Saturday, April 17, 2010

Reds give Chidambaram the blues

ARATI R JERATH, TOI Crest, Apr 17, 2010, 09.58am IST

HIGH AND DRY: Chidambaram's resignation offer and the PM's rejection of it silenced rumblings that were getting louder by the day

A day after the massacre of 76 CRPF jawans in a Maoist ambush in Chhattisgarh,photographers caught home minister P Chidambaram in an uncharacteristically pensive mood at the Padma awards ceremony in Rashtrapati Bhavan.He had just come in after counting the body bags at Dantewada and the droop in his shoulders screamed his loneliness as he sat in splendid isolation between empty chairs.For once,he stepped back to let Prime Minister Manmohan Singh do most of the talking to the media.And after the ceremony,he drove to Race Course Road with a letter accepting moral responsibility for the tragedy and an offer of resignation.

It was a huge comedown for a man whose tough talk and no-nonsense attitude after the 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai earned him and his party,the Congress,handsome political dividends.Dantewada threatened to upset the calculus and his detractors in the Congress were emboldened enough to hold off-the-record briefings in the party office slamming him for showing attitude and "talking too much''.

Chidambaram's resignation offer and the PM's rejection of it silenced rumblings that were getting louder by the day,but the bloodbath in Dantewada could pit the party against the government yet again as both grope for a coherent response to the audacious challenge from the Maoists.Officially,the government through the PM,and the Congress through its spokespersons,have expressed solidarity with Chidambaram but cracks have started appearing in this show of unity with two senior Congress leaders,Mani Shankar Aiyar and Digvijay Singh,publicly questioning the wisdom of the home minister's blueprint for tackling the Naxalites."Can you solve the Naxalite problem without the people's support and only through the police or paramilitary or armed forces?'' Singh wrote this week in an edit page article in The Economic Times.Aiyar was more colourful.He dubbed it a "one-eyed policy'' (see interview).

Although both maintained that these were their personal opinions,their decision to air their views cannot be taken lightly because of the political space they occupy in the Congress.Both are considered close to the Gandhi family.Singh is an important aide to Rahul Gandhi while Aiyar was handpicked by Sonia Gandhi for nomination to the Rajya Sabha.

Was it an indication of which way the wind is blowing for Chidambaram? It's hard to say at this point,particularly because Sonia has not made her views known,either within the party or to the government.But according to a party source who wished to remain anonymous,she has begun wideranging consultations with activists,political leaders and non-government organisations working in tribal areas to get a feedback from Ground Zero.Her concern,said the source,is to assess the political fallout of the home ministry's decision to take the war against the Maoists to the tribal heartland.

The Dantewada massacre must touch Sonia personally because her very first encounter with tribals happened at a village less than 100 kms from the site of the tragedy.She had gone with Rajiv Gandhi on one of his first tours as prime minister in 1985.An official who accompanied them recalled that during their interaction with the tribals,she suddenly turned to her husband and said something in Italian.The officer understood only two words: bambini (small child) and dolce (sweet).He concluded that she must have been saying how sweet the children were."Obviously,she was quite taken with them,'' he said,requesting anonymity.

While Sonia does her homework before making up her mind,the government too is trying to make sense of a complex problem.Although the PM did rule out changes in the current policy,a quiet review is underway to bring in political nuances that have been missing in the security-first-development-later approach favoured by the home ministry.Two days after the Dantewada massacre,the cabinet committee on security introduced a couple of caveats in the ongoing operations against the Naxalites.It ruled out the use of the army and air force as threatened by Chidambaram,advised the home minister to build a better rapport with state governments that are fighting Left-wing insurgency (most of them happen to be governments of opposition parties) and gave the green signal to upgrade training and weaponry for paramilitary forces to army levels.

But it's the sudden flurry of activity in the almost-forgotten ministry of tribal affairs that indicates how shaken the entire government is by the massacre.Tribal affairs minister K L Bhuria was pleasantly surprised to find the PM receptive to a proposal that he has been unsuccessfully peddling for some time.It's a proposal for the formation of a National Tribal Advisory Council that will be a platform for central and state governments to discuss issues concerning the welfare and development of tribal communities.His ministry has also been asked to fast-track a draft national tribal policy that has been in the making since 2006.

As Chidambaram must have realised by now,there are no easy answers to intricate problems that lie at the very heart of governance.Dantewada has turned the spotlight on the tribal issue but,sadly,a comprehensive and permanent solution remains elusive.Says social activist Harsh Mander,"A complex set of villains that includes the state,greedy moneylenders,corrupt forest and district officials,corporates,rightwing and leftwing extremist groups and so on have left tribal societies doomed.What we're seeing today will probably be the death knell for these societies.''

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