"One’s past is what one is. It is the only way by which people should be judged." —Oscar Wilde
Take a look at Exhibit 1. It is a moment of rare quality. Three men have reduced themselves to a classic abjectness in the face of the formidable Mrs Gandhi. One in particular shines through, the man in dark glasses, with the Gandhi topi. He has hit the critical mass of sycophancy: one jot more and he is in danger of dissolving into a puddle of slime.
Now flip the page, and assess Exhibit 2. More than a decade-and-a-half has passed. But with the stamina and resolve of the finest long distance runner, the man—topi still in place—has saved up enough sycophantic energy for a strong kick down the last stretch. His head is at Narasimha Rao’s knees, and Rao is holding on to his hands to keep him from plummeting to the ground. In glorious servility, in a total surrender of the self.
Now check out the colour picture on top. The glasses are no longer opaque, and the slit eyes visible through them have the casual menace of an alligator’s. The liquid lower lip for once has coagulated into some fuzzy kind of determination. And the wagging finger has the authoritarian quality of an executioner, condemning those at his mercy to the electric chair.
Chief among those Sitaram Kesri executed without trial in 1997 were two prime ministers, with their attendant governments. And he did it without the help of ideology, without resorting to judicial niceties, without taking into account the larger picture. He did it, in true villainous fashion, on malicious whim, reacting to imaginary slights, grasping for narrow, narrow gain.
On a quiet Sunday morning on March 30, Kesri sought an appointment with the then president S.D. Sharma and informed him that on behalf of the Congress he was withdrawing support to H.D. Deve Gowda.
It mattered nought to him that a crucial budget session was about to begin, nor that high-level Indo-Pak talks were on the anvil. What mattered to him were the calculations that he lives by: both as a backroom boy of several decades whose survival depends on his understanding of the weird circuitry of party power, and as moneybags of the Congress whose sleight of hand has long helped keep the party solvent. And Kesri’s calculations told him, slaughter Gowda now if you want a shot at becoming prime minister. For in sheer funk, the United Front MPs, who are against elections on one hand, and a BJP government on the other, will have no choice but to support you.
The execution was carried out. Uncertainty and chaos ensued. And then, since the world is not the Congress and does not follow its peculiar rhythms, Kesri’s calculations floundered. Inder Kumar Gujral, not him, became the prime minister. But with the chameleonic instincts of the great Congress survivors (see exhibits again), he pretended this was his victory, greasily hugging an uneasy Gujral, asserting everything was exactly as he wanted.
The sad truth is that the difference between heroism and villainy is a mere eyeblink. It’s not about greed, avarice, brutality, lust. It’s all about bad timing. One age’s hero is another’s villain. Jim Corbett today would be behind bars. Azhar making the run is a genius, getting run-out a fixer. Henry Miller in the thirties a pornographer, in the eighties a visionary.Kesri has the timing of an arch villain. As 1997 wore to a close, on November 28, he executed his second prime minister, convinced that if he did not force the moment it would pass him by forever.
And so a benign government, with a degree of decency and vision, was short-circuited. The point is Kesri’s villainous executions have affected not just one man, not just one party, but the entire country. In a country where the average per capita annual income is barely Rs 17,000, one man’s naked greed has caused a second election in 21 months. An exercise that will cost the nation upward of Rs 1,000 crore. A country that needs to hammer together a strong minimum common agenda that will give its economy confidence—which has been sorely shaken in the last many months—has been hurled into a new period of uncertainty. Just because one boy from the organisational trenches has been staring so wide-eyed at the stars that he’s forgotten his place in the scheme of things.
Sitaram Kesri’s notoriety is firmly in place, sealed for history in 1997. For our villain of the year has not only derailed governments, but has also ravaged the party that bred him. Not to Rajiv Gandhi, not to Narasimha Rao, but to Sitaram Kesri will go the honours for burying the party of Nehru and Gandhi. In a curious way, things for the Congress have come a full circle. The party founded by an ornithologist 112 years back essentially as a forum for elite Indians has, after a glittering history of mass struggle and mass acceptance, retreated into the politics of closed rooms, headed appropriately by the master of closed-room deals and strategies.
Inevitably there is the stench of decay and mustiness, and Congressmen are beginning to flee in search of air. The old bat of course is unmoved, as he hangs by the rafters, away from the light, viewing the world upside down, convinced he sees best. Compared to him, the earlier architects of Congress decline look positively magnificent, Indira a goliath, Rajiv a visionary, Rao a statesman. But to his credit, Kesri has remained true to his pictorial promise. Just that it’s not his party-men alone who are slipping in his slime, but the entire country.