P. Chidambaram: The reformer in hot seat
Pro-reformist face of the UPA govt takes charge of the home ministry at a
P Chidambaram has been the pro-reformist face of the Union government for close to two decades now. He
along with PM Manmohan Singh have been credited with sticking to their pro-reform agenda even in the face of a
hostile left on whose whims depended the fate of the UPA government for most of the part of the current term of
the Parliament. But very few know that P Chidambaram, the US educated votary of free enterprise and unbridled
economic reforms used to be a hard-core leftist arguing in favor of the command economy in the late 1960s.
Since then he has come a long way. A scion of a prominent industrialist family from Madras, Chidambaram
chose to stay away from the predictable path of joining the family business and went into politics. He joined the
Congress after it lost power in 1967 and remained with Indira Gandhi when the party split in 1969.
As a young lawyer he boasted an impressive array of clients, whenever he has been out of the government, he
has been consulted by top notch firms including the controversial US company Enron which ran into trouble in
India because of a power plant project. Chidambaram came to the attention of the youthful Prime Minister Rajiv
Gandhi in 1984 and since then has had a meteoric rise to the top. Chidambaram was first elected to the Lok
Sabha from the Sivaganga constituency of Tamil Nadu in general elections held in 1984. He was re-elected from
the same constituency in the general elections of 1989, 1991, 1996, 1998 and 2004.
He was inducted into the Union Council of Ministers in the socialist government headed by Prime Minister Rajiv
Gandhi in Sept 1985 as a Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Commerce and then in the Ministry of Personnel. He
was elevated to the rank of Minister of State in the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions in
January 1986. In October of the same year, he was appointed as Minister of State for Internal Security. He
continued to hold both offices until general elections were called in 1989. The Congress government was
defeated in the general elections of 1989.
When Chidambaram was first given a ministerial post, he was one among a relatively young, well educated class
of men brought into government by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1984. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in
May 1991 during an election campaign appearance in the state of Tamil Nadu; in the general elections the
following month a wave of sympathy for the assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, and a disunited opposition brought the
Congress party back to power.
Manmohan Singh, a socialist economist who had advised the Indian government on many socialist policies and
who was a former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India was made Finance Minister in the new government
headed by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, essentially the first bureaucrat on the job in post-independent India.
Manmohan Singh implemented Narasimha Rao’s reforms just as he had implemented Indira Gandhi's socialist
policies and these reforms began taking India away from the erstwhile Soviet-style centralised planning, into a
liberalized, free market economy.
In June 1991, Chidambaram was inducted as a Minister of State (Independent Charge) in the Ministry of
Commerce, a post he held till July, 1992. He was later re-appointed Minister of State (Independent Charge) in
the Ministry of Commerce in February 1995 and held the post until April 1996. He made some radical changes in
India's export-import (EXIM) policy, while at the Ministry of Commerce.
In 1996 Chidambaram quit the Congress party and joined a breakaway faction of the Tamil Nadu state unit of the
Congress party called the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC). In general elections held in 1996, TMC along with a
few national and regional level opposition parties formed a coalition government. The coalition government came
as a big break for Chidambaram, who was given the key cabinet portfolio of Finance; this put him in the limelight.
The coalition government was a short-lived one and fell in 1998.
In 1998 the BJP took the reins of government for the first time and it was not until May 2004 that Chidambaram
would be back in Government. Chidambaram became Minister of Finance again in the Congress party-
Communist Party United Progressive Alliance government on 24 May 2004.
During the intervening period Chidambaram made some experiments in his political career, leaving the Tamil
Maanila Congress in 2001 and forming his own party, the Congress Jananayaka Peravai, largely focused on the
regional politics of Tamil Nadu. The party, however, failed to take off into mainstream Tamil Nadu or national
politics. Just prior to the elections of 2004, he merged his party with the mainstream Congress party.
On November 30 2008, he was appointed the Home Minister following the resignation of Shivraj Patil who had
come under excessive pressure to tender his resignation following a series of terror attacks in India.
The task at hand is tough and tricky. It involves not only handling the Union Home Ministry in the run-up to the
15th Lok Sabha elections but to shape it up and plug the security loopholes that have rendered India vulnerable
to terror strikes. An astute politician, Chidambaram knows that the stock of the Home Ministry as well as the
entire United Progressive Alliance is at an all-time low following a series of strikes.
He also knows that meeting the security challenges of the country is a Herculean task.
The question is, why Chidambaram? Was he chosen for his earlier three-year experience as the Minister of State
for Internal Security? Yes, that’s an added advantage but, as a senior party colleague, puts it: “He has a razorsharp
mind and excellent command of law. As the ministry has to deal with law at every step, he is the best
Chidambaram has a track record of being a pro-minority politician as well. “Just look at his budget
announcements and you can see what he’s showered on the minorities,” says one of his ministerial colleagues.
This image will also be of immense help to the government which is grappling with the problem of how to take
initiatives against terror without hurting the sentiments of the minority community.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi have asked the new home minister to
announce a “plan of action” on revamp of the internal security as fast as possible. Chidambaram may do so in
Parliament, where a stormy debate is expected over the Mumbai attack, when it reconvenes on 10 December.
Sources hint that the new home minister will focus on re-jigging the intelligence network. Then he would turn to
tackling the Naxals.
As the FM, Chidambaram spent time creating policies to solve various problems related to income-tax rates,
import duties and waiver for farm loans among other things. In the home ministry, however, policies already exist
and the tasks are cut out. But Chidambaram has to accomplish them in the next four months — something which
Patil could not do in the last four years.