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Smarty-pants on sycophants

For a party that has enough sycophants to fill the galleys of a fleet of 18th century slave ships, the Congress made a radical gesture this week: it officially recognised the presence of sycophants in the party, writes Indrajit Hazra.

india Updated: Apr 19, 2008 22:33 IST
Red Herring | Indrajit Hazra
Red Herring | Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times

For a party that has enough sycophants to fill the galleys of a fleet of 18th century slave ships, the Congress made a radical gesture this week: it officially recognised the presence of sycophants in the party. When Jayanthi Natarajan uttered the ‘s’ word in a press briefing — a day after the SFT in the centre but HRD outside Arjun Singh said that Rahul Gandhi was the natural choice as the Congress’s prime ministerial candidate — I fell off the chair. I was gobsmacked by the fact that the party, which for all these years had treated unabashed servility and extroverted flattery like bees in the garden and had made the likes of Dev Kant ‘Indira is India’ Barooah immortal, had finally stated that “Congress president Sonia Gandhi and party MP Rahul Gandhi have always kept away from sycophants.” Right. This had to be the beginning of something interesting.

Arjun Singh’s statement would have earlier elicited groans and eyeball-rolling from us. Everyone in the Congress, right down to the peon outside Salman Khurshid’s office, would have echoed Singh’s line wondering why — drat! — they hadn’t come up with the line first. And Rahul would have kept mum; his mum would have also kept mum and everything would have been sorted out by keeping a dignified silence that would be read as shyness. But not this time.

Singh was rapped on the knuckles. Natarajan, with her headmistress-like sternness, was trotted out to let the world know that there was no vacancy for the post of PM, the presence of Rahul in this world notwithstanding. Conspiracy theorists are, of course, still having a field day. I being one of them have the patent on Conspiracy No. 23: Arjun Singh had the backing of the High Command — hell, I can write ‘Sonia Gandhi’ now that the atmosphere of sycophancy is being lifted — to say all the things he said so that the ‘s’ word could be uttered in a tangible context.

So why this new, pro-active distaste for sycophants? The answer to that might lie in two interconnected reasons. One, a sycophant, by definition, is a servile person who acting in his own interest, tries to win favour by flattery. So it may be well within a Congress sycophant’s nature to crack jokes at his or her dinner table like: Knock, knock. Who’s there? Sonia. Sonia who? Sonia by-election, do I really have to leave this AC room and address a rally in Bijnor? But it is this self-interest of the sycophant that may be coming in the way of the party’s, Sonia’s and Rahul’s interests.

The second reason for this war against derrière-licking is that in the grand and complicated pecking order within the Congress, servility has become a competitive sport. The sycophants have their sycophants and the latter theirs. Even the proverbial peon outside the proverbial Salman Khurshid’s office finds his sustenance somewhere in the great mass of Congress-friendly humanity outside the party. So, too many servile cooks may be spoiling the broth (clue: assembly poll results in various states). Which is why Sonia Gandhi used that humble loyalist Arjun Singh to clean up the pools of drool left after regular slobberings.

And let’s be honest. It’s not as if the Congress has a monopoly on sycophants — although the party is the equivalent of the Louvre for hosting these masterpieces. Whether in offices or in colleges or anywhere in between, full-blown fawning — always, always packaged as ‘respect’ — seems to be hardwired into our DNA. And the tricky part for Sonia Gandhi is that if she had made a pre-emptive strike on sycophants without the ‘Arjun Singh context’, she would have come across as a ‘foreigner’ who doesn’t quite understand ‘the Indian psyche’.

Which, of course, completely explains how the Congress President retained the will to work with all those bunch of jokers who had bawled in public one after the other in a grand display of ‘loyalty’ in 2006 when m’lady had turned down the job of Prime Minister.