With great power comes great responsibility,” it says in the Book of Spiderman. A useful maxim; comic-book heroes are clearly the moral exemplars of our time. Unfortunately, as Mitali Saran points out elsewhere on these pages, the comical Congress’ promotion of ex-Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde shows it believes instead that “with no power, comes great responsibility”.
A few days on, and I still have trouble processing it. The northern grid collapses — not once, but twice in as many days. And the Union minister in charge of overseeing the system is not reprimanded, but promoted. Far from being somewhat bashful at this turn of events, he loudly insists – to the acute embarrassment of all those listening – that he owes nobody an apology; that he has been an excellent power minister; that even the US has power failures, did you know, and they asked for our brilliant grid experts to come and fix them, and are you trying to make India look backward by asking all these questions, you anti-national sort? Saddest of all, there appears to be no way to convey to Sonia Gandhi how intolerably arrogant and irresponsible it appears to promote Mr Shinde on the very day that his ministry presides over such a colossal failure.
Still, Mr Shinde can perhaps claim such scrutiny’s too harsh. Why should he not claim to be an excellent minister, and try and avoid accountability? Why, he must grumble to himself, are people mocking me while praising men like, say, my predecessor — for their grasp of detail at press conferences or their technocratic demeanour? Why not judge everybody on outcomes — not just the inarticulate?
He’d have a point. Almost as puzzling as the ill-timed rise of Mr Shinde were the cries of joy greeting P Chidambaram’s move to the finance ministry. Happy days, it appears, are just around the corner: Mr Chidambaram, that dyed-in-the-wool reformist, will deliver Dream Budgets, and world oil prices will drop and the states will reform taxes and the rains will come and all will be well. The only sad part is that Mr Chidambaram would have to leave the home ministry, where he did such a brilliant job.
Pretty much everything in that narrative is false. First of all, there’s little enough that Mr Chidambaram can do to fix the economy at this point. Its problems, and the UPA’s, are deeper and more structural than one man. And even if they weren’t, Mr Chidambaram isn’t the one to do it, as his tenure at the home ministry shows.
Pretty much his only achievement there is that 26/11 didn’t happen again. I lived in George W Bush’s America. I do not think the fact that 9/11 didn’t happen again is an endorsement of Mr Bush’s competence.
On the con side, here is a space-constrained and very incomplete list. He failed to get the states to pull together on anti-Naxalite operations, while dismissing concerns about continuing human rights violations. He failed to convince the army to modify the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. He failed to persuade states to conduct effective police reform. With a few glib words he set off the Telangana agitation, which has led to the decimation of the Congress in its strongest state. Not for 20 years has the Kashmir Valley been as angry and untrusting as it is today, and as hostile to actions by central paramilitaries under his command. Fatalities continued to increase in the north-east’s insurgencies, and he let an entire state be cut off from the rest of India for months at a time. For turf reasons, his ministry fought a delaying action against Nandan Nilekani’s UID project, the only transformative idea that UPA-II has to offer. Terrorism prosecutions are a sorry, incomplete, mess. And Mr Shinde is no doubt ruing the fact that the blasts in Pune will show up in a future histogram as coming during his tenure rather than Mr Chidambaram’s.
Frankly, given this list of errors, mis-steps and failures, it is only the fact that we still remember Shivraj Patil that stops Mr Chidambaram from being the worst home minister in memory.
Even so, perhaps Mr Chidambaram might still make a tolerable finance minister? Doubtful; look at the nature of his failures as home minister. In many instances, the problem was his inability to persuade states and stakeholders. Moving him to finance is an official announcement that UPA-II is giving up on the goods and services tax – the only real weapon in its arsenal to alter economic fundamentals for the better – since that depends on convincing states to part with their powers. Yes, Congress, why not give those negotiations to someone who succeeded so well with the National Counter-Terrorism Council (NCTC)? Just a few weeks ago, a long list of chief ministers delivered stinging, untrusting condemnations of his claimed efforts to undermine state autonomy in the NCTC’s formation.
And, above all, Home Minister Chidambaram revealed himself to grossly undervalue personal freedom. Surveillance reportedly increased considerably during his tenure. He permitted a vast increase in the harassment of NGOs through foreign-contributions red tape. Well-known academics were closely cross-questioned about conference and research visas, and arbitrarily denied them. Rather than reform procedures, Home Minister Chidambaram went for administrative power-grabs — not the instincts of a genuine reformist. So how could anyone concerned about the excessive control that the finance ministry has arrogated to itself of late believe he will fix it? India’s problems need more than an in-charge demeanour. They need courage, and the right instincts.