Despite the charges swirling over him, off and on there has been talk of his becoming a second edition of the Manmohan Singh phenomenon, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat
P. Chidambaram, the urbane leader from Tamil Nadu of the Congress Party, has been in the headlines since the 1980s, during his steady rise that began from his stint translating Rajiv Gandhi’s speeches from English to Tamil. Thereafter, he went on to ministerial status in multiple administrations. Thrice Union Minister for Finance, Chidambaram has also been through 106 days of incarceration during NDA II, although the police officials responsible for this later appear to have been sidelined. Both in the INX case and in the Aircel Maxis matter, efforts have been made by his detractors to make him a “state guest” once again, this time for a longer period. Thus far, such efforts do not seem to have gained much traction. Chidambaram has in the meantime emerged as among the most prominent voices in the Opposition, excoriating the Narendra Modi government on its handling of the economy in particular. His relationship with Sonia Gandhi and Rahul appears to continue to be on strong foundations, as does his connect with many of those prominent in the Opposition. It needs to be added that Chidambaram shared a longstanding friendship with some of the top leaders of the BJP, although this list has shrunk, especially since Modi 2.0.
Despite the charges swirling over him and the reality of him not conforming to the backslapping, tactile type of politician in the manner that his party colleague Digvijaya Singh is, off and on there has been talk of his becoming a second edition of the Manmohan Singh phenomenon. The saga of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh began in 2004, when the mild-mannered, scholarly economist was pitchforked into the most important job in the country by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Since the debacle of rival political formations at the hands of Modi and the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, there has been a lull in activity seeking to generate a second 2004 upset of a BJP-led government. Since the later months of 2020, the effects on lives and livelihoods caused by SARS2, especially the unexpected second wave in 2021, have lifted the expectations of key elements of the Opposition that a repeat of 2004 in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls is indeed possible. They see the key to this as the economy, buffeted as it has been by the turbulence caused by the pandemic.
GLOBAL GROUP BEHIND PLAN
A group of High Net Income individuals based in New York, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, London and Kuala Lumpur, along with associates in India, has begun work on promoting the prospects of Congress leader P. Chidambaram to emerge in 2023 as the consensus choice of the Opposition for the Prime Ministership in the 2024 polls. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the party he leads, the BJP, continue to maintain a commanding national lead over any challenger in the electoral ring, this group (which may be termed the Group of Nine, signifying the number of its key members) believes that the economic and societal shocks caused by the SARS2 pandemic on India will continue for two years more, if not more. In other words, that absence of significant recovery from the income and job losses caused by the pandemic will remain into the period just before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. This, they believe, will have a significant impact on PM Modi’s USP, which is that he is far and away the best hope for economic progress in India. The BJP has based its majority primarily on its electoral clout in the Hindi belt. The calculation of the Group of Nine is that the BJP will suffer major declines in the Hindi belt before 2024, falls caused by job and income losses that will override the party’s appeal on other issues. The economic and societal consequences of SARS2 would, in their view, cause a snowballing effect on national politics, leading to the assembling (by the close of 2023) and the formation after the 2024 polls of a coalition government led by Opposition parties.
That the economy has been the focus of several opposition attacks on the BJP has been evident since the close of 2017, with former Congress president Rahul Gandhi being the most vociferous. While there seemed to be a substantial impact of the economic factor in 2018 on BJP fortunes, as seen in the byelection results of that year, the Balakot strike in February 2019 and the announcement that Rahul Gandhi would be the Congress candidate for the Prime Ministership gave sufficient oxygen to the BJP to enable that party to secure an even bigger Lok Sabha majority than in 2014. In the public mind, images of Balakot and the belief that Narendra Modi was a far more reliable pair of hands at the helm of the nation than Rahul Gandhi swung the tide in favour of the BJP. Next time around, given that the economic situation in 2020-21 is far worse than it was in 2018-19 (and it is expected by Modi’s detractors that this situation will continue), they believe that a similar turnaround in the public mood through the factor of emotion in favour of the BJP is unlikely.
