Chidambaram faces some home truths

Misplaced bravado costs the home minister dear in his fight against the Maoists


Ajay Singh | August 5, 2010

Remember the brief spat bet-ween Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and union home minister P Chidambaram? The home minister had accused Nitish Kumar of not doing enough to take on the Maoists. His ire had emanated from the Bihar chief minister’s disinclination to attend the chief ministers’ meet called by him in Kolkata. Nitish Kumar had instead dispatched his top officials. To Chidambaram’s charge, Nitish Kumar had replied with his earthy humour. “Do these officials (DGP and home secretary) go on their own without my approval?” he asked, and advised Chidambaram to refrain from speaking in public on “such issues”.

Perhaps Chidambaram needed to be reminded about the risks of employing bravado at a nascent stage of his war on Maoists. His assessment of Maoism as a greater threat than terrorism was certainly in tune with the line of prime minister Manmohan Singh who had been repeating this phrase for quite some time. But Chidambaram’s utterances were quite misplaced politically.

Given the fact that Chidambaram is a profound expert on law, he must have been aware of the hazards of occupying the driver’s seat in the anti-Maoist operations which cover eight states. Much against the advice of the security experts that the primary task of the central forces was to assist the state governments, Chidambaram went ahead with aggressive deployment of the Central Reserve Police Force. In Chhattisgarh, this led to two successive massacres of CRPF jawans.

Right from the beginning, security experts have been quite wary of the aggressive language used by Chidambaram against Maoists. Chidambaram’s machoism has rubbed many people the wrong way. So has his overconfidence in the ability of the security forces to deal with a problem as intricate as left-wing extremism. That the operation became known as Green Hunt – despite the apparent lack of acknowledgement by the home ministry – speaks volumes about the home minister’s assessment of the situation. In his successive statements, the home minister expressed his belief that the operation would succeed sooner than later.

In West Bengal, he found chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee fuming with anger over his flamboyant statement that the buck stops at the chief minister’s table. In the wake of the controversy, the coordination between the centre and the West Bengal government slackened and the interaction between the home minister and the chief minister became increasingly difficult. Insiders in the ministry admit that there is little progress in Bihar as well since neither Nitish Kumar nor Chidambaram wish to talk to each other on the issue. In Uttar Pradesh, where Maoists are developing a safe haven, chief minister Mayawati is inaccessible even to the prime minister.

On the other hand, Chidambaram’s desire to control the operation came in handy for the states ruled by the BJP chief ministers who gleefully allowed him do their dirty work. Particularly in Chhattisgarh, where the state has ceded ground to the Maoists in Dantewada and other districts and abdicated all its responsibility, the aggressive deployment of the CRPF in the so-called liberated zones turned it into a centre’s war in which the state has been playing a minimal or insignificant role. Similarly, in Madhya Pradesh, where there are strong pockets of Maoist influence, the operation is seen entirely as an initiative of the centre in which the state is not fully on board. If insiders in the home ministry are to be believed, Chidambaram is hardly on talking terms with the maverick Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik who is not in tune with the home ministry. Except for Andhra Pradesh, where the Congress regime has been pursuing an effectively aggressive anti-Maoist operation, Chidambaram seems to be hemmed in from all sides.

Was he not given adequate inputs? Insiders in the ministry feel that the minister is neither a patient listener nor does he encourage airing of views by heads of central police organisations (CPOs). “Once he makes up his mind, he becomes very rigid in his approach,” says one senior IPS officer regularly attending his meetings. Given Chidambaram’s inclination to snub even senior bureaucrats whose views are uncharitable, there is tendency in the meetings to kowtow to the line favoured by the minister. In a series of meetings, director generals of the CPOs would only perform their roles of concurring to the home minister’s views.

Security experts feel that gone are the days when the DGs of the CPOs would speak their mind in presence of even the prime minister. The apparent reason for this meek conduct is directly related to the selection of officers with dubious credentials as heads of the CPOs. Some of them are even accused of fudging their dates of birth to prolong their services. “Such officers would rarely muster courage to challenge the home minister’s view on operational issues,” feels an expert. That Chidambaram wields enough clout to ease out non-conformists on the issue of national security was already confirmed by the removal of M K Narayanan as national security adviser who was quite often at odds with the home minister’s world view.

Though Chidambaram managed to ensure silence within his ministry, his overbearing conduct has invited public criticism from Congress leaders. Perhaps he was so much overwhelmed by the unbridled adulation of the media which started projecting him as a strongman in North Block which houses the home ministry. Not long ago he was being seen as a prime ministerial candidate should Manmohan Singh call it a day. Herein lies his political miscalculation.

A brilliant lawyer that he is, Chidambaram seems oblivious to the history of the Congress party which is quite averse to positioning a strong home minister with an independent streak. In fact, Indira Gandhi initiated the culture of inducting a pliable home minister which continued during the tenures of Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao. Even Manmohan Singh stuck to this tradition till he retained Shivraj Patil as his home minister. But Chidambaram has not only refused to fall in line he has also charted his independent course of declaring war again on Maoists – a move that endeared him to the opposition, particularly the BJP.

This apparently irked a section of party leaders that is not so much opposed to the Maoists as the home minister is. For instance, certain former Congress chief ministers are known to be well-disposed towards Maoists in their states and used their coercive power to win elections. Ajit Jogi’s sympathetic view towards Maoists is out of tune with Chidambaram’s aggressive strategy. Similarly, it was not without reason that Digvijay Singh found Chidambaram’s overbearing conduct too much to suffer. And he wrote about his “arrogance and snobbery” in a well-argued piece which appears to be an apology of the Congress for pursuing an aggressive policy against Maoists.

It was in this context that Chidambaram talked about his “limited mandate” as home minister. Though his statement clearly betrayed his sense of unease over his party colleagues sniping at him, Chidambaram is yet to come to terms with the reality that his operation against Maoists is leading him to nowhere. After the recent killings of the CRPF jawans, Chidambaram for the first time talked about deploying the CRPF for a “limited operational role”. This is at variance with his earlier position where he exuded supreme confidence to finish off the menace. Obviously his roar has been effectively purred by consummate actors of the realpolitik who are well aware of the consequences of not taking into account hard realities in any politically ambitious project.



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