Ritesh K Srivastava
As the first anniversary of the deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai puts us in a retrospective mode, a fair and unbiased comparison of two high profile people, in capacity of Home Minister of India before and after 26/11, is only natural.
After facing severe criticism over inept handling of terrorism from the opposition parties, the Congress-led UPA government of Dr Manmohan Singh finally woke up from deep slumber and took several corrective measures aimed at tightening the internal security apparatus.
One of those measures included replacing Shivraj Patil, who was the Home Minister when the Mumbai tragedy took place, with P Chidambaram, who was comfortably handling the Finance portfolio then.
Ever since assuming office as the Union Home Minister in 2004, Shivraj Patil had been under scanner for one reason or another. The soft-spoken suave gentleman never actually managed to convince his own colleagues from the Congress, leave alone his political opponents, about his suitability to the august office.
During his four-year term as the Home Minister, he apparently failed to handle issues such as Naxalism, Pakistan-backed militancy, cross-border infiltration, the Amarnath Shrine controversy and improving the overall security situation of the country.
His lacklustre approach in dealing with any key crisis, his routine soft-statements and his habit of evading the national media over major issues failed to connect him with the masses.
Unfortunately, he created an impression of a person clearly lacking firm will-power and the courage to take up tough decisions in times of deep crisis.
Instead of doing justice to his job as the Home Minister, the second most important after the Prime Minister, he was spotted more on Page-3 circles, and his lavish lifestyle further fuelled the rising dissidence among the countrymen.
Interestingly, Patil, who had in the past been the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, drew flak from several quarters for changing his attire several times in a day, when there were terrorist attacks in Delhi and Gujarat, and then also when the entire nation was in a state of shock during the unprecedented siege of Mumbai.
Since his induction as the Home Minister in Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet, he was criticised for his proximity with the bureaucrats of the rightist orientation.
Patil was severely slammed by the Left parties for his failure to purge the Home Ministry off officers sympathetic to the rightwing Hindu body - the RSS.
It was alleged that Patil’s predecessor, LK Advani had recruited pro-RSS officials on key posts in the Home Ministry to carry forward the Right-wing Hindu organisation’s agenda.
The Congress government, which though dependent on Left’s support, had spared Patil at that time and allowed him to continue in his job.
However, Patil failed to overcome his shortcomings and took no note of the rising internal disturbances and militant activities across the country. There were several reported incidents of security lapses and intelligence failures during his tenure.
Even then, Patil continued as the Home Minister since he enjoyed full support of the Congress high command.
However, the stage for his ouster was set when Mumbai was attacked and as many as 183 people of different nationalities were killed by Pakistan-based terrorists.
The carnage in Mumbai was too serious a matter for the Congress leadership to spare Patil this time, as his below-average performance had embarrassed and mocked the UPA’s government’s reputation.
What followed was an emergency meeting of the CWC convened by Sonia Gandhi, where it was decided that Patil be immediately removed from his post, paving way for a more competent man to take up the Herculean task of improving internal security.
Realising that people’s anger towards the ruling coalition was seething over, the CWC decided that Patil must quit owing “moral responsibility”.
It may be noted that in the first six months between May to November, 2008, as many as 12 Indian cities fell victim to terrorism. Over 64 bomb blasts occurred in India which claimed more than 215 lives and left over 900 injured, excluding the 183 people killed in the Mumbai attacks.
In his defence, Patil did produce some figures to prove that there were a lesser number of casualties in terrorism-related activities during his tenure as compared to his predecessor LK Advani.
But, no one in the Congress circles supported Patil and the PMO faxed his resignation to President Pratibha Patil, who was in Jakarta on Nov 30, 2008.
P Chidambaram, who took over as the country’s new Home Minister, was given the mammoth task of restoring people’s faith in the UPA leadership at the Centre.
Chidambaram, who was initially reluctant in taking up as his new job that required him to dissociate himself from the corporate world, and focus more on acute issues such as terrorism and Naxalism, soon lived up to his reputation of a “no-nonsense man”.
Within a very short span of time, Chidambaram proposed and got the Parliament’s nod in enacting a law called Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, and set up the National Investigative Agency (NIA).
Chidambaram also promised a total revamp of the country’s defence and intelligence gathering mechanism as well its sharing among Indian agencies. He also took several initiatives aimed at strengthening the costal security of India, providing reinforcements and effecting modernisation of our police machinery with modern weaponry, and better surveillance system.
The counter-terrorism measures announced by the Home Minister were necessitated in the wake of reported failure and lack of coordination among various intelligence agencies in detecting and foiling incidents like Mumbai.
Pledging to punish the perpetrators of Mumbai bloodbath, Chidambaram issued regular warnings to Islamabad to act swiftly against terrorism emanating from its soil.
Under his stewardship, the Home Ministry gathered and provided concrete evidence to Pakistan confirming the hand of its nationals in the Mumbai terrorist attacks.
India provided as many as six dossiers to Pakistan and got international support in pressing Islamabad to fulfil its commitments against terrorism.
Another hallmark of Chidambaram’s one-year stint as Home Minister is his attempts to bridge gap between the Centre and the state government of J&K by announcing to review the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Chidambaram stressed that law and order was a state subject and gave more prominence to the J&K police in dealing with militancy and improving the security situation in the state.
With intensified counter-insurgency operations and improved surveillance and monitoring of international borders, the state saw a steep decline in militant activities and cross-border infiltration.
He even offered to hold talks with each and every section of J&K to find a perfect solution for all conflicts. Chidambaram undoubtedly managed to win hearts of the awaam of J&K by giving a further push to the UPA agenda of socio-economic reforms in the conflict-ridden state.
Chidambaram’s report card will be incomplete without the mention of his take on Naxalism. Realising that Naxals posed the biggest challenge to the internal security, Chidambaram opted for a “carrot and stick” policy to deal with the menace.
He invited the Naxalites to come to the negotiation table, while at the same time threatened to take stringent action if they continued with violence.
He also called for a need to address all vexed issues of tribal groups and proposed several measures aimed at the improving their standard of living through education, improved health care and providing basic amenities in the remote tribal areas.
Chidambaram is also media friendly and willing to take some very tough questions at the monthly press conferences that he organises to keep people abreast with the measures that the government is taking to ensure their safety and security.
With his excellent oratory skills and excessive homework on internal security aspects, he proved his detractors wrong that he was only suited for a corporate portfolio and not as someone in-charge of internal security.
Although, one year is not a period enough to measure Chidambaram’s performance as Home Minister and to say if he is better than his predecessor Patil, but the enthusiasm and the keen interest he has evinced in revamping the defence mechanism, has indeed earned him the recognition of being the toughest Home Minister since Sardar Patel.