'Governor,' the man declared, 'I would like your support to take our late friend's place.' 'It is perfectly agreeable to me,' the disgusted Wilson responded, 'if it is agreeable to the undertaker.'
What would the acerbic American have made of the cries to make Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy chief minister of Andhra Pradesh even before his father's body had reached Hyderabad for the state ceremonies?
The Congress leadership stated that any replacement would be considered only after the official period of mourning ended; the Kadapa MP's fans, however, were as uninterested in listening to the 'high command' as in observing the proprieties.
Some of Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy's supporters have been heard mumbling -- in suitably muted tones, they are Congressmen after all! -- that they are asking no more than what was offered in 1984 and in 1991.
In 1984, Indira Gandhi's body was still lying at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences when the prime minister's chair was offered to her son -- and accepted. In 1991, Rajiv Gandhi's remains were in the air between Chennai and Delhi when the Congress presidency was offered to his widow -- and refused. But this argument draws conclusions without any reference to the context in which those events took place.
The infamous riots had not yet broken out in the late afternoon of October 31, 1984 but there was a palpable tension in the air coupled with a general feeling that none of the pygmies in the party could aspire to fill Indira Gandhi's giant sandals.
I am not sure that the Congress of 1984 would have accepted either P V Narasimha Rao or Pranab Mukherjee -- the senior men in the ministry of the late Mrs Gandhi -- as its leader. Come to that, was India ready to accept them at that point in time?
The need for a new leader was not felt as acutely in 1991 as it had been in 1984 -- the Congress was no longer in power -- but the party could not afford to dilly-dally over a choice of leader. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in the middle of a hotly-contested general election, and over half of the constituencies were yet to vote when he died.
The party needed a new president and, as ever, its first instinct was to turn to its ruling family. But a vacancy in a party presidency is nowhere near as great a crisis as a vacancy in the prime minister's office, and Sonia Gandhi felt that she could refuse without being accused of dereliction of duty.
The death of Y S Rajasekhara Reddy may be a tragedy, but it is not a crisis situation. There is no danger of the Congress party falling apart in Andhra Pradesh. There was no election going on when the former leader suddenly died. Jagan Mohan Reddy's zealots would be better advised if they looked at the precedents of 1964 and 1966.
Jawaharlal Nehru died in office on May 27, 1964. President S Radhakrishnan invited Union Home Minister Gulzarilal Nanda to serve as the interim prime minister. It was only on June 9 that Lal Bahadur Shastri took over.
There was a similar thirteen day interregnum in 1966, after Lal Bahadur Shastri's sudden death on January 11, when Gulzarilal Nanda again held the reins temporarily. The Congress Legislature Party, unlike the earlier occasion, had to hold an election, Indira Gandhi beating Morarji Desai by 351 votes to 169.
Let me clarify that I am not saying that Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy should not become chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. It is entirely the privilege of the Congressmen in the legislative assembly and the legislative council to choose their leader. I would even go so far as to say that the Congress 'high command' in Delhi would be undemocratic to deny Jagan Mohan Reddy his due if he commands a majority.
All I am saying is that there are certain ways and means of doing things, and the way in which the young Reddy's supporters are behaving is completely vulgar. There is no crisis, an interim chief minister has been appointed, and the state of Andhra Pradesh is officially mourning the death of its chosen leader. If the Congress could wait thirteen days before Lal Bahadur Shastri or Indira Gandhi took office what exactly is the hurry in Hyderabad today?
The flowers on Y S Rajasekhara Reddy's grave have not yet faded. Are his supporters so unwilling to wait that they will pluck those same blooms to weave them in a garland for Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy?