As Pranab, Chidu slug it out, UPA 2 feels like the last days of the Mughal empire
The meaningless ego tussle between the Congress biggies is symptomatic of the sorry state of affairs of the Congress and the UPA 2. There’s no one to play referee here.
The Pranab Mukherjee-P Chidambaram ugly face-off in full public view is symptomatic of the hapless plight of the Congress as well as the UPA 2 and lends itself to comparisons with the last days of the Mughals when, emboldened by a combination of greed, ambition and a weak central authority, powerful satraps went for each other’s jugular ensuring that everyone, including the empire, went down under.
By any reckoning Mukherjee and Chidambaram are the two senior most ministers in the UPA 2 and though there is no official roll call of hierarchy in this government, the finance minister and the home minister are widely seen as the number 2 and number 3 in the Manmohan Singh cabinet.
The controversial finance ministry note accusing Chidambaram of complicity in the 2G scam has brought the long simmering and much talked about war between the two Congress veterans in the open.
The content and veracity of the finance ministry note may be important from the point of view of those investigating into the 2G scam and the Supreme Court which is monitoring the case, but in the context of the unseemly spat between Chidambaram and Mukherjee and its political implications for the government, the devil really does not lie in those details which can be argued and counter argued endlessly by lawyers on both sides.
Looking at the big picture in terms of its political implications and impact, the thing which is really significant and damaging is that a note accusing Chidambaram (the then finance minister) in the 2G scam originated from the desk of a director in the finance ministry and went up to the PMO after being approved (the technical word on the file is "seen") by Mukherjee.
All this was happening and the note was being tossed around in government correspondence early this year when all hell had already broken loose on the 2G scam, Raja was in jail and the government was finding itself trapped and cornered.
It's the timing which is important. And it's damning.
At a time when the government and its top brass should have been engaged in waging a rearguard action in the "all hands on the deck" spirit, two of its most politically experienced and astute ministers were engaged in their own dogfight. What about collective leadership? Playing with team spirit and trying to put up a united show and coming up with an effective and coherent firefighting strategy?
Clearly the UPA is not guided by the spirit of standing by each other through thick and thin. Let alone the spirit of swimming and sinking together. It’s more a dog eat dog world where senior leaders believe more in the dictum of cutting one's nose to spite one's face.
The reasons for the Chidambaram-Mukherjee fued are difficult to fathom.
Everybody knows Chidambaram was rather reluctant to relinquish finance but the UPA leadership needed a strong, efficient mascot for the home ministry in the aftermath of 26/11 and Chidambaram was the choice of both Sonia Gandhi and the prime minister. Rahul, too, is favourably disposed towards Chidambaram and is understood to have approved his move to the home ministry.
The problem was compounded when Pranab was made the finance minister. Like Chidambaram, Pranab Mukherjee had also held the finance portfolio more than once in the past. Both think of themselves as some kind of finance whiz kids and brook little interference in their ministries. After Chidambaram’s exit, most of his chosen officials were also shunted out. Worse, Mukherjee also made sure that none of the ex finance minister's suggestions and recommendations got accommodated in his regime, either in successive budgets or any other policy initiatives and key appointments.
It is common knowledge in the finance ministry that the surest way to get a proposal shot down in north block is to somehow attribute the same to Chidambram.
There were other reasons for the mutual mistrust and dislike.
Mukherjee has always been a little resentful over Chidambaram's better rapport with the Gandhi family. It's no secret that Mukherjee has never been able to score as highly on the loyalty test as a Manmohan Singh and a Chidambaram with the first family of the Congress. The finance minister's detractors ensured that the Gandhi's never forget the momentary spark of ambition he had shown in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination when he was indiscreet enough to let his ambition of becoming the prime minister get the better of him.
That one false move has been like an albatross around his neck ever since, used by his detractors to pull him down whenever Mukherjee looks destined for better things.
Mukherjee's supporters also suspect Chidambaram of getting the finance minister’s office bugged. Chidambaram was also blamed by the finance minister’s supporters for his embarrassment in the Baba Ramdev fiasco and Mukherjee’s exclusion in the early rounds of negotiations with Team Anna last month.
Mukherjee also suspects the home minister and people close to him as targeting one of his close aides in the media.
In short, there are a number of personality issues between the two, which is quite a pity really because there’s no turf war between Chidambaram and Mukherjee who come from Tamil Nadu and West Bengal respectively. Their interests don’t clash other than their common passion for the finance ministry.
Mukherjee was itching to get even with Chidambaram and the 2G scam seems to have provided him with an opportunity.
The government and the Congress will not desert Chidambaram in a hurry because if the home minister goes, the next target is the prime minister himself. So Chidambaram will be defended almost to the last man unless the Supreme Court takes a contrary view.
But the real worrying factor for the government and the Congress is that there's nobody who can probably act as a stern referee in this issue and if need be call the warring ministers and read them the riot act.
The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, is a curious bundle of contradictions. There are times when he simply looks disinterested. On other occasions he comes across as powerless. He certainly does not have the political authority and clout required to effectively intervene in a fight which involves heavyweights like Mukherjee and Chidambaram.
So Manmohan Singh can't play a decisive role in ensuring a much needed truce at this stage.
The Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, is the only person who could have made a meaningful intervention. But with nobody (outside the family) in the know of her health status, it’s anybody’s guess whether she is in a position to mediate.
It all looks very gloomy from the UPA’s and the Congress’ perspective. Already crippled and under attack on the issue of corruption, lacklustre governance and weak leadership, the ruling alliance has now to face the trepidation of two of its giants sparring like suicide bombers in a meaningless ego tussle.
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