Indians are strong believers in astrology and superstition and their political masters are no exception. Newly elected governments take the oath of office on auspicious days and at the time chosen by astrologers. Once they assume office, ministers choose their rooms in the Secretariat after conducting due diligence of the rooms’ coordinates and history, notably, the length of stay of the previous occupants. They change the paint on the wall, drapery and upholstery and rearrange furniture as directed by their spiritual gurus.
But then, the best laid plans of men and mice often go awry. Look at what happened to a Chief Minister in the mid-1980s. Under his leadership, his party returned to power with a thumping majority, making him the obvious choice to head the new government. Sure enough, the date was fixed for the swearing-in in consultation with astrologers and so were the venue and time. Invitation cards were printed and circulated for the ceremony on the lawns of Raj Bhavan. The time fixed was 10 a.m. It was all smooth sailing, or so it appeared.
On the eve of the great day, the astrologers came up with a request, amounting to a command to pull off a mission impossible. The Chief Minister should be administered the oath precisely at two minutes past 10 a.m. to ensure the incumbent a full tenure of five glorious years. That hapless man, the Secretary to the Chief Minister, was entrusted with ensuring strict compliance with the planetary dictates. Failure was clearly unpardonable and the sack was a sure consequence.
The Secretary thought hard late into the night and hit upon an idea. At the crack of dawn, he rang up Raj Bhavan and made a request to allow a group of senior citizens, almost all of septuagenarians, to greet the Governor as he walked down from his bungalow to the lawns for the ceremony. Permission was graciously granted and with some assistance from the police, the hastily gathered group was stationed strategically to catch the eye of the Governor as he came down the Raj Bhavan steps.
The Governor came out at 9.55 a.m. sharp and his eyes lit up as he saw the old men waving to him. Greetings and pleasantries were exchanged to ensure the right amount of delay and exactly at 10.02 a.m., the new Chief Minister was sworn in, much to his relief. After being sworn in, the Chief Minister repaired promptly to New Delhi to take directions from the party high command on ministry formation. As he waved to a crowd from the top of the ladder of the state aeroplane, little did he or anyone else realise how fortune was to play a churlish joke soon!
Around 11 the next morning, teleprinters were busy running a message that the newly sworn- in Chief Minister was being posted as Governor of another State rife with law and order problems arising out of separatist demands. Even as the sweet fragrance of success lingered on in the air, he had to leave his State to take up new posting. In the gloom that descended one wondered who was to be faulted, planets or astrologers.
A particular Prime Minister was known to be fully guided by the astrological advice of a godman in doing practically anything. On one occasion the date and time of induction of some new ministers were fixed and announced over Doordarshan, only to be changed at the very last moment, the reason being the date chosen earlier, according to another set of astrologers, was so inauspicious that things begun that day would have ended up in fire and smoke!
Then there was a Finance Minister, who set much store on spot predictions. This spawned a group of acolytes, many of them officials, who made a beeline for his office after lunch to work out what the afternoon held for him. Rumour, no doubt exaggerated, had it that no less than a Cabinet Secretary, an amateur astrologer, ministered to the FM’s penchant for divining what the stars foretold hour to hour.
Selection of an auspicious and spacious office room is generally of much concern to ministers who join the government for the first time and to those who return after a prolonged exile. Some rooms are better avoided as they have a reputation for having sheltered occupants with forgettable tenures. Udyog Bhavan in New Delhi had two rooms that carried inauspicious tags and barring unwary newcomers, none could not be inveigled into occupying them.
A Minister for Steel, an old hand who was returning to the government after some time, refused to occupy either of these rooms and even preferred shifting to Shastri Bhavan on the other side of Rajpath. Some last-minute adjustments were made to accommodate him in Udyog Bhavan itself, much to the relief of some senior mandarins in Shastri Bhavan who stood to lose their rooms in the event of the minister moving in there.
Once a proper office room is selected and occupied, the new Minister’s priority is to decide whether a matter, though long pending in his department, is worth taking up or not. This is indeed a dicey issue for any newcomer. On a matter like this, placing reliance only on official advice may not always be the right prescription, for not all files are innocuous; some carry with them a curse.
Such a curse explained the reluctance of a Chief Minister to deal with a file on reorganisation of the Department of Publicity. Chief Ministers like to keep this department directly under their charge as it gives them ample opportunity to have one-on-one contact with editors and senior journalists and earn their goodwill. So when a raw Secretary of the Department brought to the notice of a newly installed Chief Minister that its reorganisation had been pending for years and needed his urgent attention, the Chief Minister tried to put him off politely.
But when the official insisted, the old man asked him whether he knew anything about the superstition surrounding the file. He was made wise of history that on all earlier occasions when a reorganisation of the Department was attempted, not only the minister concerned but the entire government went out of office. Wizened foreheads know that like sleeping dogs, sleeping files are better left to lie.
Do politicians abroad believe in superstition? Read Natwar Singh on the meeting between the late Margaret Thatcher and our own Chandraswami before she became Prime Minister of the U.K. for the first time. The godman advised her to wear a red saree on Tuesdays (Op.Ed page, The Hindu, April 9, 2013). The rest is history.
( The writer is a former Secretary to the Government of India: His email: firstname.lastname@example.org )