The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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In durbar, humble eat the pie
- Unwritten rule in Congress: keep low profile, walk away with choicest goodies
P.V. Narasimha Rao

New Delhi, June 19: In the Congress, fame and fortune visit those who keep a low profile and a humble visage. Pratibha Patil knows it as well as Manmohan Singh, or the late P.V. Narasimha Rao before him.

Like the two Prime Ministers, the would-be President had done precious little politically to earn the job — just the reason it came to her on a platter. The more ambitious and active Arjun Singhs and Narain Dutt Tiwaris fell by the wayside, as the K. Karunakarans and Jagannath Mishras had done.

Pratibha’s rise almost mirrors Rao’s in 1991. Rao had refused a Lok Sabha ticket and packed his bags when tragedy struck the nation and the Congress, and Nehru-Gandhi loyalist M.L. Fotedar came to ask the “retired” politician if he would be Prime Minister.

Three years ago, Manmohan had sat idle in Safdarjung Road while his party colleagues were campaigning or contesting. But when Sonia Gandhi’s “inner voice” spoke, it whispered the name of the teacher who had turned a politician of sorts.

But the Delhi durbar’s ways can still be labyrinthine. Shivraj Patil had seemed a perfect fit for Rashtrapati Bhavan by every yardstick, encouraging a master tailor to knock at 4 Janpath last week in case the home minister wanted a wardrobe upgrade.

Manmohan Singh

Scores of kilometres away, the Rajasthan governor was busy bowing before Brahmakumaris in Mount Abu when her mobile rang. How about being President, Sonia was asking cheerfully.

How come we weren’t even discussed, others with more lustrous careers might well ask.

Sheila Dikshit, far more visible than Pratibha as a woman leader, was ignored despite her lineage — she’s from the family of Uma Shankar Dikshit, a Congress legend — and two successful stints in the Delhi government.

Congress leaders confess in private that Sheila’s “independence” and contempt for the “coterie” was her undoing.

Just as his overt desire had spoiled Tiwari’s party. As three-time chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the veteran had always had Delhi’s eyes and years and relished his title of “New Delhi Tiwari”.

But a year and a half ago, Tiwari got too pro-active. He asked to step down as Uttarakhand chief minister and “take rest” in one of the Raj Bhavans, the idea being to somehow slip into the queue for the 2007 presidential nomination.

Pratibha Patil

The durbar frowned, and Tiwari never got to within a mile of being governor. As he sulked in Dehra Dun, the Congress lost power in the hill state. The chances had vanished for a man who, many party colleagues still believe, would have made a fine President.

It was self-importance that rocked Karunakaran’s boat. The proud Indira loyalist had been a veteran of many battles, including the one to dislodge Rao and then Sitaram Kesri so that Sonia could take over in March 1998.

Some party leaders feel the Kerala elder, a Congress member since 1937, took his “senior” status a bit too seriously. The high command didn’t like his protests against the importance given to his rival A.K. Antony. Today, Karunakaran is in Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party, hardly a force in Kerala.

P. Shiv Shankar had thought his quit threat over a minor issue would have the leadership begging him to stay. His phone never rang. The legal expert, former governor and backward-class leader would have been more acceptable to the Left than Shivraj, but is cooling his heels in Andhra Pradesh.

Jagannath Mishra, used to playing the high command’s hatchetman in the states, wouldn’t have expected to ever be at the receiving end. The Bihar strongman was seen as a politician among politicians, who as chief minister had built a formidable vote bank of Brahmins, Muslims and the disadvantaged.

But when the durbar got too cosy with Lalu Prasad, Mishra lost his patience and his career. He is now a nobody in the Janata Dal (United).

Arjun fell from grace when he walked away from the party in the Rao era claiming to represent the “Nehru-Gandhi family”. Perhaps that was a bit too pro-active.

Back after the return of “family rule”, he failed to reclaim the unofficial “number two” tag he held in the party and government in 1992-94. His perceived attempts to upstage and embarrass Manmohan wouldn’t have helped his cause.

As leader of a breakaway group, Sharad Pawar was never in the race for Prime Minister or President, but his history is a warning to all Congress leaders with ambition gnawing at their hearts.

Pawar, in a hurry to become “Lokmanya Tilak II”, had challenged Sonia in 1999 and left the party. Five years later, he was among the hundreds hailing the Congress chief’s “act of renunciation”.

Rao’s defence minister who would be Prime Minister is now Manmohan’s agriculture minister. And a cricket boss who is now and then handed the raspberry by TV broadcasters and English county coaches.

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