P Chidambaram makes a comeback as Union finance minister. It should lift the sagging morale of players in the private sector and promise some hope for the focus-less economy. Forget the opposition-sponsored noise about his involvement in scandals of different shapes and sizes and his alleged suspicious conversation on 2G spectrum pricing with former Telecom Minister A Raja, he is the still the best bet for the most difficult job in the country. The courts can take care of the allegations.
Yes, he not popular. There’s no love lost between the opposition and him; not many in the Congress, specially the anti-reform lobby, have a special liking for him. He is perceived as arrogant and condescending towards others, including the media. But these should be no disqualification. He is competent at his job, understands the new economy like few of his contemporaries do and is capable of taking hard decisions and standing by them. He should not have been shifted from the ministry, his favourite turf, in the first place.
All the good things said, now the challenges. Predecessor Pranab Mukherjee, with due apology to his enormous experience, has not exactly left the economy in fine fettle. Chidambaram has to rebuild overseas investor confidence in the country, resurrect the faith of domestic businesses in the economy, tackle inflation, satisfy the common man and arrest the sense of drift in economic matters. It’s a tall ask. In short, he has to bring the good newspaper headlines back for the government.
Most importantly, he has to operate amid pressure from UPA coalition partners, most of whom are opposed to big ticket reform proposals one way or the other. If the controversy over the National Counter Terrorism Centre is any indicator, Chidambaram is not adept at building consensus. Of course, he will need to withstand the pressure from the Congress, which would like to go populist before the 2014 general election. The party’s primary concern at the moment is to go for politically low-risk, high-return measures such as the Food Security Bill which could leave the exchequer bleeding. Most of the finance minister’s energies would be spent on fighting back the Congress.
As home minister Chidambaram’s stint was a chequered one. He took a tough, uncompromising position against the Naxals and was able to curb their presence in several states with able cooperation from states like BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh. The Naxal presence is now limited to about 60 districts, down from more than 210 a few years ago. There has been a lull in terrorist activities in the country after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, although a major part of the credit should go to the US military action in the Af-Pak region.
The intelligence apparatus is relatively better though still a lot needs to be done about it. The ambitious NCTC is still stuck in the debate over federal powers. The Assam developments suggest that the home ministry has not done enough to contain influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. He leaves successor Sushil Kumar Shinde a controversial legacy.
He would be expected to better with the economy. However, given the resistance to him from the opposition his new stint in certainly not going to be an easy one.
What happens to the home ministry now? Shinde is an experienced leader but given his record at the power ministry, he does not inspire much hope. He can at least ensure no sharp break in the policy of his predecessor. Yes, he is expected to be good at managing political relationship between the Centre and the states.
But for now, all attention will be on Chidambaram. The finance ministry is where the country is desperate to get some good news from.
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