The wave of public anger against recurring terror attacks across the country eroding its popular image, the Congress on Sunday eased out Shivraj Patil, replacing him with P. Chidambaram in the home ministry. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will hold the finance portfolio.
About 6,500 civilians have died in violent incidents across the country since Patil became home minister in 2004, down from the 10,000-plus deaths under similar circumstances during the previous government. But high-profile terrorism in urban locations — 70 blasts and attacks in the past seven months, killing 400 — put the Congress on the back foot and pressure built on Patil from allies and the opposition to quit.
Singh termed the Mumbai attacks “different”, and announced the “setting up of a federal investigating agency”. This was part of the anti-terror plan that he unveiled at an all-party meeting on Sunday (details on page 10).
Congress president Sonia Gandhi cracked the whip and gave Patil the marching orders after a stormy, midnight meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) where senior leaders minced no words charging Patil of mismanaging country’s security. “We need to look into the lacunae that allowed terrorists to cause such mayhem… Our first task is to restore faith among the people,” Gandhi said in her opening remarks, setting the tone. “We can longer sit back….our response has to be effective and it has to be decisive.”
Patil had come close to losing his job several times, the last time after the September 13 Delhi blasts. This time it was different. “The attack in Mumbai was qualitatively different,” said Gandhi. “It calls for immediate and firm action.”
Patil never had many admirers in the party and the ruling UPA, but it was Gandhi’s refusal to support him any longer that sealed his fate. He was inducted into the cabinet despite having lost the Lok Sabha election in 2004 from Latur in Maharashtra.
Angry leaders who spoke at the three-hour long meeting raised questions about the Mumbai attacks, targeting primarily Patil, but also defence minister A.K. Antony and external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee. Towards the end of the CWC meeting, one leader suggested to Patil to consider leaving his post for “the sake of the party and the government”.
Even then Patil was not in a hurry to resign. He made a conditional offer, “to abide by the CWC decision”, a party functionary said. After the meeting, Gandhi asked Patil, Mukherjee and Antony to stay back and the issue of Patil’s offer was reportedly discussed again.
On Sunday morning, following a telephonic conversation with Gandhi, Patil sent in his resignation.
The fate of Maharasthra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and top officials of the security establishment also now hang in balance as the Congress signalled tough measures.
Deshmukh returned to Mumbai on Sunday after being summoned for the CWC meeting. He did not reveal what transpired between him and the leadership, but admitted that the state government “did not have any specific tip on the attacks”. “The chief minister’s performance is certainly under scrutiny. A final decision may take some time but speculations can turn out to be wrong also,” a senior party leader said.
National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan seems safe for the time being, after the prime minister reportedly rejected his offer to quit, and asked him to continue. Chidambaram, the new minister, may also want to have a new team in the home ministry.
Top officials in the intelligence apparatus are slated to retire soon. Intelligence Bureau chief P.C. Haldar retires on December 31 and Research and Analysis Wing chief A.K. Chaturvedi on February 28, 2009. Home secretary Madhukar Gupta has four months to go.