January 22, 2010

The untold walkout


Source: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1100122/jsp/frontpage/story_12014872.jsp

Washington, Jan. 21: M.K. Narayanan’s fate as national security adviser (NSA) was sealed two days before Christmas last year when he walked out of a meeting addressed by Union home minister P. Chidambaram.

Chidambaram, by temperament, is not one to take slights in his stride. But for him, Narayanan’s intemperate walkout from the December 23 meeting represented more than just a slight.

It meant an undisguised revolt by the NSA against the home minister, the culmination of months-long sparring between two of the most powerful men on Raisina Hill, the nerve centre of the central government.

Chidambaram had just outlined his ambitious agenda for restructuring India’s national security architecture, an agenda which has been in the making since his visit to the US last September, and which would have made Narayanan redundant in his incumbent role as NSA.

Narayanan is a man who is courteous to the core in the best traditions of Malayalitharavaditham, or the urbane habits of families with a long lineage.

Those who have known him during his long years in Chennai and New Delhi know that it is his habit never to leave an event without having a word with the host.

If he had another engagement to go to before the conclusion of a meeting — as was often the case — he would tell his hosts and the chief guest in advance.

On December 23, he did not tell either Chidambaram or the director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Rajiv Mathur, that he had to leave early, according to people who would have known if Narayanan had done so.

Narayanan’s walkout was, therefore, intended to send a message.

A small reception was to follow the December 23 event, the IB’s Centenary Endowment Lecture, an annual high point for the bureau, which is a second home to Narayanan.

If Narayanan’s decision not to stay for the reception and pointedly walk out of the meeting was meant to be a message, Chidambaram promptly got it.

The supreme irony was that Chidambaram had just finished talking about resistance to his agenda by people like Narayanan, without mentioning names, of course.

“There are two enemies of change,” Chidambaram said in his IB Centenary Endowment Lecture, according to its official transcript. “The first is ‘routine’. Routine is the enemy of innovation. Because we are immersed in routine tasks, we neglect the need for change and innovation.”

Those from India’s intelligence community who were present at the meeting knew only too well that the barb was directed at the national security adviser.

Narayanan has been a life-long intelligence officer, but one schooled in the old ways, precisely the old ways that Chidambaram wants to eliminate, impressed by his recent exposure to the New York Police Department’s preparedness and briefings by US agencies such as America’s Counter-Terrorism Center.

Besides, it has been many years since the task of reforming India’s intelligence agencies had been entrusted to Narayanan with a clear mandate.

He had not only fallen short, but morale and operational efficiency at the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external spy agency, had touched their nadir during Narayanan’s tenure as NSA.

It also did not help Narayanan during his turf wars with Chidambaram in recent months that it was well known that RAW had reached its lowest point ever through acts of commission rather than omission.

Although Narayanan was present when Chidambaram was criticising his ways by implication, he was in no position to respond verbally: the only thing he could do was to walk out in a show of displeasure.

Chidambaram continued: “The second enemy is ‘complacency’. In a few days from today, 2009 will come to a close and I sincerely hope that we may be able to claim that the year was free from terror attacks. However, there is the danger of a terror-free year inducing complacency, signs of which can be seen everywhere.

“A strange passivity seems to have descended upon the people: they are content to leave matters relating to security to a few people in the government and not ask questions or make demands. I wish to raise my voice of caution and appeal to all of you assembled here and to the people at large that there is no time to be lost in making a thorough and radical departure from the present structure.”

For most of those present, Narayanan embodied what Chidambaram euphemistically referred to as “the present structure”.

The home minister concluded: “If as a nation we must defend ourselves in the present day and prepare for the future, it is imperative that we put in place a new architecture for India’s security.”

It was like Mao Zedong’s call to bypass the structure of the Chinese state and its Communist Party apparatus and launch the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966.

Narayanan, as one of the key men in India’s national security architecture under three Prime Ministers, had to express his displeasure.

He could not sheepishly remain at the reception after this and calmly sip tea while everyone present knew — but would say nothing — that he had been openly targeted by Chidambaram. He simply walked out.

For Chidambaram, the NSA’s response to his agenda was confirmation of what he had surmised and suspected for many months as the home minister slowly and steadily encroached on Narayanan’s turf.

So far, Chidambaram had won all the battles, but he was yet to win the war. An openly hostile Narayanan would be a formidable enemy: the war could yet be won, but the spoils may elude Chidambaram.

Narayanan’s exile to Calcutta was imperative to winning the war.

Besides, Chidambaram had only recently emerged badly bruised from a little-known but significant turf war with one of his two ministers of state, Mullappally Ramachandran.

Chidambaram, who prefers to entrust work in the ministries he presides over to bureaucrats rather than politicians, had given Ramachandran little to do in the home ministry.

After smarting for quite some time, Ramachandran approached Congress president Sonia Gandhi. But he did not complain about Chidambaram. Nor did he ask for the situation to be remedied. Ramachandran simply asked to be relieved from the cabinet and allowed to remain an ordinary MP.

With elections due in Kerala next year and the Congress certain to retake power, Sonia did not want to upset the apple cart in the state. Unlike Chidambaram, Ramachandran has his roots among the people and is a formidable leader in the state.

Sonia got to the bottom of the junior home minister’s grievance, summoned Chidambaram and instructed that not only should Ramachandran be given work commensurate with his political standing, but that his work should also not be interfered with, according to Congress sources in Kerala.

This was all the more reason why Narayanan’s revolt had to be nipped in the bud. Besides, owing to shared ethnicity, there was always a possibility that Narayanan could strike up an alliance with the junior home minister.

There was also G.K. Pillai, the Union home secretary, an upright officer, but one who has deep roots in Kerala and has worked with senior Kerala politicians who would be a factor in the battles if Narayanan remained in the PMO. His exit, therefore, became inevitable for the health of the cabinet system of governance.

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