For nine months now, Chidambaram has inevitably been compared with the gentle sardar, consciously and subliminally, by millions of Indians. Things were hardly helped by Dr Singh's criticisms of the UF's policies. The fact that the burden was getting to Chidambaram was evident even in his Budget speech, in which he, twice and perhaps needlessly, referred to "my distinguished predecessor", without naming Dr Singh.
The ghost is now exorcised, principally because Chidambaram appears to have practically reinvented himself in style and attitude. There were three principal areas where, to the observer, Chidambaram appeared to fall short of Dr Singh. One, Chidambaram's aloof hauteur, compared to Dr Singh's earthy courtesy. Two, businessmen complained that when they went to Chidambaram with their suggestions, he did not seem to be listening. Budget 96 appeared to prove their point. Dr Singh, carped industrialists, always listened carefully. Three, while ex-bureaucrat Dr Singh was a pragmatist, launching voluntary disclosure schemes for black money, Chidambaram looked like the moral-high-grounder, a character type Indian businessmen are extremely wary of.
In TV interview after TV interview on Budget night, the new Chidambaram oozed charm; even his voice seemed gentler (a bad throat may have been the real reason). And Budget 97 is clearly a head-and-heart job, belying impressions that he is aman of complete cut-and-dry intellectual rigour. Chidambaram of course did not miss any opportunity to point this out. In the context of the newly-proposed Targeted Public Distribution System, he said: "I may not wear my heart on my sleeve but my heart is in the right place." Later, while announcing the increased outlay for defence, he declared: "My head is also in the right place."
The usual "I-know-my-job-don't-fiddle-around-with-me" attitude had given way to a more porous style of functioning. The oft-repeated "I-had-received-the-wise-counsel-on-this-matter-and-I-am-implementing-those-recommendations" in the Budget speech has been widely welcomed.Chidambaram met hundreds of people in the run-up to the Budget, listened and implemented many of their sugestions.
From the moral plateau, he has also moved towards a more down-to-earth approach in mobilising funds. The new amnesty scheme to harness black money is a fine balancing act between ethics and economics, prudence and probity. By keeping the scheme open only till the end of December, Chidambaram also retains room for midway correction before the next budget in the event of his scheme failing to mop up enough money. Chidambaram's entire calculation is based on one fundamental premise: "Generally, Indians are very ethical people." If he fails to mobilise resources, then probably the blame should rest with all of us and not on the doorsteps of his Pycrofts Garden Road residence in Chennai.