Differences of opinion between cabinet ministers are not something unusual. Nor is an unexplained antipathy. There are plenty of examples since 1947 that illustrate this. Maulana Azad and Vallabhbhai Patel only agreed to disagree. Successive councils of ministers witnessed squabbles between principals. In no case, however, did these differences affect the functioning of government or rise to a level where holding the reins of administration became a secondary issue.
The fight between Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and home minister P . Chidambaram breaks new, unedifying ground. Had their well-known but rarely-written-about differences remained isolated at personal level, they would have done no harm, bar being the source of some gossip. The fight has transcended that level and it would now appear that tools of government—intelligence agencies and civil servants—have been drawn into it. This sets a bad precedent. It is not how a government based on impersonal and institutionalized procedures is supposed to function.
The latest salvo has been fired by Mukherjee. A note sent to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) from his ministry in March claimed that Chidambaram did nothing to stop the ruinous policy slide in the telecom sector when he had a chance. The specific accusation being that in a January 2008 meeting with then telecom minister A. Raja, Chidambaram said he was not seeking to revisit the current regimes for entry free and revenue share in this area. The covering letter accompanying the note clearly states the finance minister had seen the note. It is inconceivable that a junior officer could pen it and then enter into correspondence with the PMO. This theory, popular in certain circles, must be discarded.
In September 2010, Mukherjee, in a note to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, had mentioned apprehensions that his office, and those of other officials in his ministry, had been “bugged”. All that was found in an electronic sweep were “adhesive substances” that could have been used to plant electronic surveillance devices. Notably, this sweeping operation was carried out by the Central Board of Direct Taxes and not the Intelligence Bureau, the agency that specializes in such matters.
These are clear indicators of a lack of trust between the two ministers. The use of emollient expressions such as “valued colleague” and “pillar of strength” cannot hide this fact. This is hardly the recipe for coordination and sound governance.
Ideally, the Prime Minister should have stepped in and told the two to settle their differences amicably. Instead, he has let matters drift and acquire their present hue. This is disappointing, but not unexpected: In recent years, the Prime Minister has hardly made any decisive interventions, let alone taken “hard” decisions.
Ego or policy differences: what makes political fights? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org