Mukherjee said off-handedly, "What's the point of saying what I want. I'm not going to get it." "But still, Pranabji " Gandhi said patiently. "Well, if you're asking me, what I would really like to do is run the Finance Ministry," said Mukherjee. "All right" said Gandhi "I had other plans for you but if that is what you want "
And that's how P Chidambaram went into his second stint as the home minister. Given a choice, he might have preferred the finance portfolio. But he's at work, and within three weeks, he's sent the babus in the Ministry of Home Affairs in a tizzy. The leave applications of all officers, joint secretary and above, he's announced, will come to him.
He's made it clear he's not going to refuse leave. But he would like to know on a daily basis, who's coming to office and who's left early.
Because Chidambaram is a lawyer, he has a deep and abiding respect for rules. So the first thing he's trying to do is restore the primacy of rules, Standard Operating Procedures and systems of protection.
On June 9, Naxalites in Chhattisgarh's Bijapur district attacked a police truck carrying rations for the Central Reserve Police Force. Bijapur is 450 km from the state headquarters. The truck was blown up in a landmine blast. Nine CRPF jawans were injured, some quite badly.
The standard operating procedure is that jawans are supposed to walk in the jungles, not board a truck. These troopers were tired and they took a ride in the truck. Those who were walking were not hurt. Those who were in the truck were badly injured. This is because landmines are triggered by weight of a certain order. If all the jawans had walked, the number of those who would have been hurt would have been much smaller. The lesson is clear: Ignore SOP at your peril.
He said the same thing in Srinagar on his first visit after taking over as home minister at a time when Kashmir was being rent by strikes and demonstrations following the rape and murder of two young girls in Shopian for which the blame was being laid at the door of the paramilitary forces.
Chidambaram ignored the signals being sent by the elected dispensation in Kashmir that he was not particularly welcome. In fact, the minister of state in the Prime Minister's Office, Prithviraj Chavan, who was to accompany him dropped out. But Chidambaram made it clear that he would go, talk softly but make sure everyone saw the big stick he was carrying.
In the end, the state government should be happy he came: He announced unambiguously that through "small baby steps" the central paramilitary forces would be asked to stand down in Kashmir, their place taken by the Jammu and Kashmir police forces.
As both the People's Democratic Party, currently in opposition, and the ruling National Conference are seeking the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, this first
Central statement of intent must have boosted confidence tremendously.
The CRPF is to be reduced in Srinagar first followed by the periphery of the state. As the Amarnath Yatra is starting on June 15, Chidambaram is going to be in constant touch with the state.
The other big challenge he is going to face squarely is left wing extremism. There is going to be no soft-pedalling, 'maybe-they-have-a-point' kind of accommodation. If people kill other people, they will be punished. Yes, development will be carried out. But the law will be enforced.
The MHA is poised to make big purchases for its paramilitary forces. The National Investigating Agency, tasked with the mandate, among other things, of investigating and prosecuting offences affecting the sovereignty, integrity and security of India and the security of the state, has already been handed two cases: One relating to fake currency and the other of intimidation and extortion in the North East.
Two cases have been registered by the Assam Police in which cash amounting to over Rs 1 crore, weapons and mobile phones were recovered and a number of persons arrested. The NIA is investigating this.
Chidambaram has put his 3,300-vote victory behind him. How did his margin come down from 1.60 lakh in 2004 to under 5,000 in 2009? Three reasons: The Communist Party of India-Marxist broke away from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led alliance in Tamil Nadu and it has some presence in Sivaganga; the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam candidate, Kannappan is a Yadava and all the Yadavas voted for him, overlooking party affiliations; and in the urban areas, the blame for the Sri Lanka Tamil issue was dumped at the door of the Congress.
The DMK did not try to disabuse voters of the last, for obvious reasons. Delimitation also had some role but unlike 1999, when Chidambaram lost the election, he has won this time. That's all that matters.
He still has his old driver and his one-man personal security. He's got a new Ford Fiesta though. And as the weeks pass, things are going to change in the Home Ministry.