The union home ministry guns don't fire in the states

PC can do little apart from sending advisories and paramilitary forces during elections


Ajay Singh | September 29, 2011

A larger-than-life portrait of Sardar Patel, hung on the front of the staircase leading to the home minister’s office in North Block, is a reminder of the grandeur and awe in which this office was once held. For every home minister, Patel used to be the role model. His persona made the home ministry a veritable power centre on a par with the prime minister’s office (PMO).

But has the history produced only one giant and are the rest of the home ministers pygmies? Or has the office of India’s home minister become so complex and demanding that it would prove to be the nemesis for any worthy incumbent? Nobody can answer these questions better than P Chidambaram who announced his arrival in the home ministry with élan. Just after the terrorists attack in Mumbai, Chidambaram made all the right noises, nay roars, and appeared like a one-man army who would clean the Augean stables and unleash the fist of fury on enemies of the state, particularly terrorists and Maoists.

At no point of time Chidambaram’s efficiency was in doubt. His penchant for details combined with his hands-on approach was evident, more so in contrast to his predecessor Shivraj Patil who inspired little confidence among people. But those attributes are not enough to make a successful home minister – a harsh reality which Chidambaram must have realised subsequently.

Consider the bravado displayed by the home minister just after taking over. He went to Mumbai to visit the blast sites and promised that he would put in place an effective mechanism to check terror. His words were taken at the face value. Even his political opponents, particularly the BJP, lent full weight to every move that he conceived to neutralise terror.

This was the precise reason why the BJP supported the government’s move to create a National Investigation Agency (NIA) which has been given overriding powers to probe crimes with inter-state or international dimensions. What was more significant than gaining the confidence of the opposition is the fact that Chidambaram got unqualified support from prime minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
This was best illustrated by the manner in which he sidelined the powerful national security adviser, M K Narayanan. Official sources admit that in Patil’s time, Narayanan was more powerful than the home minister himself as all intelligence agencies used to report to him. Given Narayanan’s long stint as director of IB, he was quite adept at appreciating intelligence inputs and at ease in dealing with top sleuths. But such a practice had left a vacuum in the home ministry. Chidambaram effectively plugged this vacuum and made it mandatory for Narayanan to attend the meeting of top sleuths presided by him.

“There were times when Chidambaram not only ignored but also snubbed Narayanan who had to undergo humiliating experiences,” confides a senior official who attended many such meetings. Subsequently, Narayanan was eased out of his NSA assignment to pave the way for Chidambaram’s a complete sway over the home ministry. Those interacting with the home minister admit that like his predecessors, Chidambaram soon succumbed to the delusions of grandeur that the home ministry weaves around the incumbent. His decision to launch a war on Maoism was just the beginning of an end, officials say.

Nobody doubts the sincerity of his intentions. But top officials say that the manner in which he promised to carry out the war was a wrong tactic. “He made it sound like Chidambaram’s war against Naxalism,” says a government source. His decision to deploy central forces in Maoism-affected states recoiled on him as CRPF personnel proved to be sitting ducks for well-trained rebels adept at jungle and guerrilla warfare. What compounded his agony was the fact that the state governments never concurred with the home minister’s tactics for conducting the war against Maoists.

After a series of setbacks, Chidambaram realised that he had been fighting a losing battle. By the time he tried to correct the mistake, his image was badly bruised. He received flak from within his own party as Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh accused him of “intellectual arrogance”, painting him as unsympathetic of a differing opinion. Though Digvijaya Singh subsequently apologised and made peace with Chidambaram, tales of his arrogance and snobbery abound in the administrative circles.

An official interacting with the home minister regularly says, “He writes a lot of letters and notes most of which display his superior grip over the English language rather than the issues at hand.” Obviously, a series of bomb blasts and the home ministry’s inability to nab the culprits have considerably diminished the esteem in which Chidambaram was held. After the September 7 Delhi blast, his running feud with the opposition is an indication that he is much closer to meet the fate of Shivraj Patil.

But is Chidambaram alone in facing this fate? This question needs to be understood in the context of changing political equations and the federal structure of governance where many state governments do not see eye to eye with the union government. In Patel’s time, the republic was not yet born and the federal structure was only a concept. The Congress had a monopoly over the political power across the country. Then Sardar Patel had a stature which could easily measure up to Nehru in all senses of the term. Such a scenario was never repeated post Patel. Patel’s successor, Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant, was a big leader of Uttar Pradesh but never a challenge to Nehru. Pant also died too early to leave any great legacy in the ministry.

In fact, after the first elections in 1952, the prime minister’s office occupied pre-eminence relegating the home ministry to sidelines. This is borne out by the fact that Nehru and successive prime ministers chose rather political weaklings like S B Chavan, Buta Singh, Zail Singh and Shivraj Patil as home ministers to sub-serve their political interests. In brief phases when political heavyweights like Chaudhary Charan Singh and L K Advani were brought in as home ministers, the PMO worked overtime to marginalise their influence and undercut the ministry.

Chidambaram was not a political heavyweight by any stretch of imagination. Doubts raised over his victory in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections have further compromised his position. Yet his image of no-nonsense, industrious and meticulous home minister gave him an edge which Shivraj Patil lacked.

Given the fact that the law and order is a state subject, the home minister’s writ does not run effectively beyond Delhi. There are nine state governments of the BJP-led NDA which do not subscribe to the centre’s strategy on terrorism and Maoism. There were few takers of Chidambaram’s prescription against radical leftwing violence in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Orissa. On the issue of terrorism, the NIA which came into existence with much fanfare has run afoul with many state governments before it can take off. This was evident in the Varanasi bomb blasts when chief minister Mayawati directed the state officials to play down the home minister’s visit.

In a scenario which has the central and the state governments are seen to be working at cross-purposes on crucial issues like terrorism and extremism, the role of the home ministry gets completely marginalised, say North Block watchers. In many cases, the home ministry performs the perfunctory role of sending advisories which no state bothers to look at. Given the arrogant image of the home minister, chief ministers like Mayawati and Naveen Patnaik have chosen to ignore him altogether.

If Chidambaram faces this imminent fate, he fits a long-evolving pattern. Most of his predecessors who tried to use the inherent strength of this ministry to build their political muscle came to grief. In recent times, L K Advani was the only leader whose stature stood next only to his prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and occupied the post for six years. His carefully cultivated image of a strongman came under cloud when his performance was assessed to be poor. The attack on parliament and his role in the Kandahar episode exposed him to ridicule and cost him dearly.
Perhaps the legacy of Sardar Patel is proving to be too cumbersome burden for his successors. Giants are the product of history and circumstances. It will be wrong to invent them in the age of pygmies.



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