Union home minister P Chidambaram spoke to Varghese K George on the eve of the second anniversary of UPA-2 government, on politics, security and his pestering sense of dissatisfaction. Excerpts:
How do you assess the performance of the first two years of the UPA-2 government?
The people should assess performance of any government. The first opportunity to assess the performance of the current government came last month, when elections were held in four states and one UT. 824 assembly seats were at stake. Congress alone won 78 in Assam, 42 in West Bengal, 28 in Kerala, five in TN and seven in Puduchery. Congress rebels won 16 in Puduchery. Congress allies won seats in West Bengal, Kerala, TN and Puduchery. Compare this with the principal opposition party, the BJP. They won just five out of the 824 seats. By and large, people appreciate what the UPA-2 has done in the first two years. At the same time, there are warning signals and we must take note of those signals.
What are the areas of concern?
Things can always be better, in any government. Implementation of the programmes is one area where we can, and we should, do better.
You have been rated the best performing minister in the HT survey on UPA-2. Still, there could be something that you could have done better?
I am grateful that I am rated the best, but that also means that I will receive more brickbats! I am considered a friendly target by many. Some people perhaps think that my shoulders are broad enough to take criticism. Be that it may, I think we could have done better, if we had moved forward more quickly on the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) and the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) . It would have been better if we could have provided more support to the security forces that are engaging the CPI- Maoists. Procurement is another area of concern, in which the rules and procedures limit our ability to procure equipment for our forces.
Do you think NATGRID could have avoided the mistake that crept into the wanted list India handed over to Pakistan?
It is difficult to relate NATGRID to any specific lapse. But clearly, if we had cleaned up our databases and linked them to NATGRID, the system would have thrown up the fact that the person whose background we had been checking had been arrested. I am not saying the system would have been able to throw it up every time. But in an efficient NATGRID system, nine out of ten times it would have thrown up the name.
Overhauling the security architecture of the country has been your priority as you took over in the aftermath of 26-11? Why is that attempt stuck? Where is the resistance coming from?
The word “stuck” is the not the appropriate word. Detailed project report for NATGRID has been ready for the last four months. Consultations with the ministries of finance and defence are on. They have expressed some concerns. The MHA and especially the CEO of NATGRID have tried to allay those fears. The next is a formal meeting of the ministries to discuss these concerns at length and come to a decision. I think we are moving towards that point now.
How soon do you expect this meeting to take place?
On 30th May, tentatively, I am told.
Have you ever felt that the home minister’s is a thankless job? Here people come after you only when something goes wrong. As finance minister, people would have congratulated you for a nine percent growth.
That is part of the job. In the last two and half years, only one terrorist attack has taken place – the one in Pune. When that happens one must be prepared to take criticism. When 29 of the 30 months are free of terror attacks, one must be grateful to the system and the men and women who do their job. That is something I do , alone and quietly. I am certainly satisfied that 29 months have been terror-free. But I enjoy that satisfaction alone and quietly.
Have you ever felt frustrated over the slow progress of things such as in the case of NATGRID?
I am not frustrated. Frustrated is too strong a word. I would like decisions to be made more quickly. I would like outcomes to be more visible. There is always a sense of dissatisfaction, but that sense impels me to goad everyone to better so that the level of satisfaction is better.
How do you find the support that you get from Congress party and colleagues? Inadequate? Could have been better?
Party is fully supportive. And my colleagues – to the extent that their ministries should -- are fully supportive. I have no complaints on either score.
Both prime minister and you had described Maoism as the biggest security threat to the country. Are things better or are we failing in the fight?
Things are better in some areas. There is status quo in some others. What I can say with certainty is that the situation has not worsened in any state.
Is it a stalemate?
Overall, it is a stalemate. But I expected this stalemate when we put together the revised the strategy. We can break this stalemate only if we can support our security forces on the ground more effectively.
You had flagged terrorism inspired by HIndutva forces as a new threat? Did you get enough support from your party colleagues on the issue?
The debate got diverted on an irrelevant issue - whether you should describe it as saffron terror. It is a grave issue. We should not allow the substance of the issue to get overshadowed by quarrels over how to describe it. I highlighted the issue in a lecture only after I had with me solid evidence that right wing religious groups were behind some terror incidents. Investigative agencies have now found evidence and chargesheeted some people. Ultimately, their guilt or otherwise will be decided by the court. But I drew the nation’s attention to this issue only after I had solid evidence.
How serious are the threats from both Islamist and HIndutva varieties of terrorism as of now?
These are your words. I will use neutral words. Extremist, fundamentalist religious groups of every variety are a danger to the country. Such groups are operating today. We have to be extremely vigilant to keep them under check.
What would be your priority in the third year of UPA-2? NATGRID and NCTC?
It has been a priority ever since I outlined it in a lecture, the necessity for setting up the NATGRID and the NCTC. Already a lot of work has been done on NATGRID. Some work has been done on NCTC. It would be good for the country if, in UPA-2’s third year, NATGRID becomes a reality and the work on constructing the NCTC begins and makes some progress.
How crucial are these to the new security architecture?
As I have said, there are two among the most important pillars of the new security architecture.
You had offered to resign once after the Maoist attack on CRPF in Chhattisgarh. Has there been any other occasion on which you requested Mrs Gandhi or the prime minister to shift you to another ministry?
Oh well, I am not revealing to you my conversations with the prime minister or the Congress president! It is for the party and the PM to decide what work should be allotted to me.
After the US operation that killed Osama bin Laden, some people in India – many of them holding responsible positions – have argued for India doing similar operations in Pakistan. Would that be an intelligent way of handling our threats?
I think people who say such things ignore the fact that US has a special relationship with Pakistan. US security forces enjoy special privileges in Pakistan. They have a very significant presence in Pakistan. I think that its special situation enabled the US to carry out this operation, which was brilliant. To claim that another country – forget India, any other country - could do that in Pakistan, would be a tall claim. That is why the prime minister said – ‘we are not the US.’ I think that one sentence said all that needs to be said on this topic.
There have been occasional reports about differences between you and finance minister Pranab Mukherjee? How accurate are these?
A section of the media has been deliberately and mischievously reporting so-called differences. I talk to him virtually every day. We meet in meetings two three times every week. Yesterday I was in Kolkota with him for two and half hours. We speak on the phone frequently. I have not come across a single case where we have had differences that should be reported as differences in the media.
And with the defence minister? The defence ministry opposed home ministry’s attempts to review the AFSPA.
The defence ministry has a point of view. The home ministry has a point of view.
Both points of view are legitimate. There is a famous statement by a distinguished English judge – ‘two reasonable men can hold opposite points of view and yet both views could be reasonable.’
Do you think the change of regime in west Bengal will better governance in the state, which you had described as the worst?
The previous government’s governance was among the worst. That is proved by the election results. The new government has assumed power only yesterday. We should give them time. Many of them have never been ministers before. But I think their intentions are clear. Which is, to change the way West Bengal is governed.
How do you see the Tamil Nadu election results?
We are very disappointed. Losing an election was perhaps not so unexpected. The cycle in TN since 1984 has been of alternating between the AIADMK and DMK. But the scale of the defeat was unexpected. The scale of the defeat for the DMK alliance was very big and the Congress party also could win only five seats.