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Sunil Sharan Headshot

Shunned, Will He Bolt?

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What was supposed to be a breakthrough meeting between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan last month degenerated into a public rebuke of India's home minister, P. Chidambaram. In an unprecedented gesture, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attempted to smoothen feathers ruffled in Islamabad on the prickly topic of the ISI by clamping down on Chidambaram (or PC as he is commonly known) and his principal aide, home secretary G.K. Pillai, by curbing their media access. Shunned within his Congress party, will PC bolt towards the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?

Every few years, India's chattering class annoints a golden boy. It's PC's turn now. Erudite, articulate, armed with a Harvard MBA, he is what every middle-class Indian mom wants her son to be. A reputation for administrative zeal combined with impeccable personal integrity made him the obvious choice to straighten out the country's internal security apparatus after 26/11. But PC must be ruing the day he made the move to home from his previous perch at finance. So swift and relentless has been his fall from grace.

Hardly a day goes by without one or the other Cabinet or party colleague rapping him on the knuckles. A proven Gandhi family loyalist himself, he must have been stunned when senior Congressman Digvijay Singh, an even closer family confidante, called him "intellectually arrogant" and "extremely rigid," remarks that were understood to have the tacit approval of party boss, Sonia Gandhi. One warning from her is enough for most Congressmen to cease and desist. But PC was her blue-eyed boy. After all he was hand-picked by Indira Gandhi to join the Congress and he has served as a trusted aide of Rajiv Gandhi. And, his intellect would add gravitas to any future Rahul Gandhi government. So a longer rope was extended to him than to most.

By credible accounts, Manmohan Singh's second term as prime minister is unravelling faster than one can say fried tomatoes. Be it Maoist violence, Kashmir, corruption, price rise, Afghanistan, or relations with the US, his government careens from crisis to crisis, seemingly without a steady hand on the tiller. While the prime minister is perceived to be ineffectual, PC's public opinion ratings remain sky-high. He is admired as the only one standing firm against the Maoists and Pakistan in a government considered pusillanimous on both counts.

With Manmohan Singh faltering, an opening of sorts has been created for the prime minister's post until Rahul Gandhi decides to take it on. PC made for an ideal stop-gap, which is what causes his colleagues to perspire. Intellect and integrity he has in common with Manmohan Singh but he promises to be much less accommodating of sleaze and incompetence. A party where sycophancy and expedience thrive, with performance and rectitude often serving as liabilities, is revolting against a man they consider with a bee in his bonnet. And, now that he has fallen afoul of his even his prime minister on the thorny issue of Pakistan, the knives are out. Fed up with the daily strife, PC has thrown his hands up in the air.

Waiting with open and expectant arms is the BJP. Snaring him would be a veritable coup. Only when led by Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose soothing influence moderated their extremism, were they able to capture the Red Fort in Delhi. With him gone, they have become consigned as the party of perpetual opposition, barely able to win a fifth of parliamentary seats. Ranged in their leadership phalanx are L.K. Advani, a strongman over eighty years old who has led the party to two successive general election defeats but who refuses to go quietly into the sunset, Narendra Modi, whose ability to polarize the nation is sans pareil, and new party boss, Nitin Gadkari, whose manner of speaking is an embarrassment to his own colleagues.

As often as PC's own people castigate him does the BJP take up cudgels on his behalf. When he put in his papers after the Maoists killed his policemen, the BJP hailed him as a "senapati," a leader and a general, asking him to stand firm. Not one of his Congress peers vouched for him. The BJP extolls his alacrity in toning up the country's security. They mock his lack of support within his own party, adding that there is no shortage of goodwill for him in their corner. With more ministerial experience than any of them, he could turn into a Vajpayee 2.0 for them, so they beseech him and entreat him, but will he come?

Hawkish PC might be, a bigot he is not. Two of his key Indian Administrative Service aides are Muslim. He has addressed the Deoband Islamic seminary. Political expedience could have played a part in taking these steps but no existing BJP leader is open enough to do likewise. And, therein lies the rub. PC would be like a fish out of water in the BJP's culture of faith-based idealogy. They will milk him for what its worth to come to power and once there, they will cut and undercut him, just as they did with Vajpayee.

Caught then between a rock and a hard place, PC is in a terrible bind. He knows his future in the Congress is bleak. Once relations with the Gandhi family begin to fray, they fray fast. His predicament is eerily reminiscent of that of his erstwhile colleague and recently-sacked foreign minister, Shashi Tharoor, who also evoked intense resentment within his party. The similarities between them are striking. Both are new-age icons, accomplished men with clean reputations. Tharoor too fell on the sword in part for talking out of turn on Pakistan.

So will he or won't he? Little must have Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan's foreign minister, realized when he hit out at Pillai that he just might be reconfiguring the political landscape of India.