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May 13, more distant than just a decade

THANK YOU, IT WAS NICE KNOWING YOU
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh bids farewell to his office staff on Tuesday. He exchanged pleasantries with 110 members of his personal staff and 400 other peripheral staff members in South Block. Singh expressed his gratitude towards them and the staff members returned the accolades by cheering him. On Saturday, a day after the election results are declared, Singh is scheduled to hold his last cabinet meeting and address the nation. (PTI)

FAREWELL, WISE MAN
BJP leader Arun Jaitley on Tuesday blogged his farewell to Manmohan Singh, describing the Prime Minister as “syana aadmi (wise man)”. Jaitley said the Prime Minister “goes out with dignity and grace”. “He will remain an elder statesman and a man of credibility to guide the nation. Only if he had stood up at the right time and disagreed he would have been regarded with still a greater honour,” Jaitley wrote in his blog

May 13, 2004: The Indian voter delivers the most dramatic verdict in nearly three decades, sweeping away the India Shining years with the stroke of a finger. Sonia Gandhi deadpans “normally this happens”, asked if the Congress Parliamentary Party leader would become Prime Minister, setting in motion the events that have shaped India in the decade that followed.

May 13, 2014: Sonia leaves 10 Janpath through the back gate and reaches Rashtrapati Bhavan to meet Pranab Mukherjee. The meeting is described as a courtesy call.

Much has changed between the May 13 of 2004 and May 13 of 2014. Mukherjee, now President of the country, was then among a host of Congress veterans who tried to “build pressure” on Sonia to take over as Prime Minister.

The man who was thrust into the frontline because of the failure of Mukherjee’s mission a decade ago was also busy today: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met over 500 backroom staff to bid farewell to them.

The man who has already declared that he will replace Singh also went through the paces of an undeclared farewell: Narendra Modi met BJP legislators in Gandhinagar today, receiving a bouquet from the state party chief and triggering speculation on the next chief minister.

At the PMO today, some officials were reminded of an unlikely parallel when Singh walked down the corridor that was lined by two rows of his staff. The “guard of honour” stretched longer than the one Sachin Tendulkar received from teammates as he left the Wankhede Stadium on his last day in Test cricket.

From secretaries and advisers to chauffeurs, chefs, cleaners and guards who have worked with him at the PMO, over 500 people — 110 members of his personal staff and 400 of the peripheral staff — had lined up to bid farewell to the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister had just wound up his penultimate cabinet meeting in South Block. The staff formed two neat rows on either side of the corridor of the PMO just outside the hall where the cabinet had met.

Introduced to the employees by joint secretary Anu Garg, Singh walked down the corridor, greeting every member of the staff and posing with them when they presented him a bouquet of yellow flowers.

A senior PMO official quoted Singh as telling his staff: “I am very thankful to you all for your service. May God bless you.”

A mid-level official later said: “I’ve worked in five government departments prior to the PMO, and I’ll tell you I’ve never worked for a boss with fewer demands. Here, he was the one person we never heard of getting upset.”

Such a certificate need not be an asset when “strong leadership” is the flavour of the season. In a farewell blog, BJP leader Arun Jaitely made several gracious remarks about Singh but added: “And yet, when he addressed the country he never came out as a leader…. He never wanted to rock the boat…. He will remain an elder statesman and a man of credibility to guide the nation. Only if he had stood up at the right time and disagreed, he would have been regarded with a still greater honour.”

As in 2004, Sonia stood by Singh today. She got the Congress to formally express its gratitude to the Prime Minister and told party leaders not to blame a possible defeat on Singh, contending it was a collective failure.

The Congress’s official machinery, almost always half-hearted in standing up for Singh, did Sonia’s bidding. Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said: “The party deeply appreciates the able stewardship of the Prime Minister during UPA-I and UPA-II.”

At the Race Course Road complex that houses the Prime Minister’s residence-cum-office, Singh and wife Gursharan Kaur have begun to supervise the packing. Most of Singh’s personal effects and books have already been shifted to 3 Motilal Nehru Marg. Singh will have secretarial staff and security but he is yet to find a cook.

24 Akbar Road, the Congress headquarters that shares a boundary wall with 10 Janpath, wore a deserted look throughout the day. There was no crowd outside 10 Janpath either.

Other Congress addresses such as 12 Tughlaq Crescent, the residence of Rahul Gandhi, and 15 Gurudwara Rakabgunj Road that functioned as Rahul’s workplace saw little activity today with regulars such as Jairam Ramesh, Mohan Gopal and Sam Pitroda going elsewhere.

Jairam was spotted at the Indian Women Press Corps. In his opening remarks, Jairam told journalists: “No questions on exit polls, please.”

A decade ago, too, exit polls had more or less predicted gloom for the Congress but the party was not as despondent then as it is now.

A decade ago, five national news networks and scores of publications had come up with opinion and exit polls predicting an NDA victory.

But some politicians had scraped the cup and found two tea leaves.

On May 11, 2004, the results of the Andhra Assembly polls were announced by the noon, ringing out the Chandrababu Naidu regime. Outside 10 Janpath, a small group from the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee (DPCC) had gathered. DPCC general secretary Shamim Ahmad could not resist declaring: “Aaj Andhra Pradesh, kal saara desh” (today it’s Andhra, tomorrow it will be the entire country).”

The other tea leaf? On May 12, 10 Janpath had a visitor. Anil Ambani of the then undivided Reliance called on Sonia for what was described as a “courtesy call”.

Ambani’s presence at 10 Janpath created a stir a kilometre away at the BJP’s headquarters at 11 Ashoka Road. The late Pramod Mahajan, then a BJP general secretary, reportedly confided in an aide: “The Ambanis’ gut feeling seldom goes wrong.”

On May 13, 2004 — the result day that fell three days earlier than this time —Shamim’s prophecy came true. By 10.30am, it was clear that Sonia’s roadshows had eclipsed India Shining.

Sonia had then clocked over 70,000km on the campaign trail, without much support from the Congress satraps. This time, Modi chopper-hopped from one meeting to another, logging over 3 lakh miles in six months and prompting critics to ask how much money had been splurged.

Today, too, there was a courtesy call — but it was Sonia who made the trip. Andhra was also in the picture — the Congress drew a blank in civic polls in Seemandhra but did well in Telangana.

Missing was a Shamim to declare that May 13, 2004, will repeat itself on May 16, 2014. But it ain’t over till the Big Box sings on Friday.