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New role poses big challenges for Chidambaram

BS Reporter in New Delhi | December 01, 2008 11:39 IST

Seeing Finance Minister (now Home Minister) P Chidambaram into his car is an elaborate guessing game for his personal security: will he sit in the front or at the back? Should they turn the siren on or leave it off as he prefers? Should they get into the car with him or follow in another vehicle?

As finance minister, Chidambaram had two personal security officers and he once wished he could have had the option of leaving both behind at home. He confessed that it was all very awkward: one kept leaping to open the door, though the minister preferred to open the door himself. The other one was just there, though he had little to do.

But now, as home minister, not only will his personal security have to increase ten-fold, but also he will be responsible for deciding who should be given security from the state and why. It is safe to assume there will be a deep and wide review of those believed to be under threat.

This is not the first time Chidambaram is taking charge of the home ministry. He was minister of state for internal security from 1986 to 1989 when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, appointed amid a controversy.

The minister of state for internal security, Arun Nehru, had suffered a heart attack while in Kashmir. Differences had already developed between him and Rajiv Gandhi. Home minister Buta Singh was pretty much a figurehead. Gandhi wanted someone efficient and trustworthy in the home ministry.

Chidambaram was appointed to report directly to the PM, initially for three months while Nehru was 'resting'. When papers stopped coming to him, Nehru was furious, but Chidambaram was firmly in command.

That was years ago, but Chidambaram derives his world view on security and alienation from that experience as well as a deep faith in secularism of the fundamental kind.

Speaking at the Cariappa Memorial Lecture earlier this year, he noted that there were several home grown challenges to security and the formidable one was represented by the naxalites. "There is also the challenge of alienation of the Muslim community and, more recently, of the Christian community. The divide between Muslims and Hindus is taking new and dangerous forms -- ghettoisation, social boycott, discrimination in employment and the blurring of lines between state and religion (as was seen in Gujarat). Out of the 'hopelessness and despair' of the Muslim community -- and if not addressed firmly, the Christian tribal communities too -- will rise new waves of terror. There is no other explanation for the phenomenon of graduates and engineers and doctors -- born, educated and living in India -- taking to the path of violence," he said.

This orientation was reflected in budget allocation when he was the finance minister -- repeated budgetary allocations to the Minorities Development and Finance Corporation, (2004-05 and 2005-06), new schools for girls education in minority-dominated districts, special allocations for Urdu-teaching at the primary level and subsidies to coaching classes for minorities to prepare them for the civil services (2006-07) and large allocations for the development of minority concentration districts in India, and expansion of banking facilities for them (2008-09).

As home minister, Chidambaram will preside over a vast empire. Although this is technically a lateral move, there is no doubt it is a "promotion" for him. The stock of the home ministry is so low that it will take very little effort to re-establish its credibility. But new ideas? That's the challenge.

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