Debashis Basu
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Don’t assume that fundamentals would remain rosy

I had written four weeks ago that after the...

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The Needle of Suspicion

At a time when even junior ministers are daring to trample upon P Chidambaram, the sudden debate in Parliament over the inclusion of caste in the ongoing census, repeatedly raised by the Opposition and refused by the government, might offer an answer to the question: Who would want to put PC in his place? Census 2011 got off to a start on 1 April 2010, after it was very clearly decided within the government that the census is not the right place to do a caste count. But just two days before the Budget session was to conclude, the Opposition parties raised the demand for a caste count in the ongoing census itself. The home minister repeatedly opposed the idea saying the census was just a head count incapable of throwing up accurate data on caste and that it was a logistical impossibility because the forms will have to be reprinted and all the 23 lakh enumerators recalled and retrained. And even then, they would come up with only ‘claims’ of caste that they have no way of verifying. He said there was a grave danger of the census throwing up completely unreliable figures on caste that could have disastrous implications for the reservation regime. Mr Chidambaram was allowed to refuse the caste count on the first day of the debate. On the second day, the concluding day of the session, he was allowed to make a detailed, written, well-argued case, for keeping caste out of the equation. He may have walked away thinking he had won the argument but almost immediately the prime minister promised that, keeping the sense of the House in mind, his Cabinet would take a final call. And no sooner had the House ended, than Pranab Mukherjee announced to waiting newspersons that caste would be included! Mr Chidambaram was hopping mad. Not only was he led up the garden path and made to dig his heels in, the reversal announcement was allowed to be made by Pranabbabu as if to suggest that he was not even number two in the layers of government hierarchy, forget about being ‘prime minister material’. Something had changed in his government’s stance on the caste census and Mr Chidambaram, let alone being part of the change, was actually led to believe that he was having his way. So what was it that changed? Big brother US and the nuke bill.

Yes, that is what tipped the scales in favour of including the caste count in the current census. What’s the connection, you might well ask. Here it is. The first ever Indo-US strategic talks are scheduled for 3rd June in Washington and Manmohan Singh wanted to show ‘progress’ on the contentious Nuclear Civil Liabilities Bill that will finally make the nuke deal with the US operational. Ideally, Manmohan, who will travel to DC for the talks, would have liked the Bill to have been passed by Parliament before he got on that plane; but the way his hands were singed when he brought the Bill up in March, he knew that would have to wait till the monsoon session. The Left parties and the BJP were dead set against the Bill because it limited the liability of US companies that set up nuclear power plants in India to a measly Rs500 crore in case of accidents. The Yadavs—Lalu and Mulayam—and Mayawati, smarting under the just-introduced Women’s Reservation Bill, were ready for retribution. The combined Opposition could have brought the government down. So it quickly withdrew the Bill to be reintroduced after considering a hike in the minimum liability. But the Congress floor-managers had apparently put the Parliament recess to good use. The Yadavs and Maya, who were breathing fire before the recess, were mollified. The Yadavs by promising to go slow on the Women’s Bill and Maya by dusting up her DA case in the Supreme Court. The three of them helped the government snuff out the cut motions of the Left and the BJP. That was a great relief for Manmohan but he still had the problem of credibility with his US partners. If he could not even introduce the Bill before leaving for the talks, it would put a big question mark on the nuke deal for which the US, it would make us believe, went out of the way to accommodate us. Conveniently for him, the Yadavs once again raised the caste census debate and after having Mr Chidambaram oppose it vehemently, the prime minister cut another deal with the Yadavs: caste count in this census in exchange for their support for passing the Nuclear Civil Liabilities Bill. That’s how the Bill came to be introduced in the Lok Sabha on the last working day, without any change (and will surely be passed in the monsoon session). If PC had to be sacrificed for this greater cause, so be it.{break}

Who Is after Chidambaram?
Home minister P Chidambaram is certainly one of the star performers of the UPA government. He brought his ministry in sync with the changed security scenario after 26/11 and squarely brought the Maoist violence to national centre stage. He brought a sense of purpose to a ministry that was seen to be doing nothing more than running from one bomb blast site to another (in designer safari suits), mouthing homilies such as ‘dastardly acts’, ‘we will not spare the perpetrators’ and other such nonsense. Right up to the Dantewada setback, Mr Chidambaram was quite clearly the man to watch in Manmohan’s Cabinet, with talk of ‘prime minister material’ surfacing here and there. Therein lies the rub. The Congress Party dynamics are such that nobody, just nobody, other than ‘the Family’, has a right to the limelight; here was Mr Chidambaram getting away with being projected as prime ministerial material. That was enough for the hounds in the Party to get after him. Dantewada came in handy. Digvijay Singh, the man now seen to be Rahul Gandhi’s eyes and ears in the Party, fired the first salvo. He criticised Mr Chidambaram for his ‘law & order’ approach in dealing with the Naxals. A senior Party colleague publicly challenging the home minister on a crucial policy of the government would have been bad enough, but Digvijay went further. He said he was at the receiving end of Mr Chidambaram’s ‘intellectual arrogance’. That was personal; it showed that the attack had motives other than just questioning the Naxal policy. Immediately Mani Shankar Aiyar joined the ‘punch-PC’ gang by supporting Digvijay’s line before the high command stepped in and stopped the virus from spreading. Digvijay subsequently met Mr Chidambaram to explain himself but immediately another front was opened by Jairam ‘foot-in-the-mouth’ Ramesh. In China, on an official tour, he termed the home ministry’s refusal to allow import of telecom equipment from Huawei as ‘paranoid and alarmist’. Mr Chidambaram shot off an angry letter to Manmohan who ticked off Ramesh to mind his tongue and only his ministry. It is likely that Jairam will also be asked to say sorry to Mr Chidambaram. But the point to note is this: Why is it open season for attacks on Mr Chidambaram from within the Party and government? Is somebody showing ‘the prime minister material’ his place? Pray, who would want to do that?

Tailpiece
After this apparent sleight wherein it seemed like Pranabbabu was taking the decisions that were in his territory, Mr Chidambaram threw a fit. He was completely compromised and made to look like he had no clue on what was going on around him. That seems to be the reason why Jairam Ramesh got a stronger knock on his knuckles from Manmohan and Sonia for his transgression into PC’s territory than Digvijay Singh. The Party and government had to reassure PC that it was not a coordinated attack from all fronts. And that was easy; it’s not tough to show up Jairam as the loud-mouth that he is.

BV Rao has wide experience across print, TV and digital media. He was group editor at ZEE News and senior editor with DNA and Indian Express.

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