Byline by M J Akbar: Senapati’s route to heroism
P. Chidambaram first tried out the resignation route to heroism when he was in P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Cabinet. Rao, a bit like his protégé Dr Manmohan Singh, was a Prime Minister wrought by fate; he had, in fact, retired because of a heart condition and sent his impressive library to Hyderabad, where he intended to spend his time. He did not contest the elections for the 1991 Parliament that made him Prime Minister. The younger Congress leaders, consequently, tended to underestimate him. Rao surprised the political class, and shocked the victim, by accepting Chidambaram’s resignation. The scar never quite healed; Chidambaram eventually started his own party, and was brought back into the Congress mainstream only by Mrs Sonia Gandhi.
Chidambaram, despite the consistent colour of his dark hair, is older and wiser now. He knew there was no chance that Dr Manmohan Singh would accept his pro forma offer to resign over the Dantewada bungle, largely because the Prime Minister believes in what his Home Minister is doing. The resignation gesture was not an immediate response. His first reaction was to test whether an alibi — that this was a “joint” operation, meaning that the state Government was equally culpable — would work. It did not, because there are too many retired and respected police officers and security experts ready to explain and reveal precisely what happened.
The surprise of the week was surely not the endorsement Chidambaram received from his Prime Minister, but the warm support he got from the BJP. There have been some cross-party surprises of late. Publicly, the Congress made a colossal fuss when Amitabh Bachchan was condemned as evil because he was seen with Narendra Modi. Away from the limelight, the Prime Minister endorsed Modi as head of the working group on consumer affairs at a Chief Ministers’ meeting. Then Goa’s Congress Chief Minister Digambar Kamat, after this CMs’ conference, told the world that Narendra Modi was his best friend and he would happily visit Gujarat if invited. Kamat could not have been unaware that his counterpart in Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan, was castigated, at the instigation of Delhi, for what might be called “third-degree contact” with Modi, because he had been civil to Amitabh who had been civil to Modi. Such “first-degree” proximity should be sufficient reason, by publicly declared standards, to remove Kamat, but he is clearly unconcerned. Does he know something that we do not? Politicians do not risk their gaddi very easily. Is Congress trying to finesse the new, emerging Opposition unity in Parliament, which threatens the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Lok Sabha, by being nice to the pre-eminent lightning rod in the BJP? In the absence of answers, we can at least ask questions.
The BJP’s support for Chidambaram, however, is based on ideological strategy rather than tactical requirements. The BJP has never been dubious about its aversion to democratic Marxists, and complete hostility to violent Maoists. The BJP considers Chidambaram the perfect “senapati” in the war against Maoists, because the Home Minister shares its uncomplicated view of Maoists as nothing but cowards and criminals who deserve complete elimination. This is a conviction shared by the Prime Minister, who has described Naxalites as the greatest threat to India.
Other politicians might hedge: Nitish Kumar believes that Maoists cannot be defeated only by force, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is certain that this cannot be treated as just a law and order matter, and Mani Shankar Aiyar, who heads the committee organising the Congress’ 125th anniversary, is certain that a one-eye policy focusing only on security will be counterproductive. But Chidambaram is a one-eyed man when it comes to Maoists; after all, you cannot take aim with a gun if both your eyes are open.
The Congress has, for the moment, officially rallied around Chidambaram, but there is very clearly a major internal debate that is seeping out of the confines of inner-party curtains. Dantewada might, paradoxically, strengthen a hawkish Home Minister, but it is not going to extinguish the two-eyed view of an admittedly difficult problem.
There is as much uncertainty in the Congress about the contours and consequences of a caste war as there is about a class war. The Congress was splintered during the heated arguments over the Mandal Commission in 1990, and its confusion lost the party UP and Bihar. There is always a price to be paid for irresolution. A strong section of the party is in harmony with the BJP over Maoists, just as many Congressmen agreed with V.P. Singh on Mandal. The left has been weakened within the Congress by the domination of Rao and Dr Singh in the last two Congress Governments, but it has not disappeared. Scratch Pranab Mukherjee and A.K. Antony and you will find Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in their blood. Mrs Sonia Gandhi has already indicated that she is not going to abandon the Congress left, but remains palpably unsure about the extent to which she can rehabilitate it.
A general purpose warning to Congress Cabinet Ministers: think thrice before offering to resign. You never know when it might be accepted.