One of the best things about the election result has been that almost no one, including the most diehard detractor of the Congress party, has been critical about it. How can anyone be at so unambiguous a result? The public, the media and analysts of every persuasion at home and abroad have collectively joined in to thump the back of that indefinable entity known as the Great Indian Voter for its pragmatism and clarity.
If the election were a maths exam, the electorate has scored nearly perfect numbers. On top of that is the satisfactory sight of so much good behaviour on display: from Sonia Gandhi saying that Indian voters know what's good for them to Rahul Gandhi turning down a job in the government, and Dr Manmohan Singh, in his measured way, pleasing allies and all section of his party with a careful distribution of the prizes. Such a spirit of modesty, restraint and common sense is a rare sight among politicians.
But now that the prize distribution is over, Congress ministers and MPs who troop into Parliament next week should be girding their loins for a long hot spell ahead. Things are in a mess all round. The economy shows little sign of recovery and the budget deficit is shooting up. Agriculture is stagnating -- food grains rotting, no godown space left and exports banned. Infrastructure in most places rusting and ramshackle -- a few hours of power each day in many districts of Uttar Pradesh and road-building schemes that haven't gone anywhere.
Food security, health and education are an ongoing disaster story: 60 million children suffering from malnutrition, no basic right to education and subsidies that are a serious financial drain. The aam aadmi is desperate for relief in round two of the UPA government.
That's some of the bad news on the home front but the neighbourhood is on fire too. Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal may be wracked by internal strife but India is widely regarded with suspicion and loathing. That's why it was revealing to tune in the hot topics of discussion at a cosy victory celebration the other evening in Delhi with a sprinkling of MPs, a few of them first-timers.
Topic number one, naturally, was who was in the running for which ministry, closely followed by a rearrangement of accommodation: who, for instance, was likely to get the best bungalows, say, Mani Shankar Aiyar's or Renuka Chowdhury's? First-time MPs were keen to find out what type of digs they could aspire to in the capital's political pecking order. A popular subject was access to the Gandhi family, especially Rahul, proximity to whom is now perceived as the main life line in the Congress party.
There was virtually no talk of larger issues and debates. I asked a young MP with a public school background, freshly elected from a poor part of eastern India, what his constituency's primary needs were. He spoke of his ambitions for getting a power plant, which was curious, as he comes from a state with surplus power.
Bad habits die hard; and they are most likely to surface in a government coddled by the safety of numbers and with no challengers in sight. Complacency may soon replace the initial show of good manners after the heat and hardship of elections.
Sycophancy and arrogance are common attributes of those in power but they are second nature in the Congress with its tradition of dynastic politics. Congress culture in Indira Gandhi's time meant following a path of dissidence or subservience -- there was no third way. 'Sanjay's caucus' and 'Rajiv's cronies' were phrases so widely used in their time that they seemed specially minted for them. 'Rahul's gang' -- energetic, motivated and representative of the country's youth vote -- could lose their lustre fast.
The choice between good behaviour and bad habits will define the future of Sonia Gandhi's party and Manmohan Singh's government.