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Vivian Fernandes
Thursday , August 02, 2012 at 13 : 40

Is the Finance Ministry's gain the Home Ministry's loss?


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At a Pongal lunch for journalists last year at his residence, I asked P Chidambaram whether the decline in terror attacks could be ascribed to the effectiveness of the measures taken by the Union home ministry because the jehadis could not have undergone a change of heart after the 26/11 strike on Mumbai. Not could Pakistan have been much of a restraining influence when it was itself not immune. Chidambaram did not feign false modesty. But then he has little to be modest about.

When I recently asked a political correspondent, and the editor of a Delhi-based Hindi newspaper to give their assessment of the home minister, they said he was a failure. They cited his inability to decide on statehood to Telangana, his isolation in Parliament, the persistence of left-wing extremism and the opposition of non-Congress state governments to the national counter terrorism centre.

I think they were harsh. All political parties that have support across Andhra speak with forked tongues about Telangana. The BJP hates Chidambaram because he has gone after the saffron terrorists. And on NCTC, he has offered the states a compromise.

I would agree with Congress general secretary B K Hariprasad, who in a conversation, gave credit to the MP of Sivaganga for allowing us, random Indians, keep their limbs in one piece. Twenty-one terror modules were busted in the last financial year, the Union home minister said, while addressing chief ministers in New Delhi in May. Every one of them would have been deadly.

India would have indeed gained from greater information sharing by the United States after it fell out with its perfidious 'Major Non-Nato Ally' but there is little doubt that under Chidambaram's watch, our ability to gather and process intelligence has greatly increased. Chidambaram is a meticulous man with a remarkable ability to cut through the chase and grasp the nub of an issue. As a student of mathematics, he knows how the discipline can be used to improve governance. He was able to greatly increase tax collections as finance minister by using information technology to deduce a person's likely income from their expenditure. Ditto, in the home ministry.

The crime and criminal tracking network system is a Rs-2000-crore project that will cover all police stations. The immigration visa and foreigners registration and tracking project inaugurated in May will help keep a tab on unwanted or dangerous visitors, while easing the passage of those who are not. Standard operating procedures have been devised for the police to deal with protestors in a non-lethal way with minimal necessary force, after India got much flak for the clumsy way it handled Srinagar's stone-throwers during the so-called intifada of 2010. A number of anti-terrorism schools have been set up. The national counter terrorism centre is a necessary pre-emptive set-up. The top leadership of the left-wing extremists has been lopped off. The policeman fighting the Naxals has not been neglected. In his monthly report to the media, Chidambaram gave details of the amounts spent on their equipment and housing. The monthly press conferences themselves were a device to hold the ministry and its officials to account.

If terror attacks recur, it will not only be a comment on new home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde's leadership but also of Chidambaram's initiatives.

People fault Chidambaram for his arrogance. It springs from the man's elevated sense of competence. An official who worked with him in the finance ministry said the only assistance he needs is that of a peon - to take files around. During his post-Budget press conferences, Chidambaram could handle questions without assistance and with aplomb. Arrogance certainly is inadvisable in a politician. But it can make them better administrators, if incompetence shames them.

In our country the performance of a ministry depends on the personality of the minister. The highways ministry has never done as well as it did under BC Khanduri in the Vajpayee government. Mamata Bannerjee and Mukul Roy have failed to build on the legacy of Lalu Prasad. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh was an excellent minister for rural development. True, we have added more power capacity in the (just ended) 11th five-year plan than in the previous one, but it is still short of target. Sushil Kumar Shinde just did not measure up to Suresh Prabhu who did a stellar job as power minister under Atal Behari Vajpayee.

We can live with power outages but not with the outage of life itself. I hope for our sake that the Congress has made a wise choice in Shinde.

Among the many hopes that Chidambaram has raised in his re-incarnation is an end to tax demands from a back date. If Vodafone is singing, I suggest it holds its tune. In 2006, Chidambaram as finance minister got an ordinance promulgated to overturn orders of the excise tribunal and the Supreme Court dismissing the tax department's Rs 683 crore demand on ITC Ltd. That ordinance forced ITC into a compromise. It agreed to forego Rs 350 crore it has paid as earnest money for the excise tribunal to hear its appeal, in exchange for the government waiving the balance demand.

In the Vodafone case he might relent if the Prime Minister wishes, and for the sake of improving the investment climate, but Chidambaram does not give in easily.

Among all his colleagues, Chidambaram has presented a fine account of himself - better than even the Prime Minister. The distance from 18 Safdarjung to 7 Race Course Road is about a kilometre. Hopefully, he will get there.


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More about Vivian Fernandes

Vivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.
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