 2015, 16:55 IST

India needs a White House Correspondents' Dinner. (I'm as sceptical as the next gal about a statement that begins with 'India needs...' but bear with me for a second.)

The White House Correspondents' Dinner is a Washington, DC tradition. Ostensibly a scholarship benefit for promising students of journalism, it is mostly significant as a spectacle centred around a comedian-host who takes aim at politics and media, and a presidential speech, which is usually a kind of 'friendly' roast of the press (and critics in general).

President Obama ribs the press with the help of Luther, his 'anger translator'

There have been some salient criticisms of the WHCD, chiefly that it is an exercise in mutual back-scratching that obscures the enmeshment of the White House and its Press Corps. But sitting here in sulky, bristling New Delhi, the idea of politicians and celebrity journalists willingly offering themselves up for a nice, vigorous ribbing, even as a pageant, sounds to me like one whose time has come.

We need a public event, one night a year, where politicians, the media and comedians can get in a room and - consensually - let fly at each other. Think of it as catharsis. Spring cleaning. A periodic knife-sharpening. A juice cleanse. One day a year to get it all out of our system and out in the open, so we can all start afresh, ready to tackle the next bit of nonsense oratory, the next bad policy, the next insane pseudo-scientific claim.

Think of the possibilities.

Think of the time and energy the Government of India could save, not having to maintain the constant vigilance it must take to smack down random acts of humour bursting out all over the country for lack of a legitimate organised outlet.

Think of the gift it would be to the media: an opportunity to say, in the guise of good fun, what can never be said on prime time.

Think of the rigour it could bring to comedy, having to corral the energy diffused on Twitter, to move past endless iterations of Pappu and Feku jokes, and to deliver pointed critique as the whole country watches and the targets are obliged to laugh.

Rather than take swings at each other through social media (or, in the government's case, the police force), we could communicate. We could develop a thicker skin, a sense of humour, perhaps even of proportion.

It is clear that there exists in this country a prodigious talent for taking offence, but a commensurate talent for taking a joke, for lightness and laughing at oneself, is not in evidence. This is a problem. It starts with Jaya Bachchan trying to get the Rajya Sabha debates to stop radio jockeys from making fun of her, and leads to cops intimidating Vir Das in the middle of a show for doing a bit on Abdul Kalam, and before you know it young girls are getting arrested for being insufficiently aggrieved by Bal Thackeray's death.

Perhaps politicians ought to try leaning into the humour a little.

Just look at what it did for Arvind Kejriwal. Kejriwal has often railed against the media's unfair portrayals of him and his party. This complaint did him no favours. But he earned enormous goodwill when he appeared on a video by The Viral Fever lampooning both him and Arnab Goswami. He made it clear he could take a joke at his own expense, and got in a few good jabs of his own.

Think of the gift to comedy: to deliver critique as the country watches and the targets are obliged to laugh

This is the secret incentive for politicians to participate: they can hit back. Openly. Without having to derail rally speeches and addresses to Parliament with petulant digs at the media or the opposition. (We all know Modi's got some sharp ones up his sleeve.). They can also earn a little cool for being able to take a good bit of criticism on the chin. And the rest of us can be a little safer from the passive-aggressive use of state power.

Plus, we could call it 7 Race Course Roast, which, frankly, is incentive enough.

First published: 22 May 2015, 12:12 IST
Devika Bakshi @devikabakshi

Senior correspondent at Catch, Devika specialises in furnishing the office with quality coffee. Previously: staff writer at Open magazine, waitress and student of Comparative Literature. Generally preoccupied with climate change, usually reassured by mid-20th century American music. Loves podcasts and tomatoes. Moonlights as a student of Spanish and is frequently mistaken for an owl.