New Delhi: In a move to contain the political fallout of the Mumbai terror strike, the sixth attack on an Indian city in six months, and to retain its strategic focus on the economy, the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, replaced home minister Shivraj Patil with finance minister P. Chidambaram on Sunday and brought the finance ministry directly under the control of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Opposition political parties, some key cabinet ministers such as Lalu Prasad and analysts maintained that it was a case of too little too late, as some key Congress politicians, including general secretary Rahul Gandhi, mounted pressure on the leadership to adopt a more aggresive stance towards Pakistan.
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The announcement, which preceded an all-party meeting, followed nationwide outrage over the terrorist attack in south Mumbai that left at least 183 people dead. The government’s delayed reaction, especially the Prime Minister choosing to address the nation only 18 hours after the attack began on Wednesday night, and the absence of demonstrable political leadership in dealing with the crisis fanned the anger.
The Congress leadership is also contemplating the removal of Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, who along with Patil and national security adviser (NSA) M.K. Narayanan bore the brunt of criticism following the Mumbai attacks, said three people familiar with the developments, who did not want to be identified.
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The people said Narayanan had offered to step down, even though there was no official confirmation. Intelligence bureau chief P.C. Haldar also might be asked to go on leave as a part of the damage control exercise, they said. Haldar is due to retire on 31 December.
The widespread anger over the handling of the Mumbai crisis by the Congress-led governments both at the Centre and in Maharashtra is expected to dent the ruling party’s prospects in the ongoing state assembly elections and parliamentary polls due to take place by May. The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, was quick to seize on the Mumbai attacks to press its claim that the UPA was soft on terror.
BJP spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy blamed the “collective culpable negligence” of the government for the Mumbai attacks. “The resignation of the home minister is too little and too late,” Rudy said. “The BJP feels that the government has been irresponsible and people would settle the score. Asking for the government’s resignation is of no consequence today as there are only a few months left.”
Railway minister Lalu Prasad said Patil’s ouster had been delayed “too much”.
The UPA’s former allies, the Left parties, were critical.
“Changing faces will not solve the problems. What the government should do now is to immediately take effective steps to revamp and strengthen the intelligence and security set-up,” said Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member S. Ramachandra Pillai. Communist Party of India national secretary D. Raja called for “introspection” by the government.
The Congress party sought to deflect the criticism.
“The need of the hour is to look ahead, not back...as well as develop a political consensus on fighting terror,” party spokesman Manish Tewari said.
The latest terror attack, the most audacious mounted in the country, dovetailed with efforts by the UPA to contain damage from the global financial markets meltdown, including the loss of jobs in sunrise industries. A sharp slump in the stock markets and an unprecedented liquidity crisis have tested the government, whose image had been tarnished by its inability to contain inflation, which peaked at a 16-year high of 12.91% in August and has since been easing.
Political casualties: Shivraj Patil (left) and M.K. Narayanan. PTI/AP
According to a person familiar with the development, who did not want to be identified, the Prime Minister proposed Chidambaram’s name for the home minister’s post at a meeting held at UPA chief Sonia Gandhi’s residence. “No other name was discussed,” the person added.
At a late Saturday meeting of the Congress Working Committee, or CWC, that lasted at least 3 hours, almost all the nine members who spoke were “highly critical of both the home minister and the NSA,” said another party leader who attended the meeting. “Finally when he offered to step down, there was pin-drop silence in the room,” he added.
Patil is only the third home minister to have resigned.
Some Congress party leaders, who attended Saturday’s CWC meeting, demanded a more aggressive stance towards Pakistan, given that security agencies have identified some terrorists involved in the Mumbai attacks as being from that country. These leaders included Rahul Gandhi, people in the Congress party said.
Chidambaram’s shift from the finance ministry may help parry criticism on the economic front, some Congress leaders say. “I do not know whether he would be a better home minister. But I am glad that he is out of the finance ministry,” one ruling party politician said, citing inflation as a still troublesome issue.
Some analysts went further. “Markets will rejoice (at) the FM going out—he’s made a mess of the economy. People will accept that the government has removed two non-performers and this can positively influence the markets tomorrow,” said Arun Kejriwal, director at Kejriwal Research and Investment Service.
Political analysts said the changes would augur well. “Patil’s resignation is good news and any change is welcome,” said B.G. Varghese, political analyst and visiting professor at the Centre for Policy Research.
Reuters contributed to this story.