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Politicians who don’t see writing on wall

New Delhi, May 19: Painted across the under-dome of the waiting hall in the Prime Minister’s Office at South Block is a mural whose message may have fallen on the power elite like water on a duck’s back.

It is an elaborate depiction of the Varna hierarchy and of the four phases of life as laid down in classical Hindiusm — brahmacharya, grihastha, vanaprastha and sanyasa (bachelorhood, family life, retreat and renunciation). In every life, there must come a time to give up and give way. One of the things the Indian political gene has come to demonstrate is defiance of classic Indian prescriptions in the noble and untiring pursuit of public service; our politicians do not know how to retire. Their dedication to be of use remains unremitting, even when they have been recommended the dustbin, or verily cast into it.

There is perhaps a poignancy to this quest for role and relevance, to remain available and willing. At 80-plus, L.K. Advani is still negotiating a role with a party that can’t do enough to convey to him he is no longer required. Murli Manohar Joshi has excavated new pockets of energy to remain in the race to serve. Both were meant to have been on an advisory from mothership RSS to rest easy, put their feet up. Both managed their way past the electoral turnstiles, and having successfully gotten through, it now seems logical they should have a role.

Of those mandated to the political woods in this election — the vanaprastha life — only one has responded: Bihar’s Nitish Kumar. And even he has appointed a proxy in Jitan Ram Majhi to keep the seat warm should there arrive an opportunity to return.

Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi, steamrolled by the BJP on home turf, blurted out his intention to resign, then quietly ate his words. His Maharashtra counterpart, Prithviraj Chavan, similarly routed, has sent out no hint he has heard the message from the electorate. But there may be reason to believe they are following orders to remain in harness, continue serving the people rather than capitulate.

Their resignation, after all, would have set a terrible example for their high command which today demonstrated how stoutly opposed it was to be heckled into the woods by the people, even if temporarily.

Resignation was the call ringing off the Congress precincts in the run-up to this evening’s Working Committee meeting: fix responsibility for this historic drubbing or assume it, identify failure, invoke corrections. This, after all, was the deepest hole the Congress had dug itself into. Who’s responsible?

But if it was to be Sonia Gandhi or Rahul, her organisational deputy, where would be the party itself be? Who, in the first place, would they resign to? This was no time to accept responsibility and retreat or retire. This was a time for re-dedication to the cause. If the two at the top were safe, the rest would be too; hang in together, nobody’s retreating into the woods yet.

And who, behold, emerges from that meeting to brief journalists that the Gandhis were in saddle and all was well? The grand old courtier, Makhanlal Fotedar, who the new generation of voter probably has no memory or notion of. “Nothing happened,” Fotedar, himself past 80, seemed to assure. “Nobody has resigned, what is the need? We need Sonia Gandhi most at the moment.” And Rahul? he was asked. “If Sonia is needed, Rahul is too.”

Matter closed.

Rahul, mind you, is the youngest among those who sat on that high CWC table, and probably can argue age and time remain on his side, if nothing much else is. The majority of those who sat alongside him this evening would easily have been recommended a quieter life by that mural in the waiting halls of the Prime Minister’s Office. But then, the dedication and will of the Indian politician to remain harnessed to the public cause is an altogether higher thing.


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