THE CALCULATIONS MADE BY GROUP
The Group of Nine regards it as mandatory that an individual gets anointed in 2023 itself as a safe pair of hands, and who would therefore be the consensus choice of the Opposition for the Prime Ministership. Given the hold that the party retains despite its reverses, they believe that (1) the Congress must lead such a coalition at the national level, and (2) the candidate for the Prime Ministership must not be from the Nehru family. The Group of Nine believes that the Congress Party leadership as an entirety understands the risk in once again promoting Rahul Gandhi as the party’s face in the 2024 polls. In their view, the best option would be to showcase three-time Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram as the Prime Ministerial face of the Congress Party and work to get him accepted so as to form a joint opposition front to take on the BJP.
Apart from what may be their personal connect with Chidambaram or some of those close to him, this calculation is based on:
(a) Chidambaram not being a threat to any regional leader, including Stalin in Tamil Nadu, given his hands-off approach towards the building up of the backslapping camaraderie required for the purpose.
(b) The South is likely to be an important determinant in which combination next gets a Lok Sabha majority in what is expected to be a close contest in 2024. Hence the need to choose a leader from that region, especially in a context where the BJP has been gaining ground in each of the southern states, to the shock of those who have long dismissed the party as a “Hindi-belt” outfit. It may be pointed out that Hindi-speaking states are very accepting and moderate in their approach to other languages, with several Hindi-speaking citizens eager for example to learn English, a language that successive governments have since 1947 effectively kept out of the reach of the poor and those in rural areas. Bollywood has disseminated a knowledge and love of Hindi in a manner far more effective than numerous attempts by successive Central governments to spread Hindi among states speaking other languages, through making it obligatory in schools and in other ways. While Chidambaram makes no secret of his lack of skill in speaking Hindi, he has for decades worked smoothly with Hindi-belt politicians, unlike other leaders from Tamil Nadu.
(c) The economy looms large in the public mind as a consequences of SARS2 ravaging tens of millions of individuals. In the view of the Group of Nine, Chidambaram is the politician best placed in the Opposition space to campaign on what they expect will be an economy still feeling the aftershocks of the pandemic. His party has made him the spokesman for talking about the economic effects of the pandemic (which the Congress Party places entirely on the shoulders of PM Modi), and his barbs at the Central government have increased over the years. At the same time, they believe that neither Mamata Banerjee nor Arvind Kejriwal carries the potential public benefit of the experience of Chidambaram in handling economic matters. This is so despite the skills exhibited by them in besting the BJP electorally in their home states.
(d) Chidambaram has built extensive linkages within SE Asia, China, the US and Europe thanks to his tenure as Finance Minister, and these are to be showcased to offer an alternative to Modi, a leader who has not been seriously challenged since 2013. Whether in London, Hong Kong, Singapore or Dubai, Chidambaram has an extensive network of friends and contacts. As indeed is the case in the bureaucracy as well, and not just among retired officials. Such contacts can be used to present the narrative of him as a viable alternative to Prime Minister Modi in a way that others in the opposition space may not be able to.
CHIDAMBARAM PUSHED ‘HINDU TERROR’ SMEAR
The Group of Nine is aware of other charges hurled at Chidambaram. These include the fact that the chimera of “Hindu terror” was artificially created during his 2008-13 tenure as the Union Home Minister. The excuse they offer is that he was made to do this by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. The latter is reported as being on record that “Hindu radicals are a bigger threat than LeT”. The leakage of his conversation and the comparison made in it with US ambassador Timothy Roemer has yet to be contradicted by Rahul Gandhi. That ministers had to bend to the will of the “High Command” or lose their jobs was no secret, and it is such a defence that supporters of the “Chidambaram for PM” move aim to use when he comes under attack for highlighting the concept of “Hindu terror”. A month after Rahul Gandhi’s comments to Roemer, in August 2010, at a conference of police officials, Home Minister Chidambaram claimed that “Hindu terrorists” were behind many of the bomb blasts taking place at the time. Both former Home Secretary G.K. Pillai and Under-Secretary R.V.S. Mani have spoken of how “the focus of Chidambaram during his tenure as Home Minister was to strengthen the non-existent Hindu terror threat by any means possible”. Those behind the smear on a community in excess of a billion people worked overtime to churn out variants of the “Hindu terror” disinformation virus, but the spread of the virus within the general population was almost non-existent, to the disappointment of its originators. A counter that is being put up by backers of Chidambaram is to point out that both G.K. Pillai as well as R.V.S. Mani have been ignored by the present government, even though several officials known to be close to the UPA have been given attractive postings since 2014. If what R.V.S. Mani and G.K. Pillai said about the then Home Minister had been correct, the Group of Nine argues, surely the present government, no friend of the Congress Party First Family or Chidambaram, would have recognized them better for speaking out in the manner they did.
