If the survival of a leader is linked with servility and not substance, he or she is bound to ignore the dignity of the office held. Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde is a classic case of a politician who slips at every step he takes, yet gets up and moves on with his back held straight. For him, his crass words don’t matter. His earthy wisdom does. Even after committing verbal hara-kiri, Shinde remains the darling of his leadership. But he is also the target of the ruling establishment, which finds him an unacceptable claimant to the throne in the event of the UPA coming to power again in 2014.
For the past few weeks, the home minister has given enough fodder to both his promoters and detractors to train their guns on him. On every sensitive issue—ranging from the shameful gangrape in Delhi to naming the minor rape victims of Bhandara—Shinde has displayed his unsuitability to occupy the post of the home minister of India. Though he has been only reading out the statement written or provided by his ministry officials, the buck ultimately stops with him for his inability to spot the red signals and saboteurs within his own system. Ever since he took over as home minister, Shinde has let the impression grow that he isn’t the master of his ministry. His predecessor, P Chidambaram, was considered both a terror and a hard taskmaster in North Block, who arrived at work even much before his junior-most colleagues opened their desktops. Chidambaram was quite focused in his approach. He acquired powers which none of his immediate predecessors enjoyed. He made sure that the chiefs of all intel agencies briefed him on a daily basis. It was he who ensured that both the RAW chief and the national security adviser attended all his meetings, so that he could frame an appropriate response on all sensitive issues ranging from Left to Right terror, Centre-state relations and even dealing with Pakistan. But hardly anyone takes Shinde seriously because he leaves it to civil servants to run the ministry. For example, his statement on the Bhandara rape case emerged out of the inputs and reports which emanated from the district collector, eventually reaching him after passing through the hands of the state’s director general of police, home minister, and perhaps even the chief minister. It then reached the home secretary, and finally the home ministry officials drafted a statement, which was to be read out by Shinde in the House. Instead of examining each and every word, as Chidambaram would have done, Shinde simply read it out in good faith. If such a gaffe was committed during Chidambaram’s tenure, the official would have been dispatched to his home state within hours. But Shinde decided to probe the truth, which he already knew. Known more for his affable personality than being a stern home minister, Shinde hasn’t let the aura of his office alter his DNA. The joke in Mumbai used to be that when he replaced Vilasrao Deshmukh as the chief minister of Maharashtra, Bal Thackeray remarked that “one Deshmukh has gone and a Hasmukh (one who is always laughing) has taken over”.
Shinde is the second Dalit home minister of the 20 who have occupied one of the four corner rooms in both South and North Blocks, which represent the symbols of real political and financial power in Indian government. He has occupied the chair, but has failed to acquire and understand the gravitas and dignity attached to the home minister’s office. He forgot that 18 leaders who preceded him came from rich, upper caste and well-groomed families from various states. Like him, nine had also been chief ministers. Since caste and class have become the benchmarks for assessing ability and agility, a substantial number of home ministers have been from the upper castes. All the four from south India came not only from the wealthy classes but also from landed, rich communities. Six, such as Morarji Desai, Vallabh Bhai Patel, Y B Chavan, S B Chavan and Shivraj Patil, who represented western India like Shinde does, had both caste and class advantages over him. But they were never under such strict social and political scrutiny as Shinde is facing now. Barring Jagjivan Ram, almost every other political leader from Dalit or other backward communities has always faced hostile social reactions for their follies or the usage of politically incorrect statements. It wasn’t just Shinde who was under fire, but the very institution of the home minister was being questioned for erosion of credibility.
The problem with Shinde is that he suffers from a caste complex and believes that he is in office not on merit but for his unconditional loyalty to the Gandhi Parivar. Soon after taking over as home minister, he told me in television show Teekhi Baat that he would shoot anyone if ordered to do so by his leader, Sonia Gandhi. Earlier, Giani Zail Singh, another backward class home minister, had asserted in an interview given to me for India Today magazine that he wouldn’t mind sweeping the floor if asked to do so by Indira Gandhi. Zail Singh was later elevated as India’s first Sikh president.
But the Shinde episode epitomises a bigger malaise inflicting the high offices in government. While the role of the home minister has changed drastically over the last few years of the coalition era, individuals chosen by the Congress have failed to rise to the occasion. The controversies surrounding the conduct of the home minister has more to do with the caste and sycophantic political culture prevailing in the country, which are killing the institutions and symbols of authority and power.
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