Comedian Kunal Kamra has perversely benefited from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Narendra Modi’s rule. Within days of publishing his first standup comedy video on YouTube in March 2017, he began receiving death threats and attacks from aggressive BJP supporters, yet he also became a symbol of the fight for free speech in the context of an increasingly authoritarian climate.
The video quickly went viral (it has since been viewed nearly nine million times) launching Kamra’s career as a comedian who unabashedly pokes fun at the ruling class and its supporters.
Two years later, the punchline of that first stand-up routine, “Siachen mein hamare jawaan lad rahe hain” (our soldiers are fighting on Siachen glacier)—a whataboutistic reply to anyone critical of the government—is among the most common jokes used by the government’s opponents.
Kamra has become one of India’s best-known comedians, and turned political commentary into his bread and butter. “The more you threaten me, the more I will do it,” Kamra told Quartz, quoting his own reply to those who attack him for his jokes.
In July 2017, Kamra launched the YouTube show and podcast “Shut up ya Kunal,” in which he discusses current affairs and politics with prominent guests, including former Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi, BJP youth leader Madhukeshwar Desai, Swaraj India president Yogendra Yadav, and the Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal and Atishi.
These conversations have given Kamra new insights into Indian politics, he says. He recently shared some of his thoughts on what young Indian voters want and the differences between the BJP and Congress with Quartz. Edited excerpts:
You said that until not too long ago, you used to consider yourself apolitical. What changed?
The current regime. Like many, before 2014 I thought every politician is the same, everyone is pathetic, politics does not change society, and everybody is corrupt. I was on a similar wavelength post-2014 also. But then when I saw people coming at me because I was trying to make fun of the prime minister and the party in power, that gave me the sense that there is something wrong with the regime.
A couple of incidents stuck out too: in Hyderabad University and in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where students were charged with sedition.
(Editor’s note: Five Dalit scholars were expelled from Hyderabad University as a politically motivated disciplinary measure in 2016. One later committed suicide. After protests in early 2016, at least three students at Delhi’s JNU were arrested, and 21 are still on trial for sanctions imposed by the university.)
If you had to describe the current Indian political situation to someone who knows nothing about it, what would you say?
There is one party in power which is ultra right-wing and the other national party [Congress] is ultra spineless and does not know what to do. See, the Congress party functions like a government-run hospital would function in a country like India; there is no decision making, there is no urgency, no order, no direction.
Do you think people are aware of the sectarian nature of the BJP?
People are aware of it and proud. They are aware of it but think it doesn’t matter to their rights, or they are aware of it but feel helpless. But I don’t think anybody is not aware of this.
In 2014, it was easier to miss: The BJP was the party of the opposition, and it was fighting against the Congress which had seen the worst two years in its history. What is so bad this time around is that we have to go back with a time machine to five years ago and tell ourselves [Congress was] not as bad as we thought: To be honest, corruption isn’t even India’s biggest problem, communalism is.
What do you think is moving people to vote for the BJP?
You have to give it to the BJP. They have a committed fan base of people who are dedicated and charged up, and will do what it takes to get Modi back. These are people who think this is the moment they got after four centuries of India being ruled by Mughals, and with that kind of mentality they are coming out to vote, and telling others “this is the most important election in Indian history.”
Congress, on the other hand, is still not able to ally itself with the regional parties, and is splitting down the secular vote, and watering down any possibility of the BJP not coming back.
So what do you think young leaders can do to change this?
If you are an activist today with the Congress, or even the BJP, do not fight the election under their banner. I assure you even if you reach the highest office you will not be able to do any actual work, there is nothing that you can do.
How do you think things have changed since Modi came into power?
The tables have totally turned. See, today, if I sit at a dinner table and say “war is not a solution,” I have to be defensive about it. Five years ago, if someone said “we have to go to war with Pakistan,” they had to be defensive about that. The tables have totally turned.
Our politics used to be dependent on growth and economics. Now it’s all about defeating the enemy which is Pakistan, and communal tension. We were always conservative, so being conservative is not new for us, but being bigoted out in the open is something that India has not seen before. Whatever my friends would say after four drinks in the night is now things they say while having coffee in the morning. The WhatsApp forwards that come to you in the morning…I am surprised at the venom they have.
Where does this venom come from?
It comes from this fake idea of insecurity that has been sold to people, circulating selective facts and fake news. For instance, there are these random figures going around of how the Muslim population is growing, and how they are consolidating and voting in blocks. I cannot get my Muslim friends to decide which is the best biryani in Mumbai, and you are telling me they vote in blocks?
So, you create a fake problem, and now the voter is trying to solve this non-existent problem, forgetting that the past five years have had a unique bunch of issues, like the highest levels of joblessness, or demonetisation.
What do you think will happen if the BJP is defeated?
I don’t know, but we don’t need to know also. If there is a tumor in your body, you have to first figure out how to take it out. The post-surgery, medications, diet and all that is secondary.
And what if Modi comes back?
If the BJP has a full majority, we should also see that this is what the people are aspiring to, and our aspirations about this country do not match with their aspirations—accept it and try to fix it. All the people who are independent and have a rational mind should spend the next five years trying to influence others to see what is happening, and hopefully, that will push the opposition to pull its socks up.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.