- Chidambaram has activated the dormant ministry
- Daily meetings now with the intelligence bosses
- All intelligence agencies now have a constantly updated common pool of information, accessible 24/7
- Abrasive style has met with resistance in the ministry and among CMs
- Beginnings of a turf war between MHA and MEA
- Cabinet colleagues worried at his growing clout
***As the finance minister, P. Chidambaram may have had his admirers in the pro-reform lobby, some sections of the media and in the few civil servants who have, over the years, been able to keep pace with him. But his edgy, abrasive style, the barely concealed contempt he has for those less sharp than he is, and impatience with those who venture to disagree with him has ensured that those who didn't have to deal with him maintained a distance. This, even though no one contests his competence.
In the six weeks since he moved from the western end of North Block to its eastern end, though, the popular perception of the new home minister has undergone a sea change. No, he hasn't lost that edgy abrasiveness. But he appears to have gained a constituency among people at large—and even sections of his own party, embarrassed at the four-year-long drift in the home ministry, which hurtled from one disaster to another under Shivraj Patil. For a politician with no mass base, there is now some acknowledgement that PC has grown in stature. "It isn't just the timing (succeeding Patil) but his personality," a senior official in the ministry stressed, "it's totally in sync with the current needs of the home ministry. We needed someone who looks and sounds tough." A long-time party colleague told Outlook, "He'll probably make a better home minister than finance minister."
So what has PC done to earn such praise, guarded though it is? "Chidambaram's no-nonsense, direct style," say official sources on the other side of Raisina Hill, in South Block, "has sent a signal all the way down...it has activated the system." He works seven days a week, five full days and two half-days on the weekend. But it isn't just the long hours. Ministry insiders point to two steps that are making a difference. The first is his daily half-hour-long meeting with national security advisor M.K. Narayanan and the heads of all the intelligence agencies to "share intelligence on a real-time basis and make a joint preliminary assessment of the intelligence". The second is the upgrading of the IB's seven-year-old Multi Agency Centre (MAC), the nodal centre on all terrorism-related intelligence. MAC is now obliged to share intelligence with all other security agencies, including those of the state governments, UTs, even as all other agencies are obliged to share intelligence with MAC on a 24x7 basis.
Of course, in some cases, the speed of decision-making has come in for criticism. The swift passage of the National Investigation Agency bill, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment bill and the Criminal Procedure Code Amendment bill may have sent out the message that the government is serious about countering terrorism, but all three laws are deeply flawed and have been criticised both within and outside the government for not having been thought through properly.
The change in style in the home ministry may have won Chidambaram friends outside but inside he is having to work hard to break down the resistance towards any sort of change, greater accountability and transparency.
For instance, detractors point out gloatingly that the recent CMs' conference on internal security was less than successful for Chidambaram. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar objected to his letter to the CMs on how they should strengthen internal security arrangements, reading it as an infringement of state powers. A ministry insider, obviously happy at the minister's discomfiture, said, "Mr Patil never had problems with the chief ministers because he was so senior." But Patil's critics recall that he was able to shrug off all responsibility for major acts of Naxal or terrorist-related violence by parroting the "law and order is a state subject" line.
Similarly, the day he took over as home minister, sources say Chidambaram made a case for sacking both the NSA and the DIB. While the first kept his job as it would "have reflected" on the PMO, the second was spared because he was, in any case, due to retire soon. Indeed, the reasons why Chidambaram is scoring points with the public are precisely those why he is ruffling feathers in officialdom and among colleagues. Shortly after he took over as HM, he visited Mumbai and became the first government spokesperson to acknowledge that there had been "lapses". As one Congressman put it, "People don't see admission of failure by a politician as a sign of weakness, but as of honesty. It immediately takes the heat off." Next, when he spoke out in the Rajya Sabha against the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh, saying he did not believe that 'non-state actors' should take the law into their own hands, he met with the disapproval of some of his own officers (the SJ had the backing of the Patil-led ministry). So much so that at the CMs' conference, Chidambaram justified and praised the actions of the SPOs—who are indistinguishable from the Salwa Judum.
Of course, some of his statements have become controversial. For instance, he told a private TV channel that Bangladeshis had no business to come to India unless they held a valid visa. This provoked a barrage of questions about a change in Congress policy, which has always taken a "soft view" of illegal migrants. The Congress, however, defended him with AICC spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan saying, "This is our view. It's not a question of religion. It's the law of the land." Congress sources added that while such a statement from Patil would have immediately been dubbed as "communal" and anti-Muslim, Chidambaram had gauged the popular mood well in the post-26/11 India: "He is for tough measures against terrorism. Don't forget he piloted TADA in the late 1980s as Union minister of state for internal security. But no one doubts his secular credentials."
If Congressmen are not unduly disturbed by PC's straight-from-the-shoulder remarks, his cabinet colleagues are not so indulgent. For instance, when he told a British journalist last week that India may break off business, transport and tourist links with Pakistan if it fails to help to investigate the Mumbai attacks, it didn't go down well with the MEA.
And this is not Chidambaram's first brush with that ministry. When he recently accepted an invitation from US ambassador Robert Mulford to visit Washington to put forth the Indian case, make contacts with Obama's transition team and study first hand the measures the US had put in place post-9/11, it was viewed dimly by South Block. Eventually, the trip was cancelled, ostensibly because the home minister was needed to help resolve the oil officers strike. But ministry sources told Outlook: "There was no need for the trip—the dossier has already been handed over. Besides, it would have made us look like a supplicant, especially when no one at that level is visiting other major countries."
Given Chidambaram's style, it is unlikely that he will be fazed by this setback. Meanwhile, he's still on track two, winning friends and influencing people.