To understand the curious case of Palaniappan Chidambaram (hereafter referred to as PC), India’s current home minister, I take you back to a news story that TOI broke on 12th Jan 2010 – TOI reported that the then NSA , M. K. Narayanan was going to be relieved of his responsibilities and will most likely be repatriated as a Governor in a state.
As this news broke, the entire media was in QED mode – it had been reporting for some months that the dynamic new Home Minister, PC, was literally shaking the moribund security establishment, that he was taking direct command of all security related issues (like chairing the daily intelligence briefing sessions) , that this was creating a rift between him and NSA, Narayanan ( who in times of Shivraj Patil had a free run) and that ultimately only one would likely prevail. Of course, PC was then the darling of the media, especially broadcast media, so when the story of Narayanan’s removal became public, the media “rightly concluded” that PC had won the turf war – in fact it cheerled the victory !
In a blog post, I did on 18th Jan 2010, I surmised that the removal of Narayanan had nothing to do with PC but everything to do with Prime Minister, Dr. Man Mohan Singh (MMS). My basic argument was this – Narayanan was a known hawk on Pakistan, his career in IB obviously contributing to his deep distrust of Pak. Thus, he was an impediment in the peace process that MMS had embarked upon – it was one thing for a PM to be opposed by a member of his cabinet, quite another to have his most trusted advisor on a parallel path. MMS was gambling on peace with Pak and he could not afford naysayers in his innermost circle – thus shunting out of Narayanan.
I remember no one else taking this line in their writings then, except M.J. Akbar, who a week later wrote on similar lines in The Pioneer. Everyone else bought the story that this was a victory of PC and perhaps, some sort of defeat for MMS since he lost his advisor ! Of course, thanks to Wikileaks, we now know that Narayanan was almost certainly removed because of his position on Pakistan. He had confessed, some since 6 months before his sacking, to an American diplomat, that he and PM had very differing and indeed diametrically opposite ideas on Pakistan.
I am going to argue in this piece that what happened with Narayanan in Jan 2010 will happen with Chidambaram in July / August 2011.
The only issue on which MMS has had some measure of autonomy in his premiership has been foreign policy. In his first term he devoted his attention to two issues – the Nuclear Deal with US and the backroom negotiations for peace in Kashmir with Gen Musharraf. When the negotiations with Musharraf fell through in summer of 2007, due to internal discontent in Pakistan, MMS devoted his full-time attention the nuclear deal and persevered to see through its fruitition. However, he had not lost his sights on peace with Pakistan. He was determined to pursue it if another chance arose.
When MMS won a second term in May 2009, it was his golden opportunity. He could now devote all his energies to the chimera of peace with Pakistan. Perhaps, he had noble intentions too in pursuing it – after all he claimed credit for delivering India economically in 1991 ( although history might credit Narashimha Rao). It was now time for him to deliver India strategically too !!
Thus in July 2009, just 7 months after 26/11, when Pakistan had made absolutely no progress in booking the 26/11 perpetrators, he was ready to smoke peace in Sharm el-Sheikh. Such was the single-minded determination of MMS, that within 7 months of the most dastardly terrorist act on Indian soil, he was willing to concede Pak propaganda on Balochistan. Of course the storm in Indian parliament blew away his first attempt.
It is not a mere coincidence that Narayanan confessed his differences with MMS on Pak, to the American diplomat, in August 2009 – just a month after Sharm el-Sheikh. The first attempt of MMS failed, but he got rid of the naysayer Narayanan within 5 months of his doomed attempt . By Jan 2010 he had a new NSA – someone who was more “pragmatic” and willing to go along the pipe dream of MMS.
MMS made his second attempt in July 2010 when S.M. Krishna was despatched to Pakistan to negotiate with Mehmood Qureshi. However, this attempt got derailed too – this time by member of his own government. The interview that then home secretary, G.K. Pillai gave, just days before the talks, inditing ISI for 26/11 almost certainly killed the talks even before they started. Pillai could not have given this interview without go-ahead from PC. This is the moment, I argue, marks the beginning of end of PC.
Amongst the members of MMS cabinet, PC is the last man holding out against settlement with Pak sans any movement on terrorism. Pranab Mukherjee is too busy in domestic affairs, Antony is hardly likely to pick up a fight while others are not in the league to derail his plans. Only PC had the necessary political weight to argue against a settlement with Pak. That he is articulate and media friendly, as opposed to MMS, makes him even more dangerous. Thus, if MMS has to succeed in his latest gambit, PC has to be sacrificed.
So began the plan to derail PC some months ago, only this time the boot was the other foot. PC was used as the bait to sideline Narayanan, Pranab Mukherjee was going to be the bait to sideline PC. Just as there was a steady build up of the turf war between PC and Narayanan, which presumably PC won, this time there is a build up of a turf war between Pranab Mukherjee and PC. The high-proof of this turf war – the bugging of Pranab’s offices, presumably by IB, which is under PC.
It is my argument that MMS himself leaked Pranab’s letter. It was a masterstroke by him – PC has now been projected as a conspiring person out to bug his own colleagues – someone who is distrusted by someone as sensible and senior as Pranab Mukherjee. The answer that MMS gave in his press meet, when asked why PC was not involved in investigating the bugging, is most instructive – he said PC was not informed of Pranab’s letter as he was on a “need to know” basis – the home minister of the country was on a need to know basis on security matters?? If after this he is removed in the cabinet reshuffle, will it not sound as just punishment?
However, unlike other sacrificed Congressmen (such as Natwar Singh, Kalmadi or even Narayanan), PC is unlikely to go down quietly. He is still relatively young, feisty and with a very sharp mind. He could fight back and take down a few with him. Thus part two of the hatched plan – a steady stream of leaks all implicating PC, right from 2G scam to CWG scam. I again argue that all these leaks are coming from MMS office. These leaks are intended to warn him off – keep your counsel else you could be next in Tihar ! Consider what MMS replied to Dr. Subramaniam Swamy who requested permission for his prosecution – it was “premature” to grant permission. Yes, not an outright NO as would happen in normal circumstances when someone asks to prosecute your Home Minster but premature ! Clearly a hidden message was sent to PC – the timing could become “mature” in future, if you go out of line too much. The third salvo was fired by Jayalalitha soon after she emerged from her meeting with MMS – when she openly declared that the election of PC as MP was a fraud.
The question to be asked, though, is this – if MMS is willing to go to this lengths to make peace with Pak, where will he stop? A settlement on Kashmir can only be reached by Indian concessions – since it is Pakistan which is fighting to change the status quo while India has fought to preserve it. So how much is MMS willing to concede, because he knows that he has tried and failed thrice in past – first with Musharraf and then in summers 2009 and 2010. This is his fourth attempt – and almost certainly the last. Where will he stop now?