Dr Manmohan Singh was worried. No, not worried, but concerned. No, not concerned, but agitated. Yes. When curiosity starts biting viciously, the mind cannot but get agitated. He was, of course, curious. And there seemed to be no way of quenching that curiosity. The media were agog with rumours about an impending cabinet reshuffle. If it had been an official announcement, the PM would not have bothered. He knew that a formal denial would follow. This was a rumour featured in all gossip columns. The greatest gossip of them all, the visual media, were also forecasting a cabinet reshuffle. One can ignore news, but the man who disregards a rumour, does so at his own peril.
So the cultured Doctor was sure that there was going to be a reshuffle. But who was going to barge in and who was going to be kicked out? Will the portfolios of the ministers be changed? Who will get what? The PM was anxious to know. Of course, being only the PM and not Sonia Gandhi, he had no right to expect to know anything in advance. His lot, he knew, was to wait and watch.
He would come to know, when the ministers would be sworn in by Abdul Kalam. No, no, not Abdul Kalam. He was no longer the President. That woman — what was her name? — some Patel. Ahamed Patel? No, a woman. Some other Patel. Ah! Pratibha Patil! When she would say 'I...' and rest her office, the ministers — at least the new ones if any — would have to confess their names and admit their identities. Then the Prime Minister would know.
But curiosity is something that cannot wait to be killed at the last moment. He wanted to know in advance, at least before the invited audience at the Rashtrapati Bhavan came to know the names and the faces. What faces? Does it matter at all? After all, whatever the face is now, it will be lost once the person joined the cabinet. But that is a side issue. Who are going to become ministers? That is the question now. Curiosity, earlier biting the PM, now started eating into him. He had to do something about it.
He could ask Karunanidhi. At least he would know, whether his daughter was going to be inducted into the cabinet or not. But if Dr Manmohan Singh talked to him, Karunanidhi would definitely talk about the Ram Sethu issue. He would want to know the Centre’s position on it and the line it was going to take before the Supreme Court. And what could the PM say? If the government knew what it was going to tell the Supreme Court, it would have already done so. The government, being a secular one, had nothing but contempt for Rama. But he seemed to carry some votes in his pocket. If there was a way of keeping the votes and letting Rama go, the government would have embraced the idea with enthusiasm.
But Karunanidhi would not listen. He wanted the bridge to go along with Rama, making way for TR Balu, the Shipping Minister to sail in the Palk Straits. So talking to Karunanidhi would only be inviting acrimony.
Lalu Prasad Yadav might know all about the cabinet reshuffle. But if the PM asked Lalu to satisfy his curiosity, Lalu may use the occasion to demand a Bharat Ratna for Rabri Devi. Sure, anyone who would be prepared to accept the award from the hands of the present President would be making the ultimate sacrifice. The sacrifice of self-respect. That itself, being an act of the highest form of humility, would make the person deserving of the highest award. But then, if Rabri was given the Bharat Ratna, the next in line would be Mrs Deve Gowda. And Sonia Gandhi would not like that.
So Lalu cannot be approached. Who else? Pranab Mukherjee? He was already considering himself to be more important than the PM. Why confirm it by seeking enlightenment from him? Chidambaram could be knowing some particulars, as his son was close to DMK circles, thus being in a position to know Sonia Gandhi’s mind. But, after the recent coronation by a TV channel as the Indian Politician of the Year, Chidambaram would be assuming airs. Not that he did not have any earlier. But the air assumed by him now could be so dense that he may be causing a low pressure area around himself. And worse, under the pretext of mentioning in passing the next budget, he may start giving lessons in economics to Dr Manmohan Singh. That being the ultimate in humiliation, would be the limit. No, no Chidambaram. Anyway who knew what was going to happen to him in the reshuffle? The Leftists were already baying for his blood.
Talking of Leftists, Prakash Karat would certainly be posted with all details about the reshuffle. But if he was approached, he may start talking about the nuclear deal. It was already exploding in the PM’s face, and he did not want to invite another blast. The effects of radiation had started to tell.
Arjun Singh may be expected to find out at least some aspects of the reshuffle. But he would carry tales to Sonia Gandhi, accusing the PM of being a nosey sort of man, exhibiting an inquisitiveness, totally unbecoming of his office.
The PM was by now a man resigned to his fate. He wrote on a piece of paper lying on his table, “Who am I to aspire to know anything in advance? I am only a Prime Minister. There are higher powers.” He studied it to steady himself, and stifle his curiosity. And to divert his mind, he switched on the TV set. Someone was giving a pitch report prior to a one-day fixture and pointing to a spot on the pitch said, “Look… over here, yes over here…”
The other words were lost on the PM. The words “over here” had an electrifying effect on him. Yes. That’s it! One can ‘overhear’! Sonia and Rahul Gandhi would definitely be discussing the cabinet reshuffle, to decide who was going to be made what. If only he could go to Sonia Gandhi’s residence, hide in a convenient corner, and listen, he could get all details. But could he? The hiding part of it, he could carry out with consummate skill, having perfected the art by sheer practice. After all, whenever the communists came to discuss the proposed pact with the US, he had successfully hidden himself.
When he started weighing the pros and cons of attempting to overhear the conversation between Sonia and her son, his enthusiasm diminished. There were no pros, but plenty of cons. Just then, he heard some footsteps. Someone was approaching. No, there were two of them, somebody talking to somebody. Yes. They were Sonia and Rahul approaching his room.
Dr Manmohan Singh was shaken. Their arrival on the scene, just as he was considering the outrageous act of overhearing their conversation, disconcerted him. He felt as if he was already eavesdropping. His conscience castigated him. He felt guilty. He also knew, that his face would reveal all. His was the face of a nobleman, and it would not hide his inner secrets. One look at him, and she would know. He must avoid the mother and the son. He took a decision. His face would not hide anything, but he could hide himself. He jumped from his chair, jumped around the sofa set, jumped over a table, and the final jump led him behind a wardrobe. As he stood motionless, a practice which had grown on him through his years of prime ministership, Sonia and Rahul seated themselves near the table where he had been sitting and brooding. They thought that he had gone to the restroom, and would be returning shortly.
Just then, Sonia Gandhi’s eyes fell on the piece of paper on which he had been scribbling. The words, “Who am I to aspire to know anything in advance? I am only a Prime Minister. There are higher powers,” stared at her.
She was impressed and showed it to Rahul. He too was impressed. “Could we ever hope to get a Prime Minister like him? Whoever comes or goes, he must stay.” As he heard these words of Sonia Gandhi, Dr Manmohan Singh, heaved a silent sigh of relief. Whatever the blasted reshuffle did, it would not touch him.
Cho Ramaswamy is a political commentator and Editor, Tughlak