On Monday, a theatrical production was unveiled in New Delhi, with much thunderous clanging of cymbals to enhance the dramatic effect. But it didn't take long after the curtain went up for the audience to realise that it was merely a tired rendition of an old play, performed by a listless flock of B-grade artists who mouthed their lines without any verve - and exited stage left.
Ahead of Monday's Cabinet reshuffle - the second of the "last" revamps of the discredited UPA government (the earlier one, in October 2012, too was billed as the last) - Congress spin doctors put out the message that the exercise would enhance administrative efficiency and convey the government's earnestness about getting some long-delayed work done ahead of the next general elections. The government, they said, realised that it had many unkept promises to deliver, and would use the reshuffle to infuse young blood and animal spirits to the team and get into mission mode.
But the cast of characters who made their weary way to take their oath of office was remarkable only for their singular lack of flourish. The average age of the new Ministers who were sworn in on Monday was a biblical 70. The oldest of them - Sis Ram Ola, 86, - had been considered four years ago as being too infirm to hold public office; his appointment today perhaps suggests that Ola has, like Benjamin Button, has started ageing backwards, and is younger in his mind and body than he was then.
One doesn't have to be age-ist to point out that the Cabinet shouldn't exactly be treated like a retirement home. And while the experience and acumen that typically come with age are certainly desirable attributes that balance youthful vigour, it is hard to decipher precisely what administrative acumen these "nobodies from nowhere" - as Arun Shourie once termed the pointless shuffle of Ministers - bring to the job. As this headline observes, merit is hardly a consideration in the Ministerial appointments of Monday.
But, of course, in the Congress' case, there is an age-based glass ceiling that tethers its young leaders. In much the same way as the King of Siam decreed that no subject's head may be held higher than the king's, no "youth leader", it appears, can be allowed to outshine Rahul Gandhi, the eternal yuvraj. And until such time as Rahul Gandhi deigns to yield to the entreaties of his party leaders to accept the reins of power, the career paths of the other young dynasts in the party seem to be blocked.
In any case, it is one thing for the Congress to use its party positions as instruments for rewarding loyalists and for making appointments to send out the kind of political signals it wishes to (and is entitled to). But to use the Council of Ministers as levers of loyalty and for electoral considerations - at a time when the anguish over the collapse of governance is widely shared - is tragic in the extreme.
Monday's reshuffle establishes clearly that the Congress has abandoned even the pretence of governing. The reshuffle bore the stamp not of a government that wants to enhance administrative efficiency, but one that wants to use the loaves and fishes of office as political bait - and reward - with an eye on upcoming Assembly elections. Most of the appointments reek of cynical caste-based electoral calculations; it is not even certain that the electorate are fooled by such casteist tokenism, but it reflects poorly on the Congress' utter lack of political imagination that it still resorts to such artifice.
Other appointments - like that of Mallikarjuna Kharge, who was made Railway Minister - are seen as enticements to placate those who missed out on other big prizes. CP Joshi, the man who was keeping the Railway Minister's seat warm for Kharge, spent the past five weeks in absentia - because he was rather more preoccupied with securing his political base in Rajasthan, which goes to the polls later this year. That the Congress inflicted a shirker like Joshi on the nation - even at a time when when the UPA government is being pilloried for its poor governance and there is much work to be done - points to a sickening contempt for the sentiments of the people.
In any case, the listless shuffle of warm bodies from Point A to Point B may be proof of life, even if it hangs by a thread. But it is not a manifestation of vitality in a government. Much like the captain of the Titanic, who was busy rearranging the deck chairs long after the cruise liner had struck an iceberg and was taking in water, the UPA is playing musical chairs. It has lost the will to govern, and is merely marking time until the next elections, whose timing will be chosen to maximise its own electoral harvest. What price it will inflict on the nation from now until then is too much of a tragedy to contemplate.