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The sun had gone down but 10, Janpath resembled a bee-hive on a late evening on the 13th of August, with courtiers scurrying around like drones through the corridor. A Union Cabinet Minister, a veteran leader – one of the many timeservers in India’s grand old party, and a gaggle of sycophants were seated in the chairs lining the verandah of the stately bungalow, sipping highly sugared tea. Most of them were there for no reason in particular. Merely catching Sonia’s eye if she happened to come out for breath of fresh air would make their day.
The Congress President was still working in her office, the room at the end of a long corridor lined with portraits of Congress Presidents since 1947. “What? Jha wants a raise?” hollered Sonia’s voice, loud enough to reverberate all the way to the outer courtyard. “Well, tell him to stuff it. Also, field Salman and Tewari tomorrow in defense of Robert,” she said and banged the land-line phone.
Then her cellphone rang. The one for political emergencies. Ahmed Patel, with impressive agility, bent over to pick it up. “Hello, Ranjit. Business taken care of?” he asked. “Well, if Mulayam still feels that the FSB is anti-farmer, then please tell him in unequivocal terms that the disproportionate case against him has not been closed yet. Is that clear? Good night, Ranjit,” he said and disconnected. “Don’t worry, madam. We have the numbers. I have a plan B and also Plan C lined up anyway,” he tried to reassure his boss.
“Please don’t talk like that, Ahmed. It reminds me of a certain…”
There was a gentle tap on the door, followed by a pause, and then a double tap, and after a few more seconds, another tap.
“Kaun he bhe? Bola na madam busy hain?” shouted Ahmed.
There was no answer but only another bout of knocking that went ‘tap, tap-tap, tap-tap-tap-tap’, this time with greater tempo to convey a sense of annoyance.
“Oh that must be Dr. Manmohan Singh. Come in Dr. Singh. Sorry for not recognizing your signature style of conveying your presence,” said Sonia.
Dr. Singh came in, poker-faced as usual, hands folded in a namaste, a file tucked under his arm.
“Namaste to you too, Dr. Singh. If its one of your proposals on economic reforms or the latest version of the 12th Five Year Plan, can it wait till next week? This week has been crazy for me,” said Sonia.
Dr. Singh shook his head and pointed to a date on the calendar.
“Eh? August 15th? What’s so special about it?….Oh right, India’s independence day. My bad. Completely slipped my mind. I presume you have come to show me the speech and have me sign off on it?”
Dr. Singh nodded again.
“Ok, Have you made the customary references to Rajivji, Indiraji and Panditji?”
Dr. Singh finally spoke. “Yes madam. Lauded Panditji for laying the foundations of nationhood and institution building – 1 para. Indiraji, I have praised, for the green revolution and pro-poor policies – 1.5 paras. And 2 paragraphs devoted to Rajivji for laying the seeds of technological progress and nurturing of Panchayati Raj institutions,” he said in a feeble, mono-tone, voice.
Sonia was pleased. “That seems fine. And you have ended by patting ourselves for inclusive growth? You have used the phrase ‘inclusive growth’ right?”
“Good. I am cool with it. Have Ashwani proof-read it for typos and grammatical errors, to be on the safe side. Thank you, Dr. Singh.”
Dr. Singh was still standing, staring back at Sonia.
“er….I think we are done here, Manmohanji. Now if you will please excuse me…”
“Madam, I have a small favour to ask,” Dr. Singh said. There was a slight edge to his tone, a trace of emotion creeping into it.
Sonia removed her spectacles, looked up and asked Dr. Singh to have a seat. Sonia was in the business of dispensing favours. She dealt with Ministers, workers, and leaders day in and day out, rewarding some, punishing others. That after all was her primary job, her source of power and influence. But Dr. Singh had never asked her for a favour. A paragon of probity and reticence, he had gone about his job as the nation’s premier administrator with robot like precision, never once seeking ‘special rewards’, even as people under him helped themselves to the cookie-jar.
Sonia’s eyes moistened. After nine years of selfless service, it was but natural now. He had certainly earned it. She smiled, her maternal instincts coming to the fore.
“Ask what favour you want, Manmohanji. It shall be granted. A sinecure for one of your relatives? Some funds from the party coffers? A coal block? A ticket for Upinder to the Rajya Sabha? A university named after your father?” asked Sonia. “Speak you mind. I totally understand where you are coming from.”
Dr. Singh vigorously shook his head, shocked that his boss could think like this about him.
“No, no…not anything like that at all. Its just that…” Dr. Singh began to hesitate.
“Go one, Manmohanji. Whatever you want, just ask. It will be done. Speak your mind,” she gently nudged him.
Dr. Singh took a deep breath. “Madam, this will be my last independence day speech. Can I please also credit my former boss, Narasimha Raoji, for the 1991 reforms and set the record straight that if it wasn’t for him, those reforms wouldn’t have been possible? That is all I ask as reward for my selfless service for the last nine years.”
A frown materialized on her brow. She felt like blurting out “NO WAY” but controlled herself.
“Aapka dimaag theek hai?” barked Ahmed but Sonia restrained him with a wave of her hand. “It’s ok, Ahmed. Very well, Dr. Manmohan ji. Just this once, you can acknowledge that man but…”
A huge smile appeared on Dr. Singh’s face the moment she said those words. “Theek hai!” he exclaimed, and bounded out before she could change her mind.