ACTION ABSENT ON KEY ALLEGATIONS
Another set of charges relate to allegations of financial impropriety by Chidambaram while he served as the Finance Minister during the two terms of the UPA. The claim of his detractors is that there are a collection of bankers, security market analysts, officials and corporates said to be closely associated with Chidambaram who protected his interests. Details of such a hypothesis have been provided in “Market Mafia”, a book by business journalist Palak Shah. This outlines a chain of market manipulations that the author claims took place in plain sight of regulatory agencies. Another set of revelations has come from a book by the globally renowned team of Sucheta Dalal and Debashish Basu, “Absolute Power”, which is mainly about the National Stock Exchange. This has long been alleged to have had the patronage of the UPA-era Finance Minister. It has been claimed that his decisions and even live broadcast of parliamentary speeches during market hours had an immediate impact on the market, from which several lost while a few gained. The Colo (co-location) imbroglio has been cited in theirs and in several other reports. The Dalal-Basu book has been having record sales. The Group of Nine however points out that, as with Palak Shah’s book, no significant action on the part of the government seems to have been initiated on the basis of the conclusions of Dalal, Basu and Shah. According to the Group of Nine, given the public reputation for integrity of the Modi government, such lack of governmental follow-up will be a sign to the voters that the charges made in the two books and in multiple other reports are not accepted as actionable by the official machinery.
MARKET MELTDOWN SOUGHT BEFORE POLLS
Sources known to be credible have warned that the “market mafia” is looking to engineer a stock exchange meltdown close to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Their intention is to blight the chances of a hat-trick by Prime Minister Modi through his winning the 2024 elections. Should such a stock exchange crisis occur in the manner of the earlier Rao-era Harshad Mehta or Vajpayee-era LIC imbroglios, Chidambaram’s voter appeal as a crisis manager would rise. Such a development would be ironic in the eyes of those who believe those close to the former Finance Minister are at the heart of much of the market manipulations. The Group of Nine points to the fact that both the governments that were in office during the Harshad Mehta and LIC scams got defeated in the subsequent Lok Sabha polls. This is the “hat-trick” that they are planning to achieve in 2024, given the electoral importance of the tens of millions of retail investors in both urban as well as in rural areas, not to mention deposits in various non-banking finance companies, which too would be affected as a consequence of stock market manipulations caused by insufficient accountability and oversight.
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The Group of Nine points out that the charges made of facilitating insider trades by Chidambaram while he was Finance Minister would have been extensively investigated by investigative and regulatory agencies since 2014. In case conclusive evidence had been found against Chidambaram and others named in accounts such as those presented in the books mentioned earlier, those guilty would have been proceeded against in view of PM Modi’s policy of Zero Tolerance for corruption, especially at the higher levels. Neither SEBI nor the RBI nor North Block has, it is pointed out, thus far found that the charges made against Chidambaram and others presumed to be connected to him warrant more than relatively small fines and penalties on a few who have been discovered as being involved. If the charges were truly as significant as detractors of Chidambaram claim, by now several existing and retired top officials would be facing prosecution as a consequence of action by the Government of India, they point out. The Group of Nine points to the fact that several of the office-holders repeatedly named by detractors of Chidambaram have not only been retained but promoted. This, in their view, carries its own message to voters as to the truth or otherwise of such charges. Prime Minister Modi is known for his attention to detail and his administrative skills, not to mention commitment towards establishing a corruption-free governance system.
ECONOMY AS OPPOSITION FOCUS
“Dilli door ast”, as are the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Whether Sonia Gandhi or powerful state leaders such as Stalin, Mamata or Kejriwal would accept Chidambaram as the Prime Ministerial face of the Opposition remains unproven. The Group of Nine acknowledges this, but say that they will press ahead with their mission of positioning P. Chidambaram as the Prime Ministerial face of the opposition in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. He can then go head to head against the formidable appeal of Narendra Modi as an administrator and manager of the economy. What is clear is that planning for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls has begun in earnest in more than one location, and in more than one country. And that as of now, the odds-on favourite to win a hat-trick in 2024 remains PM Modi.