The closest English word for the desi word chamchagiri is sycophancy. But sycophancy doesn’t have the same depth as chamchagiri does. Sycophancy doesn’t make my tongue twirl in the same way as chamchagiri.
So let me take this opportunity to explain chamchagiri in some more detail through a song from the late Jaspal Bhatti’s superhit television serial Flop Show. For those who don’t know or don’t remember, each episode of the serial highlighted corruption from a different facet of life.
One particular episode dealt with the travails of a PhD candidate and his attempts to get a PhD. The PhD candidate (played brilliantly by Vivek Shaque, who died a few years back in a plastic surgery gone wrong) carries out various household chores, including buying vegetables for his guide (played by Bhatti) in the hope of getting his PhD.
Towards the end of every episode of Flop Show there was a parody of a hit Hindi film song. This particular episode had a spoof of the song jo tumko ho pasand wohi baat kahenge, tum din ko agar raat kaho raat kahenge.
The lines of the parody were different and went like this:
Jo tumko ho pasand wohi baat kahenge,
beaker ko agar jar kaho to jar kahenge.
(You can listen to the complete parody here)
This is the level of commitment required of a chamcha, something that the word sycophant simply does not convey.
Now before you start to wonder, dear reader, as to why have I gone into so much detail in trying to define or rather differentiate between chamchas and sycophants, allow me to explain.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you if I tell you that most Indian political parties are full of leaders who are essentially chamchas who have risen to the top or full of leaders who have become chamchas after being brought in at the top.
Some of the cadre-based parties like the Left Parties and Bharatiya Janata Party (to some extent) are exceptions to this.
But India’s number one party when it comes to chamchas is the Congress. Most recently the chamchagiri was in full show when top leaders of the party like P Chidambaram, Veerappa Moily, Jayanthi Natarajan, Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari and Rashid Alvi (all lawyers to boot) spoke out to vociferously defend the shenanigans of Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi, their supreme leader.
But Congress was not always a party of chamchas and chamchagiri. At least not till 1969. Historian and writer Ramachandra Guha explains this in an essay titled A Short History of Congress Chamchagiri, which is part of his recently released book Patriots and Partisans.
“Most Indians are too young to know this, but the truth is that until about 1969 the Congress was more or less a democratic party,“ writes Guha.
Some time before Jawaharlal Nehru died, Indira Gandhi had been planning to settle in Great Britain. After Nehru died in May 1964, she was invited to join the cabinet as the minister of information and broadcasting by Lal Bahadur Shastri, who took over as the next prime minister.
“When Shastri died in January 1966, Mrs Gandhi was, to her own surprise, catapulted into the post of the prime minister. There were other and better candidates for the job, but the Congress bosses (notably K Kamraj) thought that they could more easily control a lady they thought to be a gungi gudiya (dumb doll),“ writes Guha.
But instead of being a gungi gudia she turned out to be a control freak who split the party in 1969 and what was a essentially a decentralised and democratic party till that point of time became an extension of the whims, fancies and insecurities of a single individual.
Thus started an era of chamchas and chamchagiri in the Congress. Dev Kant Baruah, who was the President of the Congress Party between 1975 and 1977, went to the extent of saying “Indira is India and India is Indira“. What was loyalty to the party earlier became loyalty to the individual and the family.
Also Indira Gandhi had total control over the system, effectively overriding democracy and imposing emergency on 26 June 1975.
A famous cartoon made by Abu Abraham showed President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed in his bath during the emergency signing ordinances and saying “if there are any more ordinances just ask them to wait.” Other than this, Indira Gandhi also took to firing both chief ministers and governments at will.