On the night of July 22, soon after the United Progressive Alliance had won the recent trust vote in Parliament, I was in a television studio in New Delhi with a functionary of the Congress. The anchor of the programme I was participating in asked who, in a manner of speaking, had been the 'Man of the Match'. I answered that it was unquestionably the prime minister, Manmohan Singh.
This otherwise cautious former bureaucrat had broken with the communists and boldly risked his government's future on a deal he very desperately wanted. This normally quiet and self-effacing man had spoken sharply and sarcastically about the Congress's former allies on the Left and its long-time enemies on the Right. The decisiveness and polemics were both uncharacteristic; in the event, both were vindicated by the outcome.
The anchor took my verdict, and, with a mischievous twist, offered it to the Congressman on the show. Had not the debate and its aftermath strengthened Manmohan Singh's position in the Congress? Had he not finally emerged out of Sonia Gandhi's shadow? The Congressman was not ready to abandon the habits of a lifetime, and accord someone other than a member of the First Family a place of distinction and importance. He drew our attention instead to the speech by the general secretary, which, in his view, had been one of the defining moments of the debate in Parliament.
Other people - many other people - who watched the televised proceedings of the debate in Parliament would not, I think, be so ready to acknowledge that young Rahul Gandhi was one of the stars of the show. His intervention was well-meaning; but also somewhat cliched, and sanctimonious. It was as memorable - or unmemorable - as the speech made on the other side by Lal Krishna Advani.
By common consent, the best speeches in the debate were made by Mohammed Salim of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), speaking against the government, and by Omar Abdullah of the National Conference, speaking in favour of it. Who, hearing Abdullah and Rahul Gandhi side by side, would ever remember the latter and forget the former? The Kashmiri MP is about the same age as the Congress general secretary. Like him, he comes from a political family. Just as it must be Sonia Gandhi's fond hope that Rahul will become prime minister of India, as his father and grandmother were before him, it is being thought by some in Kashmir that Omar Abdullah will one day become chief minister of the state, as his father Farooq Abdullah and his grandfather Sheikh Abdullah have been before him.
I write this without knowing whether the Congressman who appeared on that show with me will read it. I hope not, for if this column is brought to the attention of 10 Janpath, it is unlikely to help either Manmohan Singh or Omar Abdullah. The former is a loyal Congressman himself; the latter will, by nature of his confinement to a particular state, very likely be dependent on the Congress in the future. To say in public that they shine in comparison to the anointed heir of the Congress is simply to state the truth; at the same time, to say so loudly and often is to put their political careers at risk.
I have nothing personally against Rahul Gandhi. He is a good-looking young man with pleasant manners and a manifest sincerity. But looks and charm do not, by themselves, qualify one for leadership of a major political party, still less the leadership of the government of India. It is a commentary on the pitiful state of the Congress today that they are so obsessively focussed on the elevation of a single family.
The sycophancy on display towards Rahul Gandhi recalls the similar devotions once expressed in favour of his father, who, like him, was a handsome man with good manners, and a political naif withal. In April 1983, when Rajiv Gandhi was a first-term MP who had never held political office, he visited Bombay to acquaint himself with the living conditions of the poor people in the city. A walking tour was planned for him through Asia's largest slum, Dharavi. The exercise was satirized in a brilliant column by Busybee (Behram Contractor). "Apropos Sunday morning's padayatra through the Dharavi slums by Mr Rajiv Gandhi," wrote the satirist, "the following is the programme (Congress-I volunteers to note):
"7.30 am: Mr Rajiv Gandhi arrives at Santa Cruz Airport, received by 20,000 party workers (trucks will be provided to transport them...) Garlanding ceremony. Workers to shout: "Rajiv Gandhi ki jai!"
"8 am: Motorcade leaves airport and proceeds to Dharavi passing under welcome arches along the route ...
"8.10 am: Housewives of the government housing colony at East Bandra to spontaneously halt the motor cavalcade and perform the arti ceremony for Mr Gandhi. Local Congress (I) councillors to organize the housewives.
"8.30 am: Arrive at Dharavi. ...Welcome speech by Dharavi councillor and MLA. Garlanding ceremony. Flag-hoisting of Congress flag by children of the Dharavi municipal school.
"9 am: Tea and refreshments in school hall. Mr Gandhi receives telephone calls from ... chief minister ... and deputy chief minister, welcoming him to Bombay. A special telephone line to be installed ... to enable Mr Gandhi to receive the calls.
"9.30 am: Mr Gandhi changes his chappals for gym shoes... Padayatra begins. (Organizers to note: Mr Gandhi should be taken only along those lanes which have been specially swept and cleaned for the padayatra.)
"10 am: TV cameras in position to take special shots of Mr Gandhi talking to the oldest resident of Dharavi. TV shot of Mr Gandhi inaugurating new public tap. (Note to organizers: Arrangements should be made to fly colour film back to Delhi in time for inclusion in national news same night.)
"10.30 am to 11.30 am: Mr Gandhi makes four speeches at four different locations in Dharavi, preferably where pressmen are present. (Further note to organizers: cars to be kept ready for Mr Gandhi to travel from one padayatra spot to another. Arrangements to be made for a man to hold umbrella over Mr Gandhi's head.)
"Noon: Padayatra ends. Mr Gandhi changes gym shoes for sandals."
Historians can write only about the past, but the best satirists have the precious gift of predicting the future even as they write about the present. First published in Midday on 4 April 1983, this column by Busybee is a still an unparallelled commentary on the culture of sycophancy in India's oldest political party. Reprinted in a collection of his works (which is where I found it), it should be photocopied and distributed outside the Congress's headquarters in New Delhi. That would be a service to Indian democracy - indeed, a service to the Congress itself.