Quack theory

Horace Walpole, waggish 18th-century politician and author, once asked his friend Horace Mann in a letter: "Do you know what a Bull and a Bear and Lame Duck are?" Kamal Nath, minister for parliamentary affairs, might have asked the same thing on Wednesday. Responding to questions on the DMK walking out of the coalition at the Centre, Nath protested the "government is neither lame, nor is it a duck". The UPA's preferred zoological affiliations are not known, but the real injured party here is the duck. For over two centuries now, the long-suffering water fowl has had aspersions cast on it for no fault of its own.

The phrase was born around the stock markets of 18th-century London. Investors who had made huge losses, and so could not keep up with the bulls and the bears, were said to "waddle out as lame ducks". The rich metaphorical possibilities of the phrase could not be missed and by the end of the 19th century, it had passed into political usage. Politicians who had neared the end of their elected term in office and did not have the power to do much more came to be known as "lame ducks". More recent references to lame ducks are sobering. George Bush, in his rocky second term, was called a lame duck president. In England, the ill-fated Tony Blair was pronounced a lame duck before he stepped down as prime minister to make room for Gordon Brown.

But the time has come to reclaim the duck. If the UPA is called a lame duck, allegations could be shaken off like water off a duck's back. If it goes ahead with promised legislation, the government could prove it has its ducks in a row. And if things look rough for the UPA, why, it's lovely weather for ducks.

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