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Home gets in order

At least 13 terror attacks were foiled since 26/11, but India is still vulnerable. The Home Minister has got the spooks talking, files moving. How he’s doing it. A report by Varghese K George and Aloke Tikku. On balance | The Man and his team

india Updated: Nov 15, 2009 01:30 IST

A fortnight into his new job, in mid-December 2008, home minister P. Chidambaram was told that the promotion of 1976 batch IPS officers as additional directors-general of police was being delayed by an official. The IAS officer in charge would return to work only by January. If the promotions did not happen by the end of the year, the IPS officers would suffer as it would delay their future promotions. “The minister phoned the IAS officer, cancelled his leave and cleared the file on December 31. The bureaucracy was shaken out of its slumber. This had never happened before,” recalls a senior official at the Intelligence Bureau (IB). That was the first message from the new home minister: never sit on a file.

P Chidambaram, or PC, hates working on Sundays. But when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wanted to meet him early in the morning of Sunday, November 30 last year, he had to obey. Barely 24 hours had passed after the National Security Guards had killed the last terrorist holed up in Mumbai’s Taj Hotel. In the presence of then home minister Shivraj Patil and the Congress president’s political secretary Ahmad Patel, Singh broke the news to PC that he would be the new home minister of India.

One year later, he doesn’t say whether he likes it or not. “It is a job and it has to be done.”

PC has put his signature on the functioning of India’s security establishment. In the last year, at least 13 terror plots have been foiled. Chidambaram considers maintenance of the rule of law as his primary duty, but what are the laws of his rule?

Decisions and deadlines

When PC discovered that decisions were being delayed for no reason, he began to set deadlines. There is rarely a file that stays in his office beyond two working days. All files are marked with specific instructions. If the instructions are not carried out, the officer concerned faces the music.

“He’s very decisive, and wants everything done yesterday. The instructions are always clear,” says G.K. Pillai, home secretary. “The human resources available are of uneven quality, but all work can be finished within a certain time-frame. The quality of work may vary, but it has to be done in time,” says PC.

Incidentally, the official who delayed the file on the IPS promotions was transferred at the first opportunity.

Coercive diplomacy

Four weeks into his new job, PC faced the possibility of communal violence in Kandhamal in Orissa when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad called a bandh on December 25, 2008. PC found the response of Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik inadequate. “The minister booked a ticket to Bhubaneswar for the evening of the 24th. On the 23rd, a senior ministry official conveyed the message to the Orissa chief secretary. He was also told that four BSF choppers would be deployed in Kandhamal and the CRPF forces would move when required, until the state police arrived,” an official recalls. The state administration swung into action; PC did not have to go.

Think on feet, act fast

Raman Singh, chief minister of Chhattisgarh, recalls his first meeting with the home minister. “For four and a half years, I had explained to Shivraj Patil the seriousness of the Naxal problem. He would listen to me for hours but say nothing. Chidambaram, on the other hand, grasps the point even before the sentence is finished and suggests action immediately.” Singh admires PC’s sharpness, though a Congress MP laments that PC never allows him to finish a sentence.

Arun Jaitley, leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha, puts PC’s efficiency in a different light. He says, “Nothing can be worse than Patil’s tenure as home minister. It’s no credit to say that the predecessor reminds you of the virtue of the successor.”

Independent security analyst Dr Ajai Sahni, Executive Director of the South Asia Terrorism Portal, says “There is, of course, a tremendous difference in the performance of the Home Ministry over the past months, as compared to the tenure of the previous Home Minister, but nothing that justifies euphoria.” The reality, as the Home Minister conceded in October, is that India remains as vulnerable to terrorism today as it was on 26/11, says Sahni. “In real terms, the Home Ministry's achievements only cover quicker sanctions for a large number of incremental augmentations in central forces and agencies. However, most of these are still to be implemented, and real capacity augmentation is only marginal.”

Nose to the ground

Twice a month PC visits various states to get a first-hand feel of the security scene and once a month he visits an organisation that reports to the home ministry. Last Tuesday he landed at the headquarters of the Central Reserve Police Force. The week before he visited the Grey Hounds — the anti-Naxal wing of Andhra Pradesh police — and studied their working.

Don’t bend the rule, change it if needed

PC believes that the rule of law is the essence of a civilised society. But he also feels that there are obsolete laws that obstruct the objectives of governance. So, PC has changed several laws to motivate his staff and facilitate their functioning. For instance, junior officials from central police organisations on deputation to IB earlier had go back to their parent cadre to get their promotions. PC changed the rule, and hundreds of inspectors and sub-inspectors who risk their lives in IB are thankful.

Earlier, he had also persuaded the finance ministry to allow investigators wider access to information regarding suspicious money movements.

Connecting with the public

PC’s clarity is loathsome for many, but he couldn’t care less. His actions speak. He has downgraded his own security and even drives around on weekends. When a Sikh journalist threw a shoe at him before the general elections, orders went to the Delhi police that no action needed to be taken.

PC has questioned the romantic notions associated with the Maoist insurgency. “I cannot understand what cause of the poor is served when they blast a school or a clinic,” he says. He questioned the common-sense argument that ‘development and police action should go hand in hand to tackle Maoism’. “For any development to happen, the rule of law must first be established. And that’s our task,” says the home minister.

PC still doesn’t work on Sundays. He sits around in a T-shirt, watching TV and answering calls and telling the callers that they should call back the office the next day. When PC first became minister in 1985, he told Rajiv Gandhi that there should not be an office at home. Till date he doesn’t have an office at home.

About four times a week he manages a workout session comprising half an hour of yoga followed by another half-hour on the treadmill. He eats everything that comes his way, but in small quantities. He uses a basic mobile phone and is mostly seen in dhoti-and-shirt when he’s in India. Why? “That’s the correct thing to do,” he says.