A burst of gunfire in the dense jungles of Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district wiped out a team of 16 policemen the day before P. Chidambaram began his second stint as India’s Home Minister. The message was ominous and the home minister’s task cut out.
Taking over probably the toughest task in government, Chidambaram had six weeks to deliver before the Lok Sabha polls, which the country was going to after the 26/11 trauma. He had to restore public confidence and bandage the security establishment while ensuring terror doesn’t strike again.
But his other task was — and remains — trickier. Tackling the Maoist menace. Chidamabaram didn’t fall for his predecessor’s temptation of hiding inaction behind a new sartorial set. He refined the UPA’s two-pronged approach of development with police action, pushed states to give 1.1 lakh more policemen, doubled the presence of central forces in Naxal areas and prepared the country for the long haul.
Despite this, things went wrong — as in Dantewada yesterday and in April; he stepped up to take responsibility. In the opinion poll, 31 per cent found his actions purposeful and effective. But the policy has definitely polarised opinion — 23 per cent found it pushy and non-inclusive.
His other big setback, the blast at Pune’s German Bakery in mid-February, ended India’s 14 month terror-free run, the first in many years. Chidambaram said he had been lucky an attack hadn’t come earlier. The attack is still being investigated without many leads being discovered.
In J&K too, 2009 was the most peaceful year in more than a decade. That didn’t just save lives, it also helped deal with problems such as Naxals.
It allowed him to withdraw more than 30,000 central forces from the valley and deploy them in other theatres of violence.
The Northeast too, fared mildly better. Except Manipur and Assam, violence levels were by and large, at a low level. And it helped boost the morale of security forces that the friendly Sheikh Hasina regime in Dhaka handed over the ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa to India, kindling hopes of insurgency outfit settling for dialogue.
With time on his side in his second stint, Chidambaram has also managed to expand the role of his office and earned himself the Prime Minister and the Congress president’s unstinted support to deliver on streamlining the security establishment.
It was this support that translated into the change of guard at the National Security Adviser’s office when MK Narayanan moved to the Raj Bhavan in west Bengal. For a first time in over five years, the PM had a man in control of the security establishment and didn’t need a second opinion.
And this is where Chidambaram will leave a long-lasting imprint on the country’s security management —
setting up an overarching one-stop National Counter-Terrorism Centre — that could ensure India doesn’t need a Chidambaram to feel secure.