|Chidambaram at the news conference in New Delhi on Tuesday; file pictures of
Shinde and Moily. Picture by Prem Singh
New Delhi, July 31: He was barely about to violate protocol and let on but by the time P. Chidambaram arrived to address his customary month-end briefing as home minister this afternoon, the big news of the day had already sieved down Raisina Hill and become the capital’s worst kept secret — Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had shifted him back as finance minister, handing home to Sushil Kumar Shinde and leaving corporate affairs minister Veerappa Moily in additional charge of the currently volatile power portfolio.
Chidambaram’s return to what’s probably his pet job was formalised — and occasioned — by his predecessor Pranab Mukherjee who moved to Rashtrapati Bhavan not a week ago.
Sources in government indicated a “more comprehensive” cabinet re-jig after the monsoon session but it is unlikely Rahul Gandhi will opt into government as definition of the “larger role” he has spoken of. “These are the slog overs of UPA II and the thinking is Rahul Gandhi will be better off enlarging his role in the party,” a senior Congress leader said.
The heir may shortly be inducted into the Congress core committee, which has become the de facto co-ordination forum between the party and government.
A replacement for Kaushik Basu, whose term as chief economic adviser to the finance ministry expired today, is also in the works. Among top contenders are economist Raghuram Rajan, who already chips in as honorary adviser to the Prime Minister. The final pick, sources said, is being left to Chidambaram, the new boss of the finance ministry.
The suggestion that this could be the last of his customary month-end interactions with the media momentarily broke Chidambaram’s poker fašade but he recovered from smiling quickly enough to say: “I do not think so, I am very happy to meet you once in a month, I am content with the job I am doing and we will meet next month.” So expect frequent state-of-the-economy reports from the new finance minister.
Also expect political rumpus when Parliament opens for its monsoon session in a week’s time. Other than being top on the list of ministers in the crosshairs of the Anna Hazare campaignista, Chidambaram has also been in the BJP’s line of fire across parliamentary benches for his alleged role in the 2G swindle.
But Manmohan Singh has signalled he is not in defensive mode on Chidambaram, having earlier picked him to head the GoM on telecom and spectrum allocation. “We expect some trouble over the new finance minister in Parliament but we are prepared to weather that, the government will not be dictated in its choices by the Opposition,” sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said.
They described Chidambaram as the “best available choice” for finance minister, perhaps hinting that the Prime Minister hadn’t had his way on his preferred choices for the job — deputy head of Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia or key economic adviser C. Rangarajan, who are known to be Manmohan Singh’s alter-egos on economic policy.
But the Congress leadership has consistently been firm on the Big Four in government — they should not be given over to coalition partners and they should be held by politicians rather than technocrats.
Shinde’s appointment as home minister is true to the same parameters. It could well rankle with the UPA’s Maratha allies — the NCP in fact meant to have bid for a Big Four job for boss Sharad Pawar — but the Congress high command denied him firmly. Shinde will probably also be leader of the Lok Sabha, a job that sits well on a hefty ministerial brief.
What appears to have recommended Chidambaram most other than his seniority in the pecking order is that he will be able to land running on a job that is critical not only to the economy but also to the Congress’s political prospects in the final lap to general elections.
Chidambaram has twice before been finance minister — a stint in H.D. Deve Gowda’s United Front government in 1996-97 and for the better part of UPA I, until the Mumbai terror raid of November 2008 brought him to home to tighten ship.
A top bureaucrat explained Chidambaram’s return as only expected. “Chidambaram is not merely familiar with the turf and loves it, he also enjoys greater sync with the Prime Minister’s worldview compared to his predecessors and is perceived as new age and market-friendly, watch the spike on the markets tomorrow,” he said.