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WHEN THE BELL TOLLS
- Supreme misgovernance and unbridled flattery have limits

Many of my generation consider Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro to be the most insanely rollicking Hindi slapstick comedy movie ever made. Directed by Kundan Shah, it featured Ravi Baswani and Naseeruddin Shah as down-and-out Bombay photographers who are on the throes of getting bankrupt after a failed attempt to set up a studio on expensive Pedder Road. Salvation comes when they are given an assignment by a tabloid called Khabardaar to expose shady land grabs and illegal construction deals in the city involving the corrupt municipal commissioner called D’Mello played by Satish Shah, and two even more crooked property developers and builders, one of whom is Ahuja, essayed by Om Puri.

In one of the movie’s classic scenes, Ahuja discovers that D’Mello has been double-crossing him on a major deal in favour of his arch rival, Tarneja. Enraged beyond compare, he rushes out of the bedroom tying his lungi, saying in that gravelly Om Puri voice, “Oye D’Mello, tooh toh gaya.” For many of us, this is the cult line which has thrived over three decades.

It came back to me while watching Rahul Gandhi as he stood next to his mother at the press conference after the Congress’s electoral decimation — for what else can one call three routs and a loss? While mummy said that state elections are different from the national polls, the crown prince who rules over less and less territory as the months go by said, “I am going to put all my efforts to transform the organisation of the [Congress] party. I am going to make sure that transformation happens, and I will do it in ways in which you cannot even imagine.”

Consider the arrogance of the remark. Here was the crown prince meeting the media after a massive drubbing that his party and his hand-picked candidates had just suffered. In Delhi, in spite of the decent governance of Sheila Dikshit, the Congress won only eight seats — 35 less than the last time. Thus, the fray in the nation’s capital saw the party lose more than four times the seats it won. The story continues.

In Rajasthan, it won 21 seats, and lost 74 compared to the 2008 assembly elections. Again, it lost three-and-a-half times more seats than it won. In Madhya Pradesh, it won 58, lost 13 and got drubbed yet again, against a two-time incumbent. Only in Chhattisgarh did it gain one seat to win 39, but fell 13 per cent short of the number needed to form the government. In the four heartland states, 589 results were declared. The Congress won 125 seats, or only 21 per cent. Parenthetically, the Bharatiya Janata Party won 409 seats or 69 per cent of those in the fray.

When a party of which the poll strategy and campaign are conceived, engineered and supervised, even nit-picked, by the putative Lord in Waiting and his noble knights, and which then gets routed like General Custer at Little Big Horn, the least one might have expected was a sizeable dose of contrition. Instead, we heard the arrogance of three “I’s” in two consecutive sentences; the claim of a transformation that has certainly worsened the fortunes of his party at the elections; and the haughtiness of a belief that the ‘transformation’ which he is masterminding is beyond the imagination of mere mortals of the fourth estate, possibly even the nation.

That’s the arrogance of inheritance. It thrives and replicates in an environment where everyone fawns over one another to call the leader High Command and where the oldest and most experienced politician will genuflect to ‘Rahul-ji’ as the font of indisputable leadership who, coming from the Nehru-Gandhi stock, must undeniably lead the party to victory. When it doesn’t happen by a huge margin, the fault is everyone else’s — for how could it ever be his?

Let me try to predict a few things that might occur between now and the general elections in 2014. The Congress does not believe in the meaning of a word called ‘hand-outs’. Barring the first few years of Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister, neither Indira Gandhi, nor her favourite daughter-in-law, nor the eldest grandson ever considered that doles might not work. Because up to a point in the past, these instruments of alleged redistribution seemed to have helped electorally. If these worked then, why not now? The Nehru-Gandhi answer has been the same and utterly wrong: when doles don’t work, hand out larger doles.

Therefore, don’t be surprised if the High Command and Rahul-ji insist that finance minister, P. Chidambaram, loosen his purse strings from now until the vote-on-account that will take place in February 2014. Throw more money under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act; and whether subsidized cereals can be delivered or not, spend all that you can and more on the National Food Security Act. Because — “we know that it must bring in the votes”.

I think not. Ashok Gehlot’s tryst with free medicine became an electoral rout in Rajasthan. So too it will be in most other states. But don’t question a family belief that winning requires throwing ashrafis to the people. Poor Chidambaram will have to learn to distribute greater largesse while cutting expenditure elsewhere. Good luck to him.

Second, there will be a flurry within the party to name its prime ministerial candidate. Everyone will outshout all others in favour of Rahul-ji. It is possible that Rahul-ji will refuse, claiming that he is focusing on transformation that none can imagine. The clamour will get louder. And if Rahul-ji has the courage to genuinely lead the Congress at the polls instead of being the eminence in the background — to be fawned upon if the party wins and be singularly protected if it doesn’t — he should take up the challenge and make 2014 his direct battle with the Opposition. Somehow, I doubt it. But more power to him if he were to be the leader and thus be counted.

Third, I doubt if it will matter whether Rahul-ji leads his party in the 2014 elections or not. A very large number of young people voting the first or second time in their lives have had enough of the Congress. It has failed the electorate in more ways than one. People want change. In Delhi it has been shown up with the phenomenal victory of the Aam Aadmi Party. Whether this will lead to a Narendra Modi-led BJP wave is still difficult to predict. But I would be very surprised if the Congress secures 145 Lok Sabha seats — what it won in 2004. Probably quite a bit less.

That brings me back to “Tooh toh gaya”. Mani Shankar Aiyar is impossibly conceited and acerbic. But none can doubt his brains, or his ability to say the truth. This is what he told Reuters a few days ago: “Who can be even half-way realistic and expect the Congress to return to power?” Today, it is no longer a story of one angry Ahuja striding ahead and saying, “Tooh toh gaya.” India has millions of Ahujas now. The time has come for the Congress to lose, because the combination of supreme misgovernance and unbridled flattery has its limits.

If Jaane Bhi Do Yaro is too slapstick for your taste, here is another quote which does better: “It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage… Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth? ”

So said Oliver Cromwell while dismissing the Rump Parliament in 1653. India’s voters of 2014 feel the same way about a party that had the goodwill and lost it so comprehensively over the last four and a half years.