What is it about our home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram that makes so many people choose him as the man in government they love to hate? I reckon it's his abysmal people skills. I can imagine him sitting next to me on a plane and being the exact opposite of in-flight entertainment. And that, on a good day when chief ministers have agreed with him about how to tackle Maoists.
Being disliked for being incompetent is one thing. But with the competent Chidambaram, even his colleagues in the government and the Congress more than just mutter about his 'arrogance' and brusqueness by which everyone else is made to feel as if they flunked every exam they ever sat for. Seeking explanations from him about goings-on in ministries under his charge have, in the past, ended up sounding as if one was asking him to step aside for a full-body cavity search.
But things seem to be changing for the man. Chidambaram appears to have finally realised something that they didn't teach him in Harvard Business School: that no matter what he may have gathered by reading chapter 17 ('Concerning cruelty and clemency, and whether it is better to be loved than feared') of Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince at an impressionable age, here in our 2012 coalition-compulsating democracy, he could do with showing some heart.
Which is exactly the organ that he bared in the full glare of Parliament last week when the BJP targeted him over his alleged involvement in 2006 when he was finance minister in the sale of the telecom company Aircel to the Malaysian company Maxis. On being accused of delaying the deal by some months so that his son could supposedly benefit from Maxis acquiring Aircel, the member of the former royal family of Chettinad said with genuine emotion, "It would be much simplah, if somebody took a daggah and plunged it into my heart rather than question my integrity."
At last India got to see what it thought it would never get to see: a Chidambaram with feelings. I don't know too many Adam's apples which didn't bob up and down when he made his moving statement - although some folks including Subramanian Swamy are believed to have called up their wives demanding a large kitchen knife, mistaking Chidambaram's plea for an invitation.
Which doesn't mean that the home minister was fluffy in his defence when he categorically stated that "neither [his son] nor any member of his family - which is the same as neither I nor any member of my family - own any share in any telecom company at any time indirectly or directly". It was just that the lawyer in him realised that there comes a time in a man's life when the heart can make a stronger pitch than the head. Especially in places like Parliament and TV screens.
But as Chidambaram the lawyer also knows all too well, those accusing him of dereliction of duty as former finance minister - and the earlier charge of fixing 2G spectrum prices with the then telecom minister A Raja instead of auctioning them is still pending in the Supreme Court - would prefer to question his integrity rather than be hauled to jail charged with Section 300 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code. And when someone like the present finance minister Pranab Mukherjee defends his not-so-affable colleague by dismissing allegations of any delay in the Aircel-Maxis deal to favour Chidambaram's family - "There is no scope for any misunderstanding and misinterpretation" - we know that Chidambaram's new charm offensive is working.
Reacting to this new human, all too human Chidambaram - perhaps we could fondly call him 'Chidu' very soon? - Parliament has also deemed it fit to take more serious things like a 63-year-old cartoon appearing in a Class 11 textbook more, well, seriously. Chidambaram, too, responded by making a gesture as close to throwing a rave party when he read out in chaste Bhojpuri in the Lok Sabha, "Hum rauwa sabke bhavna samjhatani" (I understand the sentiments of all) when he enlisted the government's commitment to include Bhojpuri in the eighth schedule of the Constitution during the monsoon session of Parliament. The House was floored by the man who once, during the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, told an audience in Tamil Nadu's Sivaganga district that the NDA "is a government of Hindi-speaking north Indians with a communal agenda, propped up by the RSS".
And thus we have started to discover the new Chidambaram, not the frumpy finger-wagger of yore whose lower lip reflected his idea of fellow feelings, but the sentimental, understanding, patient Chidu, who now so wants to be loved. And by god, he will be loved!