Chidambaram's chance to be the next Iron Man

In the forbidding corridors of North Block, the shadow of  Sardar Patel, the country’s first home minister looms large. Every person who has since occupied the powerful office is constantly reminded of the Iron Man of India: a life-size portrait of  Sardar stares down at them. It’s a burden which has weighed heavily on Patel’s successors, which is perhaps why the country’s roll call of home ministers is littered with notable failures.

There was S B Chavan who fiddled while the Babri Masjid was brought down; Brahmanand Reddy who silently acquiesced in the Emergency; Buta Singh, whose singular act in bowing his head at the feet of VHP mentor Deoraha Baba was a new low in Indian politics; Charan Singh who was constantly plotting on how to become prime minister; Indrajit Gupta, who like a good leftie spent more time on pay commission hikes than on fighting militancy; and, of course, the serial dresser Shivraj Patil who changed his wardrobe every time there was a terror attack. Even L K Advani, who claimed to be inspired by the original Iron Man, was a rather rusted home minister in the end, his rhetoric on Dawood Ibrahim and the ISI hardly being matched by concrete action on the ground.

Enter P Chidambaram. A little less than a year ago when PC took over as the country’s home minister, it was truly the worst of times. The 26/11 terror attacks had shaken the Indian security establishment, the state had been exposed as effete and inept. The home ministry had been pushed into bureaucratic irrelevance, one reason perhaps why even Chidambaram was self-confessedly reluctant to take up a job that was once seen as the second most important in government.
He had delivered seven union budgets, next only to Morarji Desai, and was generally acknowledged as the reform-friendly face in the Manmohan Singh government. So much more comforting to deal with the dazzle and glamour of corporate India than with dour men in khakhi.

No nonsense man
And yet, 11 months into office, PC is poised to be recognised as perhaps the toughest home minister the country has had, if not since Patel, then certainly in the last three decades. In a sense, PC’s no nonsense persona — his critics term it as arrogance — is ideally suited for the home ministry, a mammoth ministry that needs a tough talking ‘jailorsaab’ at the helm.

As finance minister, PC’s style of functioning appeared at times ill-suited to the demands of coalition politics. But in the home ministry, the combativeness has been rewarding. Then, whether it be battling Lalit Modi over IPL security, or Narendra Modi over alleged fake encounters, PC’s machismo has spread a degree of awe and fear that a minister in charge of internal security must inspire.

Take for example the recent conference of  director generals of  police. Normally, such gatherings end up as platitudinous exercises in political correctness. Yet, PC used the opportunity to lambast state governments for treating policemen as ‘political footballs’. Similarly, PC’s repeated questioning of  Pakistan’s blatant attempt to protect Lashkar boss Hafiz Saeed may yield little, but at least it sends out a strong signal that New Delhi isn’t a wimpish state which will allow Islamabad to win the propaganda war once again.

But there is another, more complex challenge that faces the home minister: tackling the naxal menace. Unlike Pak-based terrorism where the enemy is clear, the Maoists cannot be seen in black and white compartments. Yes, those who behead police constables, who mine roads and blast bridges must be seen as armed militias who have to be either disarmed, or eliminated. But should every armed tribal in the jungles of  Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh be seen as an ‘enemy of the state’ who must be shot dead?

In his impassioned speech at the Nani Palkhiwala lecture recently, the home minister had warned against romanticising naxalism: “If the naxalites accuse elected governments of  capitalism, land grabbing, exploiting and displacing tribal people, what prevents them from winning power through elections and reversing current policies? We have not heard a logical answer to this question, not from naxalites, not from left-leaning intellectuals, and certainly not from human rights groups that plead the naxalite cause but ignore the violence unleashed by naxalites on innocent men, women and children. Why are the human rights groups silent?”

It’s a question which has enraged human rights groups who believe that its not just their ideology, but their patriotism which is being challenged. It’s equally the kind of remarks that have drawn applause from a vocal, middle class constituency driven by the ‘enough is enough’ slogan that echoed in the aftermath of 26/11.

In the process, the debate over how to tackle naxalism is being dangerously polarised into a ‘them’ and ‘us’ binary conflict that offers no solution. If  the cycle of violence is to end, then naxals who murder in cold blood must be dealt with as murderers but equally security forces who believe they have a unbridled licence to kill cannot be let off under the guise of inevitable ‘collateral damage’. Who better than a home minister who started life as a trade union activist and then became a senior lawyer to understand the primacy of the rule of law and justice?

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