The parallels between Sushilkumar Shinde (left) and Zail Singh are uncanny. Both are Dalits, both were CMs with a limited political base, and both are seen as Gandhi family ‘retainers’.
Every home minister of the country has had to live literally in the shadow of the first occupant of the post. In the stairway of North Block leading to the home minister’s office, there is a life-size portrait of Sardar Patel. He has been eulogised in textbooks as the ‘Iron Man of India’ and is probably the only Congress leader of the freedom movement who still enjoys widespread endorsement across the political class (don’t forget Mayawati has spoken out against the Mahatma). Which is perhaps why Sushilkumar Shinde is finding life in the chair, once occupied by the mighty Sardar, a little too hot to handle.
From court constable to sub-inspector to two-time Maharashtra chief minister to a state governor to Lok Sabha leader and home minister, Shinde is a shining emblem of upward mobility in politics. Being a Dalit in an age of caste assertion has been a big advantage, although to be fair to the man from Solapur, he has never worn his caste on his sleeve. His ever-smiling, non-confrontational persona has also been an asset in a coalition era where ministers are expected to not rock the boat. And yet, the home minister’s office is neither a Raj Bhavan-like sinecure nor can it be reduced to a reward for unswerving ‘loyalty’.
Unfortunately, that is precisely what the UPA government appears to have done. Historically, the home minister was the de facto number two in government. Sardar was deputy prime minister and home minister. So was LK Advani, who interestingly even sought to borrow the ‘Lauh Purush’ brand from the original macho politician. Through the 60s and 70s, the home minister of the country was seen to be a near-parallel authority to the prime minister: giants like Rajaji, YB Chavan, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi (who was both home minister and PM between 1970 and 1973), and Charan Singh were appointed home ministers in recognition of their political stature.
The transformation in the role of the home minister began with Indira Gandhi appointing Giani Zail Singh to the post in 1980. Zail Singh’s two years as home minister were a disaster, a period in which the idea of Sikh separatism was incubated, the North-east was pushed to the brink and Kashmir began to simmer. Rather than being held accountable, Zail Singh was rewarded with the Presidency in 1982. Gianiji almost rewrote the concept of political sycophancy by commenting, “If my leader had said to pick up a broom and be a sweeper, I would have done that!”
The parallels between Zail Singh and Shinde are uncanny. Both are Dalits, both were chief ministers with a limited political base, and both are seen as archetypal Gandhi family ‘retainers’. In fact, in his first interview after becoming home minister, I had asked Mr Shinde for his response to the charge that he was made home minister only because he would do the bidding of 10 Janpath. “ Whatever I am is because of Soniaji’s blessings and I am grateful to her. I will do whatever she wants me to.” It almost sounded like Gianiji all over again.
If Punjab was the wound which Gianiji inflicted on the nation, Shinde too threatens to open fresh sores and re-ignite old flames. First it was his rather loose ‘Hindu terror’ remark at the Congress Chintan Shivir in Jaipur. For a moment, Shinde appeared to forget that he was the home minister of the country and not the political agent of the Congress party. By directly accusing the BJP and RSS of running terror camps, he has created a new antagonism which has only further damaged relations between the government and opposition. Worse, he has given an opportunity to terror merchants across the border to exploit the situation to their advantage. Right-wing terror does exist, but it must be tackled with hard evidence and independent prosecution, not by making partisan accusations from party platforms.
Ironically, within weeks of his ‘Hindu terror’ remark controversy, Mr Shinde’s handling of the Afzal Guru hanging raises even more grave doubts about his ability to handle sensitive national security issues. It is possible that Mr Shinde was only following orders, or the advice of senior government officials, when he chose to treat the hanging like a bureaucratic exercise that did not deserve even basic human dignity. With a glint in his eyes and a smirk on his lips, the home minister announced that Afzal had been hanged and that his family had been ‘informed’ via Speed Post. That sight of Shinde will go down as one of the more unfortunate examples of the Indian State’s rapidly declining moral fibre, a country where a Gandhian conscience has now been replaced by a carnivorous desire for revenge. If after a year of sustained peace, angry Kashmiris have found a new symbol to channel their sense of victimhood and alienation, then Shinde and his advisers must take prime responsibility. Wouldn’t a more civilised system at least have provided one chance for the family to see Afzal before he was hanged?
Kashmir’s festering problem has a long and troubled legacy which no home minister has been able to conquer. But what of Telangana? After boldly stating that he would be announcing a decision on Telangana’s future in a month, Mr Shinde has now chosen to waffle once again on the contentious issue. His procrastination has further damaged the government’s credibility and could cost the Congress party dearly in the next general elections where Andhra Pradesh still holds the key. It may be too late for him to change now, but Shinde will just have to learn that as home minister, you can’t just smile your way through a crisis.
Post-script: Mr Shinde was shifted from the power ministry to North Block on the very day the country witnessed one of its worst ever blackouts. Clearly, at times in Congress politics, nothing succeeds like failure!
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network
The views expressed by the author are personal