t was clearly a case of baptism by fire. Less than 24 hours of taking over as Union home minister, Sushilkumar Sambhajirao Shinde was addressing media queries regarding the four low-intensity blasts that rocked Pune on August 1. For a man whose direct exposure to law and order apparatus ended in 1971, when he resigned as a police sub-inspector to join politics, Shinde was clearly was out of sorts. That was somewhat predictable and it would be unfair to fault him on that. However, the question which will have relevance and would be asked umpteen number of times in coming days and week is, what sort of a home minister will he be make?
“We believe that this (Naxalism or left-wing extremism) is a very serious socio-political and economic issue. For giving peace a chance, all the persons engaged in this process must show patience and demonstrate perseverance for finding a lasting solution to this problem notwithstanding some hurdles here and there”.
These were Shinde’s words while serving as governor of Andhra Pradesh in February 2005, read out from the prepared speech while addressing the budget session of the state assembly. It is not the best parameter to judge his outlook on internal security. Governor’s speeches being policy statements of the state governments, are prepared by the state government and merely read out by the governor.
However, apart from this lone sentence nothing exists in the open source that throws light on the thinking of India’s new home minister on issues such as terrorism, insurgency or LWE. This is perhaps to do with the fact that prior to becoming minister of power, Shinde had not held a constitutional post for very long. Barring his several tenures as a minister in the Maharashtra state government, his tenure as Andhra Pradesh governor lasted less than 15 months and his chief ministership of Maharashtra, less than two years, between 2003 and 2004.
Since 2006, he had been the power minister in New Delhi. Indeed, India knows little about its new home minister’s views concerning internal security and is clearly handicapped in predicting his performance in a ministry whose activities are keenly followed by the media, intelligentsia and also by the common people.
On the basis of his past performance, however, Shinde may not have been the best candidate for the high profile job. During his 21 months’ tenure as Maharashtra chief minister, the state capital Mumbai witnessed five explosions carried out by the terrorists within a span of seven months. The worst attack took place on August 25, 2003, at two locations — the Gateway of India and Zaveri Bazaar — killing 52 persons and injuring 160 people.
His performance as power minister was lacklustre too. In fact, his elevation to the home ministry came the day India experienced the worst ever electricity black out affecting 20 states and 600 million people. A day earlier, on July 30, another blackout had shutdown the northern Indian states including national capital New Delhi for several hours. Not surprisingly, within a day of his appointment, the media, already started questioning the rationale behind the decision, terming the appointment as a reward for his proximity with Sonia Gandhi, the chairperson of the Congress party.
Putting Shinde immediately under the scanner is mostly to with the range of internal security challenges India faces and also in the context of the gigantic project of erecting a counter-terror architecture, a task left unfinished by P Chidambaram [ Images ].
It is also to do with Shinde’s comparison, albeit unfair, with Chidambaram’s predecessor Shivraj Patil, another politician from Maharashtra. The 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack ended Patil’s lacklustre tenure as home minister. Prior to that Patil had been criticised for being too soft on tackling terror, especially with regard to LWE. Patil not only had the proclivity to term the Maoist extremists as “estranged brothers and sisters”, but repeatedly played down the LWE threat, even when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh referred to it as the “single biggest internal security challenge.” There is a sense of deep apprehension, whether Shinde would resemble Patil and not Chidambaram.
Chidambaram’s tenure was a mixed bag. Terrorism related incidents decreased significantly in all of India’s conflict theatres — Jammu & Kashmir, the northeast, Left-wing extremism affected states and also the attacks targeting the urban centres of the country.
He was instrumental in activating the multi-agency centre system for coordinating intelligence inputs from the field, setting up the National Investigation Agency monitoring the police modernisation programmes, overseeing the raising of new battalions of central police forces and also leading a less ambiguous war on LWE.
Besides, Chidambaram brought abut radical changes in the way the ministry functioned. He ensured mandatory arrival time for the ministry’s employees by installing smart card swiping machines, much to the angst of the employees used to lots of leeway and freedom regarding office hours.
He also made the ministry’s achievements transparent by introducing a system of presenting monthly report cards and also ensuring timely release of the ministry’s annual reports. Under his patronage, chief ministers of different states met annually every year in New Delhi to take stock of the internal security situation.
In contrast to his predecessor, Chidambaram was much more willing to share and discuss his outlook with the media, a tendency which was termed far too open for a closely guarded bureaucracy-led ministry and brought him some brickbats as well.
However, his gains remained interspersed with several failures. His pet project, the National Intelligence Grid remained mired in bureaucratic and inter-ministerial tangles.
His objective of setting up a National Counter Terrorism Centre, too never fructified amid objections from several state governments fearing encroachment on the principles of federalism. His multi-theatre war on LWE, termed Operation Green Hunt, achieved little and in spite of the setbacks, the Maoists continued to remains a serious internal security threat across several states. Ill-motivated and inadequately-briefed security forces were recently involved in a failed encounter resulting in the deaths of civilians, unconnected with LWE.
It is in the backdrop of such successes and failures that Shinde’s performance would be judged. Pune serves as a point of reckoning for him that the position of the home minister is not a job for the frail hearted. He will be keenly watched on the parameters of activism, transparency and more importantly, on his ability to deliver on the unfinished agenda.
This article appeared at Rediff and is reprinted with permission.