Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Chidambaram is competent, but under a cloud

(First published in The Pioneer dated July 11, 2012)


Union Minister for Home Affairs P Chidambaram had an opportunity to somewhat redeem his image when the Prime Minister recently appointed him as the head of the newly constituted Empowered Group of Ministers that is tasked with looking into the forthcoming auction of 2G Spectrum. Mr Chidambaram could have politely declined the position taking the high moral ground that it would be inappropriate for him to head a ministerial panel on an issue over which he is under a cloud of suspicion. But he did not do so. By his acceptance, he has not just set the ground for a confrontation with the Opposition but has also come across as an obstinate politician who cares two hoots for popular perception and for propriety which is expected of senior leaders such as him. For bipartisan observers, his act is not just of obstinacy but also of arrogance.
Just why is Mr Chidambaram so determined to continue denting his own image remains a mystery. Perhaps he very strongly believes that he has done no wrong and that any action of his that seems like a retreat will be interpreted as an acknowledgement of his complicity. He may not agree with this, but the fact is that his credibility among the people is getting severely affected by such intransigence. The more he refuses to exercise caution the more the impression that he is in the wrong gets strengthened.
This is sad, given the fact that Mr Chidambaram is allowing some good work that he has done as Home Minister to be eclipsed by the controversies that have been raised about his alleged complicity in the 2G Spectrum scam that happened when he was the Union Minister for Finance. Of course, there are also allegations that Mr Chidambaram as Home Minister has failed to contain either terrorist attacks or the rising Maoist menace. Among the many Maoist strikes, two stand out: Seventy six Central Reserve Police Force personnel were massacred by Maoists in Chhattisgarh in 2010; and, Maoists derailed a train in West Bengal the same year that led to the death of close to 100 civilians. Still, the fact also is that he has managed to bring a sense of direction in the Home Ministry after he took charge post-26/11 Mumbai attacks. During the disastrous tenure of his predecessor Shivraj Patil, the internal security structure of the country had all but collapsed. Mr Chidambaram has rescued that structure, streamlined it and made it more responsive by ensuring effective coordination among the various security agencies.
The establishment of the National Investigation Agency, the various NSG hubs and the strengthening of coastal security can be cited as his achievements. It was under his supervision that the Indian intelligence agencies managed to collect substantive proof of the involvement of Pakistani state and non-state actors in the 26/11 Mumbai attack. The several dossiers that have been provided to Islamabad contain solid evidence which has been acknowledged even by the West and quoted to coerce Pakistan into action.
Mr Chidambaram has been the only senior Congress leader in the Union Council of Ministers who has spoken out unambiguously and strongly on both Maoist violence and cross-border terrorism. He has backed the drive of the security forces to flush out Maoists and has been critical of the attempts by people — including those from within his party — to glorify the Maoists as martyrs fighting for a social cause. His determined stance on Pakistan-generated terror is in sharp contrast to the meekness of Union Minister for External Affairs SM Krishna who has failed to stand up to Islamabad’s attempt to bully India and who continues to believe in the lies fed by Pakistan. Mr Chidambaram has never minced words on the issue. Very recently, in the backdrop of the Foreign Secretary-level talks between the two countries, he angered Islamabad by categorically (and correctly) stating that Pakistan’s “state actors” were deeply involved in the Mumbai attack. Such plain talk is rare among Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Ministers, who have mastered the art of not calling a spade a spade.
Therefore, given his largely commendable, if not stellar — remember the National Counter-Terrorism Centre fiasco — record as Home Minister, a person of Mr Chidambaram’s intellect would have been expected to steer clear of issues that would obfuscate his achievements. Yet, he has decided to head an EGoM which he should have avoided like the plague. His supporters may say that his alleged complicity in the 2G Spectrum scam is a figment of imagination of his rivals and that a Delhi Trial Court had dismissed a petition seeking to investigate his role as the Finance Minister in the disbursement of 2G licences without going through the auction route. But, hard as the Minister’s defenders may try, they cannot deny the following four facts:
First, as Finance Minister, Mr Chidambaram had all along been aware of the fraud that Union Minister for Telecommunication A Raja was involved in. Second, Mr Chidambaram had the authority to prevent the licences (and the spectrum that came bundled with it) from being distributed at throwaway rates when the matter came up before him.
Third, he made no effort to counter Raja’s scam, which he must have known given his incisive understanding of issues, would lead to a massive loss to the national exchequer. Fourth, not only did he not prevent the fraud from taking place, Mr Chidambaram went a step ahead and endorsed before the Prime Minister Raja’s dubious action. Before doing that, he had many meetings with Raja.
Thus, it cannot also be assumed that the then Finance Minister was not fully briefed about the matter when he proposed to the Prime Minister that Raja’s action should be okayed.
Mr Chidambaram’s supporters have not disputed these facts, but they have maintained that nothing in them points to any mala fide intent on Mr Chidambaram’s part, and that being a party to a wrong decision does not automatically mean being criminally complicit or culpable. But that can only be determined through a proper inquiry, which is what the Opposition has been demanding.
There is another very strong reason why Mr Chidambaram should not have agreed to even be a member of — let alone head — the EGoM on spectrum pricing. There is a petition pending before the Supreme Court against him. The plea seeks to make him a co-accused in the 2G Spectrum scam, and the apex court has reserved its verdict on it.
By not heeding common sense, the very articulate Home Minister has rendered many of his admirers speechless.

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