Anirban Ganguly
Reflections on a Failed Leader: P. Chidambaram’s Swaggering Failures
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com


For a political leader and veteran central minister who won his last Parliamentary elections by a margin of a mere 3000 odd votes, and that too under controversial and dubious circumstances, Palaniappan Chidambaram’s (PC) permanent swagger is indeed remarkable. Perhaps the Harvardian tinge and affectations is what gives its possessor such a delusional sense of know-all and do-all. It was this same swagger and Harvardian sense of being infallible which saw PC often formulate strange positions that at times verged on the confusedly philosophical.

Let us take for instance his position on at least two occasions. When the Madras High Court dismissed his petition, made while he was Home Minister, against a plea challenging his election in 2009, PC displayed that remarkable swagger as well that confused logic. He said the Madras HC’s verdict was a “setback for the petitioner and not him.” AIADMK’s former minister, RSR Kannappan, the challenging candidate from Sivaganga, had filed the petition and has, over the last five years, stuck to the legal process he initiated against PC’s election. Betraying certain nervousness below his formidable swagger PC has however persistently refused to accept the proposal for a re-poll in order to clear the air. PC’s belated appreciation and recognition of the Gandhian creed and method of work and his refusal to contest the 2014 polls from Sivaganga has more to do with this despicably immoral episode in India’s electoral history.

The other instance of when ordinary “non-intellectual” citizens of this country were treated to PC’s philosophy was when he declared, in order to hide his failures as home minister in wake of the serial blasts that shook Mumbai in July 2011, that “having no intelligence in this case, however, does not mean that there was a failure on part of intelligence agencies.” It may be recalled that it was under PC’s “very efficient” stewardship of the Home Ministry that one of the biggest Naxal strikes on our paramilitary forces took place. 75 CRPF jawans where massacred in April 2010 in Dhantewada, Chhattisgarh. Such a large scale planning had obviously evaded PC’s “efficient” radar and his only reaction was to express shock and to say, again subtly passing on the buck that, “something has gone very wrong. They (security personnel) seemed to have walked into a trap set by the Naxalites.” In a party system, where inefficiency, bluster and bluff can roundly be managed by professing allegiance and perpetual loyalty to the “family”, PC obviously got away with murder. And yet the swagger remained, the Harvardian accreditation provided, at least in our political climate, a certain immunity and protection from accountability.

So tamed and awed are some of our leading media and “secular” political voices in the country by PC’s foreign accreditation that there was hardly a whimper of protest when PC, as Union finance minister, was seen sharing space with Mullah Abdul Salem Zaeef, a founding member of the Taliban and sometime close confidant of its former chief Mullah Omar. How PC failed to do a basic verification is strange – could it simply mean that he continued to be as inefficient as before or perhaps that he endorsed the Taliban’s brand of politics and worldview. Isn’t this curious behaviour on the part of one who has held the crucial and sensitive portfolio of Home affairs and is expected to know the flows and currents of geopolitics?

PC’s abject failure as finance minister has been dissected thoroughly by others and done with aplomb. It was S. Gurumurthy, one of the pre-eminent economic-political observers of this country, who wrote of how for eighteen months PC, as finance minister watched the “relentless fall of the Indian rupee with saintly restraint” hardly rising to stem the fall. It was only when he realized that the Harvardian blusters would work no more that he contemplated taking some half-hearted measures.

The Planning Commissions and the RBI’s own data demonstrate in what shambles and stagnation the belated neo-Gandhian has pushed the Indian economy. While growth of the GDP had achieved a commendable 8.5% in 2003-04 under NDA rule, PC’s handling of the sector under the “family” has brought it down to 4.6%. While the NDA had steered the ship of industrial growth to a laudable 7.32% in 2003-04, PC ensured that the fall in this sector was also steep, making it come down to 4.1%. The list is endless, in his failure to contain terror in India, in his failure to arrest the spread of the red menace in the heart of the country and in his failure to arrest the rise of inflation, PC’s legacy shall perhaps be best remembered as a series of blunders and formidable failures camouflaged and couched in highfalutin words and expressions.

On one of the most important economic-political issues, PC has, perhaps on the directives of his ultimate political masters and due to his own obvious personal reasons, repeatedly dragged his feet. Whenever the issue of black money stashed away in foreign shores stared in his face, PC hid behind legalese and officialese. It was the Supreme Court which reminded him and his government last Wednesday (26th March, 2014) of it, pointing at how they have reneged on its directive to set up a “Special Investigative Team headed by a retired SC judge and comprising officers from investigating agencies to devise the mode and manner to bring back black money stashed by Indians in foreign banks.” The apex Court observed, in what could be termed as a scathing indictment of PC’s handling of the issue that,no effort was made. Unaccounted monies lying abroad had not been attempted to be brought back. The names of those who had stashed illegal money abroad had not been disclosed.” PC naturally did not want to do any of these and his belated letter to the Swiss authorities threatening them with action for not honouring the DTAA is just another gimmick to buy time and to dupe the common citizens of this country – which in his attitude and in the attitude of his political masters – has always been seen and treated as vassals of sorts!

