Palaniappan Chidambaram | An image put to the test

Palaniappan Chidambaram | An image put to the test
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First Published: Tue, May 12 2009. 09 21 PM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Tue, May 12 2009. 09 21 PM IST
New Delhi: Today, voters in Tamil Nadu’s Sivaganga constituency will decide if they want to send home minister Palaniappan Chidambaramto the Lok Sabha for the seventh time in 25 years.
Compared with 2004, Chidambaram faces a tougher contest in Sivaganga. But if Chidambaram does survive this test, Sivaganga would have elected a representative who, analysts say, struggles to touch a chord in people, but is perhaps best equipped among Congress’ candidates to be a part of the government.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Chidambaram, 63, is a seasoned politician. Over the last 24 years, he has handled critical portfolios in the Union government, including finance (twice) and home. According to bureaucrats and economists who have worked with him, Chidambaram is one of the few politicians who can bring about a change.
The administrative machinery in India, including financial sector regulators, is designed and incentivized to be conservative. “No problem” is the primary measure of success, say bureaucrats. Change of any sort has to be brought about by a crisis or a politician who can bend a reluctant administration to his will.
The ability to trample over a structure designed to either preserve the status quo or bring about incremental change is the hallmark of Chidambaram the minister, say people who have worked with him in his stint as finance minister with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Big change can only be initiated by politicians, and Chidambaram is a rare one who has the means to do so.
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Yet, for a politician and also one who evokes admiration among some people he has worked with, Chidambaram, analysts say, seems clueless about the way in which he ought to get people to warm up to him. People within his own party speak unfavourably about his “haughty air”.
Last week at an election meeting in a village in Sivaganga, he ticked off women in the audience who he thought were inattentive, a performance he repeated in another village. People who were being asked to vote for him were also simultaneously reprimanded. Unsurprisingly, his principal rival in Sivaganga, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s Raja Kannappan, has pegged his campaign on Chidambaram’s image. An image of a man who does not really care for the people of his constituency and is distant from them in every sense.
That image clashes with evidence from people who know him well.
An official in the finance ministry talks of the time Chidambaram went out of his way to locate the address of officials from the revenue service who were killed in the blasts in Mumbai in 2006 so as to send a personal message of condolence. He ordered that all red tape be waived and monetary benefits to the families of the officials be sent immediately.
For the man who seems to be perceived as distant by his constituents, Chidambaram did not stand on ceremony when it came to reaching out to officials in the finance ministry. Even junior bureaucrats could meet him and he was willing to bypass hierarchy and reach out to any official who could get the job done. Analysts say if Chidambaram struggles to reach out to his constituents, it is because of the almost unemotional way in which he communicates, albeit fluently, in two languages—Tamil and English.
While it may be too soon to judge him as home minister—he has been that all of five months—as a finance minister he sought to achieve a balance between growth and inclusion.
Among the UPA ministers, he was alone in repeatedly highlighting the importance of India’s record economic growth in raising resources to fund social sector projects. While Chidambaram may have ignored the groundwork put in by the preceding National Democratic Alliance government, even a cursory look at the government’s balance sheet indicates transferring resources to India’s poor is not possible without economic growth. The rest of the UPA did not seem to share Chidambaram’s enthusiasm for facilitating economic growth, and his disagreements with rural development minister Raghuvansh Prasad made headlines.
Chidambaram did come to the finance ministry in 2004 with an overall vision, which could be loosely described as removing the stranglehold of the government on economic activity wherever feasible. He drove the government’s support to get all states to move towards a harmonious indirect tax system (goods and services tax, or GST), say officials who worked on it. To push towards the GST goal, he sidestepped the usual hierarchy and empowered select officials to get the job done, they say.
However, in areas where legislative approval was required for change—insurance, banking and pension—the UPA was checked by the Communist parties. While the Communists may have ideological issues on many of the proposed changes, their perception of the messenger of change, Chidambaram, may have just made them dig their heels in a little more.
Two years ago, the UPA made presentations to the Communists to drum up support for the insurance Bill. While the Communists were ideologically opposed to parts of legislation, Communist Party of India’s Gurudas Dasgupta indicated another possible reason to Mint. The Communists could not bring themselves to trust proposals coming from Chidambaram. That’s ironical, given that Chidambaram used to edit a magazine in Chennai along with Prakash Karat in their salad days.
Still, the enduring impression of Chidambaram from this campaign will be that of a politician who seems assured and on top of things in New Delhi, and is trying to combat in his constituency the one problem politicians cannot afford to have: an image problem.
At a glance
• Born on 16 September 1945 in Kanadukathan village in Tamil Nadu’s Sivaganga district
• Studied at Presidency College, Chennai, and Madras University to earn degrees in science and law, respectively. MBA from Harvard Business School
• Married to Nalini, a lawyer. They have a son, Karti, who manages Chidambaram’s election campaign in Sivaganga
• His special interests are modern literature, particularly Tamil literature
Twenty 20 is a series on 20 political leaders.
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First Published: Tue, May 12 2009. 09 21 PM IST