Contrary to what recent events may suggest, the cloying sycophancy associated with the Congress is a relatively new phenomenon in the organization.
Its roots lie in Indira Gandhi's emergency rule of 1975-77, a mere 30 years ago in a 123-year-old party. Like the display of servile obsequiousness, the Emergency itself was out of tune with the Congress' liberal tradition.
Earlier, the party may have extolled outstanding leaders but it was generally on guard against excessive adulation. Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, had even warned against the danger of Caesarism with himself in mind.
In an article written anonymously in the Modern Review in 1937, he said: "Caesarism is always at the door and is it not possible that Jawaharlal himself might fancy himself as a Caesar?"
Ironically, it was his daughter who fancied herself as a Czarina, curtailing civil rights during the Emergency and accepting without demur the fulsome praise of then party president Dev Kanta Borooah that "Indira is India".
Even if the Congress hasn't scaled such ridiculous heights of sycophancy since then, it has become customary for party men to project the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty as not only exceptional but to virtually proclaim that only its members were fit to rule India and that others in such positions were there by sufferance, as it were.
The latest such outbursts of sycophancy were by senior Congressmen like Arjun Singh and Pranab Mukherjee, both of whom spoke in favorable terms about the possibility of 37-year-old Rahul Gandhi becoming the next prime minister.
Before them, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and some Nationalist Congress Party leaders had spoken in the same vein.
It was just as well, therefore, that before such idolization got out of hand, party spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan stepped in, evidently with the approval of the first family, to warn against "an environment of sycophancy". Not only that, she went on to praise the present prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and his team for their "magnificent record of achievements".
Considering that this was probably the first time that the word, sycophancy, with its unflattering connotation was used by the party leadership against the unabashed flatterers, it was obvious that the leaders were serious and not merely pretending to be outraged.
The kudos for the prime minister were also significant. It is known, for instance, that a major purpose of the sycophants in suggesting the name of a member of the dynasty for the prime minister's post was to downgrade the present occupant. Not surprisingly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seized upon this inner-party games in the Congress to urge Manmohan Singh to "step down" since Rahul Gandhi's projection as the prime ministerial candidate showed the Congress's lack of confidence in the gentle Sikh.
While Arjun Singh has for long been known to have resented Manmohan Singh's elevation to the top post, what was surprising was that the perceptive Pranab Mukherjee should have added his voice to the demand. If anything, it shows that even astute Congressmen try to play safe when it involves the dynasty.
However, the latest stance of the high command - read Congress president Sonia Gandhi - suggests a welcome departure from the unfortunate trend that has been in force since Indira Gandhi's time. If it dilutes the excessive preoccupation of the party men with the first family, then the organization cannot but benefit. It is self-evident that promising young people will not come to the fore in the party in increasing numbers because of the suspicion that the top post will be forever beyond their reach.
Historically, the Congress derived its strength from the presence of powerful leaders not only at the national level but also in the states. Even at the time of Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad, Govind Ballav Pant and others at the centre, there were highly influential state-level politicians like B.C. Roy in West Bengal, Biju Patnaik in Orissa, Srikrishna Sinha in Bihar, Kamlapati Tripathi in Uttar Pradesh, Pratap Singh Kairon in Punjab, Y.B. Chavan in Maharashtra and so on.
It was in that period when even the towering personalities of the party at the centre were no more than the first among equals that the Congress was at the height of its power. If the warning against sycophancy makes the party men realise that they will be harming their own prospects by their eulogy for the first family, then there is some hope that they will shed their irritating habit and enable the party to recover some of its lost glory.
It may not have been the dislike of sycophancy alone that persuaded the party leadership to voice its objections. As the reference to the creditable performance of the Manmohan Singh government showed, the leaders may have realized that it would be committing electoral suicide by undermining the prime minister's position on the eve of the next general election.
After all, Manmohan Singh is not only a highly respected economist but is also regarded as a man of integrity. His initiative with regard to the nuclear deal has made him a favorite of the middle classes while the high growth rate is attributed to the economic reforms that began when he was finance minister in 1991. To replace him with a young man who is still engaged in "discovering" India is unlikely to boost the Congress' electoral prospects.
The Congress may have also realized that some of the allies are rooting for Rahul Gandhi so that such a ploy will lower the party's tally of parliamentary seats, making it more vulnerable to the wishes of the caste-based regional outfits. Hence, perhaps, the backtracking on Rahul Gandhi and on sycophancy.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)