Despite his professions of being an intellectual and deep political observer PC hardly comes close to his other predecessors from Tamil Nadu, such as C.Subramaniam, TTK or Mohan Kumaramangalam. While they shall perhaps continue to be remembered PC shall very soon be consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history. I shall not enter into other seamy areas of PC’s legacy, as an ordinary citizen I feel helpless and somewhat scared at the might he wields – his son’s questionable linkages, the strange NDTV and S.K.Srivastava case etc are best left to other more formidable investigators and researchers to further dissect and bring to light. I shall in conclusion recall another episode – an episode that exposes the real PC and his actual caliber.

While piloting the SPG Bill in Parliament as Rajiv Gandhi’s minister of state for internal security PC was asked a pointed question by the late P Upendra then with the TDP, “what would happen in the event of Rajiv Gandhi ceasing to be PM.” PC evaded the reply by trying to address another question and Upendra’s question was left unanswered. One of PC’s own partyman, another “family” courtier, Mani Shankar Aiyar, in a scathing commentary sometime in 1996 referred to this entire episode where PC left no provision for extending SPG protection to his political master who had, by 1989, become the target of various terrorist and insurgent groups. PC perhaps prefers to forget this sordid episode, I usually desist from citing Aiyar, but this episode is to alluring to resist, a reminder to PC, at least in this case, shall be hugely relevant.

PC, as minister of state for internal security, in his note to the Cabinet on the SPG, failed to point out the contingency that may arise when Rajiv was no more Prime Minister. An acerbic Aiyar notes, that PC “failed to point out in the Cabinet note that the proposed legislation would fundamentally alter the position of the SPG from a force to protect the incumbent prime minister to a force that would not only protect any prime minister, whatever the level of threat perception, but more to the point, would legally debar the SPG from extending protection to the person for whom the SPG had been specifically created in the event of that person ceasing to be PM.” Aiyar argues that any “minister for internal security worth his salt should surely have been alerted to the need to deal with such a contingency” at least in the secrecy of the North Block if not in the glare of the Rajya Sabha.

Aiyar did not stop at that and pointed at how it appeared from PC’s deposition before the Jain Commission “that even after having been specifically alerted to the need for suitable alternative arrangements in the event of Rajiv Gandhi losing the elections, Chidambaram did absolutely nothing about it” and was “content to play the politics of mindlessly muttering that the great Indian electorate would never reject the Congress.” Aiyar’s verdict was that the minister had “totally failed in his professional duty of planning for such a contingency.” As minister of state in the home ministry, continued Aiyar, “Chidambaram was privy to all intelligence reports. Yet, it appears from the Jain Commission records, that the minister in charge of Rajiv Gandhi’s security did nothing to plan for his charge’s security in the event of the conspirators sinking the ship of state.” In other words, PC’s carelessness led to the withdrawal of the SPG cover for Rajiv which made it easy for his assassins to eliminate him.

At a time when it was clear that the Congress under Rajiv would sink in the ensuing elections the so called “brightest minister” of his generation did precisely nothing, “with a persistence that would have been worthy of an ostrich in sight of a particularly attractive stretch of sand, Chidambaram buried his head and refused to even contemplate the security requirements of Rajiv Gandhi in the event of his losing the elections” recalled Aiyar. His question then, is what most of us are asking today vis-à-vis PC’s blunders: “Is this what passes for ministerial responsibility, for ministerial efficiency, for ministerial duty?”

But Aiyar’s crème-de la-crème observation on PC was reserved for a later period when the latter was named as minister in charge of the investigation into Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1995. “Sonia Gandhi”, notes Aiyar, “was so little impressed with Narasimha Rao’s gesture in putting Chidambaram in charge of the investigation into her husband’s assassination.” Ironically, it was the same “madam” who did not hesitate to put PC in charge of the security of lives of the citizens of India in the aftermath of 26/11.

In most of the responsibilities that he has undertaken in his three decades of active politics PC has only succeeded in hiding his failures and in evading his actual responsibilities. He has got away with simply swaggering his way through one crisis after another – most of which were his own making. When handing him crucial portfolios over the years, “madam” should have known better!

This time however, the people of India know better –they seemed determined to expose and erase the legacy of this failed leader!