If former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao had been a pupil at a toff English school like Eton or Rugby, he would have made the perfect prefect: he knew how to torture the hopeful. It is well known in political circles that Rao did not waste too much morality on politics. His priorities were different. At the top came what was useful to him; second place went to what was good for the country. There was no third.

Rao was cynical enough to be a brilliant administrator. Ministers who did not know their limits quickly found out the limits of his patience. But they were the lucky lot. For every minister there were four MPs thirsting for his job. Rao was a master at buying the loyalty of those waiting at the door of Cabinet by offering them hope and postponing delivery. This was a refined form of Chinese torture, and he was so good at it that one assumes he must have enjoyed it thoroughly. The only time when he turned the Cabinet into a Diwali sale was when his job was under threat after the demolition of the Babri mosque in December 1992. In January 1993, he handed over a lollipop to every Congress Muslim MP within eye contact. Needless to add, Congress Muslim MPs swallowed this lollipop with great glee; the mosque occupied only minor space in their conscience. Once Rao’s job was safe, he made every other aspirant in the long queue sweat till the pips burst. His last reshuffle was perhaps six months before the elections.

The only minister who was given the luxury of taking his time over joining the Cabinet was the surprise choice for finance minister, a mild-mannered and soft-spoken former deputy chairman of the planning commission called Dr Manmohan Singh. Dr Singh took 48 hours to accept a job which any Congress politician would have accepted in 48 seconds. He was also the only Cabinet minister whose resignation, later on, was turned down. When P. Chidambaram and Madhavrao Scindia resigned, over different issues, they might have been taken aback with the alacrity with which their resignations were accepted, given that both had done good work in office. Dr Singh does not possess his mentor’s cold political mind, but he has learnt something from Rao: he can keep a cool distance from the acrobatics of wannabes. But as he prepares for the final shuffle of a pack of cards in a gambling game replete with unexpected and even unmanageable variations, he is suddenly faced with a rare dilemma. While his own party is teeming with those desperate to become prince for even a day, Congress allies are becoming the opposite of Oliver Twist: they want less, not more.

Everyone has already feasted at the bloated table of government. The next lot of ministers is being invited to coffee at the end of the meal, and it tastes bitter.

Mamata Banerjee, of course, wants nothing at all. Dr Singh can live with that. But life becomes much more problematic when DMK, a party famous for gulping more than it can chew, decides that it can do without additional nutrition since the menu comes nowhere near its appetite. Contrast this with 2009, when DMK ministers were pleading anxiously for what can only be called B Class portfolios. Nor is this the end of it. Dr Singh’s government cannot survive an hour without the support of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati. Neither wants ministers in the Singh Cabinet.

Reluctant allies have postponed a September reshuffle to an October one, or perhaps dragged the process into November. Spare a thought for those hopefuls who have ordered new suits for a swearing-in ceremony. Poor chaps. This means six weeks less of swagger in an already curtailed tenure.

That is the crux of the problem: time has run out. Everyone has already feasted at the bloated table of government. The next lot of ministers is being invited to coffee at the end of the meal, and it tastes bitter. Moreover, they will be asked, at election time, to share the tab for the whole meal although all they have tasted is coffee.

Dr Manmohan Singh’s political career began when he was selected in 1991 by Rao to be a part of the solution; he succeeded because he was not part of the problem. He does not have that alibi in 2012. After having been in power for more than eight years, Congress cannot blame others for corruption and inflation, the twin poles of looming disaster. Turning Mamata Banerjee into a culprit simply does not wash; she had enough MPs to object but never enough to bring down the government. If Congress believed that it could have averted an economic crisis by taking certain decisions, they could have been taken two years ago. Moreover, Mamata Banerjee never stopped this government from bringing down prices or sending the police into the homes and offices of coal block scam artists.

When your shop is empty during a Diwali sale, then you surely must understand that your sell-by date is over.

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