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Reprieve for Shivraj Patil sends the wrong message
September 29, 2008
Shivraj Patil [Images] is not the only minister or MP who is dress conscious. It is not surprising if today a politician sports clothes and items worth a few lakh rupees at a time, which would include branded watches, bags, belts, shoes and perfume.
The branded goods industry is worth around Rs 12-13,000 crores today. Except for a few leaders, like the Communists, more or less every politician in the country is into using branded goods. One minister uses Louis Vuitton French fashion designer bags worth Rs 5 lakh; the range of these bags starts from anything upward of Rs 50,000. Yet another has a huge collection of designer shoes, which includes Gucci, Bally, Versace, and these are high end brands. An opposition leader is fond of collecting exclusive glass frames like Cartier, Roberto Cavalli, and Bvlgari. Yet another likes to buy the most expensive electronics gadgets. Many wear luxury watches like Frank Muller, Corum, Roger Dubuis. There yet others who use expensive perfumes Cartier, Armani.
Shivraj Patil, who likes his white shoes and not a hair out of place, was blasted by the media for changing his bandgala suit twice on the day of the bomb blasts in Delhi [Images]. The crestfallen home minister asked how it was a crime to change after 13 hours of work. The media was incensed that the country's home minister, expected personally to monitor the situation when the capital was caught in the throes of a serial terror attack, should have had the time to change clothes.
At one level the three pictures of Patil that fateful Saturday, captured by cameras in a white, then a black and then again in a white suit, trivialised the issue of internal security which the home minister oversees. But these images provided visual proof of the home minister's concerns that day and they came as the last straw that broke the camel's back. Had it not been Patil, and had there not been a history of the home minister's ineptitude over the past four years, the media might have ignored it.
Patil let the cat out of the bag when he said that he had the blessings of his leader and would not quit as long as his leader was happy with him. His words underlined his primary concern -- to please his leader. This was not a secretary of the Congress party talking but the home ,inister of India who has taken an oath under the Constitution, who is supposed to be accountable to the people of India, and to ensure their security and well being.
That he continues in North Block, for all the criticism that has been leveled against him, not just now but over the past many months, shows that his leader -- and he was obviously referring to party president Sonia Gandhi [Images], not the prime minister -- is not unhappy with him or his performance.
Whether it was the lack of timely response to the Manipuri women in Imphal stripping themselves to shame the security forces after a rape and killing of a woman; or the neglect of the situation in Kashmir for two and a half months after the Amarnath row till it spun out of control; or the failure of his ministry to stem the growth of the Naxalites [Images] who now control 155 districts in the country; or the inability to stop the increasing number of terror attacks and catch those masterminding them, it is a story of drift and worse.
After the TV channels showed live the encounter in Delhi's Jamia Nagar last Friday, which led to the capture of some of those supposed to be behind the Delhi blasts and the death of a decorated policeman, Patil's deputy Sriprakash Jaiswal was questioned by reporters on the encounter. All Jaiswal could tell the country was that he had no information about the matter. The country had seen it all on their TV screens, but the MoS home was oblivious of what was going on! A day after the bomb blasts went off in Delhi, which sent shock waves throughout India, Jaiswal took off for Kanpur to inaugurate a store!
Last Wednesday, the prime minister called an emergency meeting of the Union Cabinet. Realising the gravity of the situation, ministers who were not in Delhi rushed back for it. Sonia Gandhi held consultations with her senior party colleagues and Shivraj Patil was not invited to them. Lalu Yadav upped the ante against the home minister. The grapevine was abuzz with speculation that Patil might be replaced. There were rumours that either Kamal Nath or P Chidambaram might move into North Block. The media discussed the possibility of appointing a younger Congress leader as minister of state for internal security, though how a junior minister who would have to report to Patil, would be able to wave the magic wand, and revamp the security setup was not clear.
Several Cabinet ministers had called on the prime minister to press for Patil's exit. But when the cabinet meeting took place, no one said a word. Significantly, Dr Manmohan Singh [Images] kept urging his Cabinet colleagues to speak up. Did they have any suggestions to make, he is believed to have asked. There were no voices forthcoming. Yadav, who was the first to pitch for Patil's replacement, was not even present at the Cabinet meeting called to discuss the anti-terror measures the government should take.
Patil is believed to have survived the storm because his removal at this stage would have given further ammunition to the opposition already baying for the government's blood, and because Sonia Gandhi feels she can rely on him.
There is similar confusion in the United Progressive Alliance on whether to go in for a tough law against terror. The Administrative Reforms Commission, headed by Veerappa Moily, has made a case for strengthening existing laws and said so. Two days later another minister Priya Ranjan Das Munshi contradicted Moily. The prime minister hinted at a tougher law -- not reenacting POTA -- but the home minister has held that existing laws were adequate.
The Congress party -- and the government -- remain divided on the steps to take, worried about annoying the minority community and equally concerned about unleashing a "Hindu backlash". So far it has not demonstrated an ability to lead from up front the battle against terror, which should have nothing to do with religion. This is a collective failure, not one for which only Patil must take the rap.
And yet Patil's continuation raises a different question: What is going to be the criteria for becoming and remaining a minister? Wearing good clothes? Keeping the leader happy? Or should it also have something to do with performance?
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