Thursday, October 8, 2009

CHIDAMBARAM, THE NEW SARDAR PATEL: LESSON FOR INDIA

If there is one good that has come out of Mumbai 26/11, it is the appointment of P Chidambaram as India's Home Minister. It has driven home the almost completely forgotten lesson that ministerial berths must be given only on the basis of merit, suitable knowledge/experience, and demonstrated ability to deliver outstanding results. For far too long has this task been taken lightly and the nation made to pay a heavy price.

No country that aspires to be a super power and be counted among the great nations of the world can afford to have its government led by incompetent/corrupt/unqualified politicians. This is one main reason why China has marched purposefully ahead of us to become a super power, even though we are arguably better blessed with an outstanding pool of talent and experience. This is also why we are continuing to fall behind, with no aspiration to even make an attempt to close the increasing gap.

Unfortunately, the model of democracy that we have adopted has been throwing up a fractured political verdict for decades now. As a result, the exercise of ministry formation has become a virtual mockery, as these few critical jobs that give direction to the nation along various dimensions, have begun to be seen as unholy rewards to be enjoyed by politicians rather than sacred tasks to be performed by them to build the nation. To make things worse, in the case of the Congress party, dynastic considerations have often taken precedence over everything else in allocating the most crucial ministries.

Shivraj Patil, who was sacked as Home Minister after 26/11, was a striking example of this killer disease. He was completely unfit for the job and could do no better than put his foot in his mouth whenever he opened it. He manifestly not only had no clue about what was happening in his ministry but also has no idea as to what he needed to do to make India more secure, among other things. Terror attack after terror attack, the best he could do was to tell the nation that Pakistan and the ISI were behind the attacks and then dust himself and walk off as if his job was done. Yet, he survived for almost five years because he had one prized quality that washed away all his unpardonable sins.

Chidambaram has exposed the grave danger that a completely incompetent minister given a crucial job solely on grounds of personal loyalty can pose to the whole country and make it look and feel helpless and insecure. He has shown that a minister who knows nothing except politics can, exceptions apart, simply not suddenly sprout a vision and provide bipartisan administrative leadership of the quality that is needed by a huge country like India.

It is not for nothing that Chidambaram is already being called India's new Sardar Patel. The decisive purposefulness and steely resolve that he has shown thus far has annoyed a few disconnected and soft activists who have not a clue of the harsh realities and danger of death that confront security forces on the ground day in and out. But has earned the respect of both his subordinates and ordinary Indian citizens weary of being at the receiving end of violence without even a glimmer of hope that things will ever get any better.

When he says, for example, that in the event of another 26/11 type of attack, India's reaction will be swift and decisive, you know he is not shooting his mouth off like Pranab Mukherjee did after 26/11. When he asks the states to stop treating policemen like footballs, you know that he understands one major reason due to which the police is not able to do it job properly. When he moves quickly to set up regional NSG hubs and establish a Coastal Command, a National Intelligence Grid and a National Counter Terrorism Centre, you get the uneasy feeling that, had it not been for 26/11, Patil would still have been Home Minister, doing nothing more than changing clothes thrice within an hour even as bombs were blasting within earshot distance. When he shows a determination to, finally, take on Naxal terror, without falling prey to petty partisan politics, you are sure that the Indian state has finally woken up to a serious threat after years of criminal slumber.

While there is no denying that Chidambaram is a man of outstanding abilities, the hard fact is that it is after nearly 60 years that India has a Home Minister who is justifiably being compared to the legendary Iron Man of India. This only shows how wrong and sometimes disastrous political choices have been made by successive Prime Ministers in picking their ministers. Had a tradition of giving merit precedence over petty political considerations been put in place early on when the Congress had brute majority, and Pandit Nehru followed by Indira Gandhi were unquestioned leaders, perhaps India would have been far more safe, secure, educated, developed, socially harmonised and confident than it is today.

India's politicians need to understand that they are being elected by the people to give them the best government possible, and not to saddle the nation with a bunch of incompetent and corrupt leaders who cannot rise above petty politics.

Today, there are a few good men like Dr Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Kamal Nath etc who are camouflaging the rot. But the situation is only going to get worse with dynastic politics taking even deeper roots with each passing day, for all the wrong reasons. Digvijay Singh said it all a few days back when he admitted that children of politicians had to join politics because they were not capable of doing anything else.

So, a few years down the line, there will be virtually no place for outsiders in the political landscape, and this nation will be run by a bunch of smart-talking, wealth-flaunting guys who know nothing except politics and are in the game for only power and pelf. That is a frightening scenario, to say the least, and has to be avoided at all cost.

India needs its best men and women to lead it. And the best are almost all outside the class of professional politicians. It is, therefore, time for India's present leaders to make sure that the present system is, at the very least, suitably modified to allow the Prime Minister to pick at least 50% of his ministers from wherever he wants. The American President can pick his whole team at his discretion. That is, of course, ideal. But if we are not yet ready to make a total break with a system that forces you to often pick the worst, then a beginning as suggested can be made. It must be added here that President Obama has retained his predecessor's Defence Secretary (ministers are called secretaries in the US) because of his professional knowledge and experience. That is the kind of bipartisanship and national outlook that our leaders also need to show in future.

You don't become what China has in just 25 years, breaking all past and present global records, by blundering your way through governance and by treating it as a platform for parking crap and making money. The sooner we realise it the better. After some time, it may be too late.