JOHN Kennedy’s exhortation to not ask what one’s country could do for the citizens but what they could do for the country appealed to James Bond in a quaint way. His lines from the movie You Only Live Twice struck a universal chord insofar as they could be applied to a large corpus of politicians and lackeys of power across South Asia. “The things I do for England,” Bond says, with a faux patriotic tone that is betrayed by a wink behind his quarry’s back.

It is always an experience to watch politicians claiming to have sacrificed their lives for the country. India and Pakistan have a surfeit of them. It would not be incorrect to say that India’s much-applauded economic reforms became possible by bribing a clutch of MPs, in the national interest no doubt, to vote for the 1991-1992 budget. Without that timely sacrifice of the heroes of the moment, the reforms would be doomed. MLAs are bought and sold in national service. The things they have to do for their country would make Bond look like a shirker. Like the hoarders of grain of yore they are often put in a plane en masse to an unnamed destination where they await a transition from government A to government B not without a reward for their lucrative act of patriotism.

A Congress leader quit the party the other day, not the first in a flurry of departures in recent years. His voice was larded with thick emotion as he exuded a sense of betrayal by the high command to a very concerned TV anchor. The long and short of it was that the 73-year-old Ghulam Nabi Azad had sacrificed his long life for the party only to be humiliated by the current leadership. He specifically named Rahul Gandhi for his departure.

Records show that Azad was indeed a party veteran, having joined the Congress as a local Kashmiri leader from Doda in 1973. During the 1975-1977 Emergency, he became a close associate of Sanjay Gandhi, Mrs Gandhi’s younger son who before the advent of Narendra Modi had brought Indian democracy to its knees. After this patriotic link, Azad would sacrifice a bit of his life to hold coveted offices both within the party and as minister in various Congress governments. A sample of his difficult challenges is revealed by Wikipedia.

A Congress leader quit the party the other day, not the first in a flurry of departures in recent years.

Azad started his career working as the secretary for the Block Congress Committee in Bhalessa in 1973. Two years later, he was nominated as president of the Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Youth Congress. In 1980, which would be around Mrs Gandhi’s post-Emergency innings, he became head of the All-India Youth Congress.

Elected to the seventh Lok Sabha from Maharashtra’s Washim constituency in 1980, Azad became deputy minister with Mrs Gandhi, in charge of the law, justice and company affairs ministry.

He was elected to the eighth Lok Sabha in 1985 when, after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, he became close to Rajiv Gandhi, the elder brother of Sanjay, whose Emergency antics Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi had kept a distance from. Azad joined Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra in 1990. In the Narasimha Rao government, he held the parliamentary affairs and civil aviation ministries, the latter a greatly coveted post that trusted or critical allies are given.

I’ve met Ghulam Nabi Azad once when he was minister of civil aviation. I needed his help to find a seat on a packed plane from Bagdogra to Delhi after covering Narasimha Rao’s election rally in Sikkim. He found me a seat from the quota for Congress leaders. It was curious how under Azad’s watch as aviation minister Indian airlines stopped serving liquor on domestic flights. He seemed to be the convenient fall guy as a Muslim minister in a move that had socio-corporate purposes.

Among his other ‘sacrifices’ for the party and country, he became chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir in 2005 when he awarded forestland to serve the needs of a Hindu pilgrimage, which set off violent protests by Kashmiri Muslims. When he took back the award, Hindu groups came out to protest.

During this violence perhaps some Gujarati visitors among others fell victim. Azad called the state’s chief minister Narendra Modi to express his regrets. Modi was in tears when Azad gave his farewell speech in the Rajya Sabha as Congress MP and leader of the opposition. That was his last contribution to the party and the country. There are rumours of him wanting to serve the country a bit more but that is beside the point.

Look at another gentleman, a senior minister in Congress governments. He was a lawyer for a business captain who the Gandhis saw as corrupt and with whose support Mr Modi became the business community’s choice as prime minister. Another leader to quit the party was a lawyer for another businessman named by the young Gandhi in his speeches. The leader joined a regional party in which the business captain holds sway.

Going by the dominant definition of what working for the country means, a bevy of intellectuals spending time in Indian jails currently seem to have missed the benefits of enjoying Ian Fleming’s essential humour. Teesta Setalvad, who has spent a good part of her life organising legal support for victims of Gujarat pogroms, was lucky to have been granted bail by the highest court which had sent her there. Online news fact-checker Muhammed Zubair got away with bail. He was truly very lucky.

Monday (Sept 5) marked five years since Gauri Lankesh was assassinated by Hindutva gunmen at her home in Bengaluru. The journalist-activist was among three other activists who were killed in recent years by the same forces for educating the masses to fight blind faith and superstition. They thought they were working for the love of the country but apparently didn’t watch James Bond movies enough.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

[email protected]

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2022

Categorized in: