The coincidence should be humbling: the stark tragedy of an Air India crash occurred on the day when UPA2 was due to announce a grand list of achievements in its first year of office. For at least half of this time the only vibe emerging from this administration suggests that it is an accident waiting to crash. More sleaze has been smeared over its reputation in the last five months than in the first five years of Dr Manmohan Singh's prime ministership. If A. Raja is today synonymous with corruption, then civil aviation has become the epitome of waste, glad-handing, smarmy middlemen and self-destruction.
The news is not particularly good from any department, with the sole exception of finance, where Pranab Mukherjee has restored balance to a ministry that seemed to budget only for the wealthy. Defence is moribund; external affairs has not been able to find its feet as it trips towards an unknown deal with Pakistan; railways has been jettisoned; and whoever is in charge of food prices should be exiled to a hostile country. A sense of disarray hovers like a cloud that will not be dispersed by claims and statistics. Predictably, home has become the highest profile ministry, and not just because of Naxalites: P. Chidambaram tends to raise the media profile of any office he occupies. The report card from home is confused.
Our muscular Chidambaram has not yet summoned the Navy in his war against Naxalites, but with hurricanes on the move and monsoons on the way, nothing can be ruled out. You never know when Dantewada could get submerged, and the CRPF was never taught to swim.
Tough guys are generally the last to know when their rippling biceps have become a parody. If a-statement-a-day Chidambaram does not watch out, he could soon turn into a caricature. Cartoonists are already putting cowboy boots below his mundu. His familiar tactic, deflection of failure to someone else, is losing steam. How long can you be head of the queue when credit is being distributed, and make way for Chief Ministers when the blame game starts? While every politician dreams of having his cake and eating it too, problems pile up on the table when you breakfast like a hawk but dine like a dove. When a high-flier indulges in split-personality aviation, the people soon give him the bird.
If a-statement-a-day Chidambaram does not watch out, he could soon turn into a caricature. His familiar tactic, deflection of failure to someone else, is losing steam.
When a minister becomes larger than his allotted role in Cabinet, then his performance has political consequences. One question is not yet being asked in the concentric circles of the Congress, either at the head, midriff or base: how will voters in his state, Tamil Nadu, rate him? The first genuine test of Chidambaram's value to his party will come within less than a year, in the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections. Tamil Nadu has no Naxalites — as yet — but it would be foolish to believe that the poor are not listening to the national discourse. They dissect events with a single scalpel-question: is the Government on our side or with the rich?
Objectively, the situation in Tamil Nadu is tailor-made for a Congress revival. The Congress lost power there in 1967, ten years before it vanished from Bengal. In both states, the Congress was in the hands of what were called the Syndicate leaders, Kamaraj Nadar and Atulya Ghosh, rather than the young men and women who led a party coup under the leadership of Mrs Indira Gandhi, but this did not prove a problem in Bengal, where Siddhartha Shankar Ray brought the Congress back to power in 1972. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress was hindered by a powerful and cohesive Dravida movement and party, as well as by its own abysmal, faction-driven provincial leadership. When the DMK became victim of the Indian disease and split, it deprived the Congress of yet another opportunity for revival. The anti-incumbency sentiment was mopped up by the alternative DMK instead of transferring to Congress.
But after four decades the credibility of both DMKs is heavily strained. Very few political parties can claim a record of corruption as brazen as the DMK led by the Karunanidhi clan. The bitter family feuds over succession — the patriarch is very obviously and visibly ill — would be dismissed as incredible even in the screen scenarios that the leader loves. This opens up possibilities that Chidambaram is perfectly positioned to exploit. But the opportunity will pass him, and his party, by if his language continues to be belligerent and hostile towards the underprivileged. The Naxalites may be wrong in their methods, but they are a product of hunger and exploitation of inhuman proportions. Yes, they must be suppressed; but repression is a different story.
As Finance Minister Chidambaram identified himself with the rich: does anyone remember a single effort he might have made to tackle the enormous misappropriation of wealth by greed-fuelled Indians? His heart is with "rising" India even when his mind says it should concentrate harder on "flattened" Indians.
People are patient. They do not expect high drama, but they are not going to tolerate low life either.