Debating India


He Ain’t Home

Smita Gupta

Monday 4 October 2004, by GUPTA *Smita

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Tribhuvan Tiwari

Ask anyone in the Congress or in the bureaucracy and they will admit (in private, at least) that one of the weakest links in the four-month-old UPA government is the crucial Union home ministry headed by Shivraj Patil. The worst part is his ministry is accused of frittering away the gains made by the previous nda government in its dealings with the Hurriyat Conference in Kashmir and then there’s the clumsy, uninformed handling of the Manipur situation.

Within the Union cabinet and the Congress itself, the demand for shifting Patil out is increasing by the day. And the PM appears to be sensitive towards this fact too.

For, till such time as a more adequate candidate comes along, the PMO has decided to play a more active role in the political and day-to-day management of J&K and Manipur. So it was that shortly before leaving on his US trip, Manmohan asked special advisor M.K. Narayanan to focus on the two insurgency-ravaged states and interface between the PMO and the home ministry. Narayanan has been assigned the tricky task of helping resume the talks with the Hurriyat as well as trying to get the Apunba Lup, the alliance of 32 organisations spearheading the Manipur agitation, into dialogue mode with the Centre.

A senior cabinet minister had this to say about the way Manipur was handled by Patil’s ministry: "When the Manorama Devi episode occurred, there should have been some immediate response from the Centre. Instead, Patil took two months to even go which time the situation had deteriorated." On Kashmir, he refers to Patil’s singular "lack of imagination" in announcing at the outset that any talks with the Hurriyat would have to be conducted "within the four walls of the Constitution". This, according to a newspaper analysis, was "a semantic trap even the BJP would have avoided".

Patil’s position, taken with external affairs minister K. Natwar Singh’s remark that New Delhi did not require the Hurriyat, has ensured that even doves like Mirwaiz Umer Farooq who had been selling the "unconditional talks" line in the Valley are out of the picture. The initiative has been seized by the pro-Pakistan hawks. In one stroke, the peace initiative worked on for years has come to naught.

Points out a senior PMO functionary: "J&K was the high watermark for the previous government. And now this government is floundering on it. The government’s interlocutor on J&K-who had done much of the spadework for the previous regime, N.N. Vohra-has been sidelined. He no longer has access to the PM."

The Manipur bungle is equally serious. The army chief’s well-publicised defence of the Assam Rifles and his statement that Manorama was not raped was picked up and bandied about in off-the-record briefings to the media by those close to Patil in the home ministry. The women stripping to protest her rape and killing was described as being done "by design". All this may have boosted the army’s morale working in a difficult terrain but it’s done nothing to address what’s now a key issue in the region.

So was Patil the right choice to handle home? Many bureaucrats dealing with Patil now agree that he is the wrong man for the job. A PMO official even opined that a home minister "should ideally be someone who’s been a state CM, used to handling law and order, intelligence agencies. Patil acquired his seniority not through his experience but because he was LS speaker. He got the job for the wrong reasons...he is seen as not very powerful."

So will removing Patil from the hot seat do the trick? Many in the UPA do see this as a solution, but the problem is finding a suitable replacement. The original choice was Union defence minister Pranab Mukherjee, the No. 2 in the present government. But the reason cited then for not giving him the home portfolio was that it would make him "too powerful". Patil, on his part, say insiders, has been playing up his apparent "closeness" to Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi to deal with detractors. He reportedly briefs her on the workings of the home ministry more often than he does Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The Congress, officially, chooses its words with extreme care when it comes to Patil. Party general secretary Salman Khursheed, asked about the negative assessment within of Patil’s performance, says diplomatically: "Patil isn’t easy to discern-he is sphinx-like, careful with his words. Besides, expectations from a Congress leader are much higher than that for a BJP leader." So will Patil survive? Despite the all-round criticism, the HM, say Congress sources, may hang on. His usp is that he’s not power hungry but how long can Manmohan and Sonia Gandhi afford to have an ineffective minister heading this most important portfolio?


in "Outlook India", Monday, October 4, 2004.

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