God forbid if P. Chidambaram ever gets nominated to the prime ministerial gaddi. You should not rule it out, though. His overweening ambition aside, just as an unsure Sonia Gandhi had nominated Manmohan Singh to the top post, an equally unsure Rahul Gandhi can hand-pick Chidambaram to fill the prime ministerial slot. Of course, it will depend on the Congress finding itself in command in another UPA-type coalition after the next election.
The thought that in the not-too-distant a future he can occupy, even if through sheer default, the highest executive office in the land ought to have crossed the mind of the clever Chettiar lawyer. After all, the world’s most influential weekly, The Economist, does not conjure up things from thin air. Nor is it known for frivolous reporting. Once the London weekly noted the likelihood of PC as PM, others were quick to pick up the thread. Even DMK boss M. Karunanidhi unhesitatingly endorsed the idea of a “southern dhotiwala” occupying the prime ministerial gaddi.
Of course, you did not expect PC himself to grant that he was aspiring to the highest office. Who does? As expected, he laughed off the suggestion when someone asked him about it. Yet, two things, at least on paper, seem to be going in his favour. One, the strong fear of failure which has gripped the Gandhi scion (just as it had gripped his mother in May 2004). And two, that after the graduation of Pranab Mukherjee to 1 Raisina Hill, PC is the senior-most member of the Union Cabinet and has the requisite experience to hold the top job. The way is clear for him, should the Rahul Gandhi develop cold feet moving straight from being an MP to PM.
Granted, his father had, but consider the mess he had created in double-quick-time, squandering fully the record 400-plus majority in a few short months. Why would the Congress’ perennial crown prince want to do that? Here he is in a very happy position, wielding veto over the government without being in anyway responsible for the fallout of his diktats. Besides, he can continue to globe-trot with his friends without any care for the urgent and very difficult matters of state.
But what goes against PC is that he is too clever for his own good. He allowed A. Raja to perpetrate what is undeniably the biggest scam in the history of free India. And yet, angrily contests that he was in a position to stop Raja. More than the demands of the coalition politics, PC’s felt need to keep the DMK bosses in good humour — after all, he is at their mercy for his election to the Lok Sabha — was clearly the reason he did not put his foot down when Raja set about looting the public treasury.
And his authoritarian streak came through clearly when he persuaded the simple-minded Rajiv Gandhi to try and clamp fetters on a free press. The controversial defamation bill was aborted only when the doughty Ram Nath Goenka led a protest march of journalists from India Gate to Rashtrapati Bhavan. PC was widely reported to be the brain behind that infamous Bill. The defamation bill episode clearly reveals PC’s approach to the media.
Because PC is always skirting the thin line that separates right from wrong, he has never been away from personal scandals and controversies. He might protest his innocence but the fact that almost in every regime he has been a minister he has found himself at the centre of some or the other scandal involving either himself, his son, or wife, distinguishes him vitally from Sonia Gandhi’s nominee in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Again, unlike Singh, PC is unable and unwilling to tolerate anyone who does not agree with him. The father of the UID project, Nandan Nilekani, was at the receiving end of his I-alone-know-best one-upmanship not long ago. It is a different matter that upon moving to Finance, the same PC was keen to identify himself with the UID project, dubbing it “magical” for the delivery of a few cash entitlements.
However, it is the constant pressure on the RBI top brass that has thoroughly exposed PC’s undemocratic nature. He is unwilling to share power. Whether it is D. Subbarao, or his predecessor Y.V. Reddy, PC has covertly and overtly sought to erode the autonomy of the Central bank by trying to force his will on it, especially in regard to the benchmark policy rate.
Indeed, the crude manner in which Finance Minister recently saw off the widely-respected economist, Subir Gokarn, at the end of his three-year term as deputy governor has sent a wrong signal all around. Governor Subbarao recommended a second three-year term for Gokarn, which is usually granted readily by the government. But in the case of Gokarn it was not. Why? Because Gokarn as in-charge of the monetary policy had refused to succumb under pressure to reduce the policy rate, something the headstrong PC finds unacceptable. Should the manner of Gokarn’s going influence his successor, Urjit Patel, to fall in line with the North Block bigwigs; it will indeed be most unfortunate.
For PC, the priority was to reduce the benchmark interest rate, ostensibly to boost growth. On this, he and his corporate friends were on the same page. For the RBI, the priority to contain inflation was foremost. Reducing the basic rate so that there could, possibly, be a spurt in fresh investment and growth was the PC line. Instead of according inflation-control top priority so that the aam aadmi could get some relief from relentless price rise, PC was out, as usual, to win kudos from the moneybags and their loudmouths in the media. Unmindful that a reduction in the basic rate could make the yield on bank savings fully negative, given the high rate of inflation.
However, in one area where he and Singh are fully matched is in their lack of a political base. In the last parliamentary poll, a number of television channels announced his loss to the AIADMK challenger from the Sivaganga constituency. Rajiv Shukla in fact regretted PC’s defeat on television. How and why that initial defeat turned into victory for PC is now a matter of an election petition before the Madras High Court, which despite the fact that nearly four years of the five-year term have already passed, has shown no dispatch in disposing it of. And the way things are, it is unlikely there will be a decision before May next year. Isn’t that one clear area where the higher judiciary should take an immediate call?
It is remarkable that PC is now voicing opinion about matters which do not strictly fall in his jurisdiction as Finance Minister. Also, in the Cabinet his is the most authoritative voice, especially when the PM himself tends to speak precious little, if at all.