| Test of authority
The prime minister is asserting himself on matters of governance in a way few people expected him to do. Manmohan Singh passed a crucial test of his authority last week, when V.K. Duggal became the new Union home secretary, a job whose diplomatic dimension has expanded in 15 years because of terrorism, and more so, since the September 11 attacks against the United States of America.
For those unfamiliar with the internecine battles within the civil service, the appointment of a bureaucrat ' albeit one heading the home ministry ' may appear routine. In reality, it amounts to much more. Successive prime ministers ' including Atal Bihari Vajpayee and P.V. Narasimha Rao, to mention two recent examples ' have successfully sought to have IAS officers, whose personal loyalty to them is beyond question, appointed to the most powerful civil service job in North Block.
The irony, in the present prime minister's case, was that his situation was quite the reverse. Singh had no favourite candidate for the job, but others did. And they were banking on two factors to stage what would have amounted to a coup on Raisina Hill and set the stage for a take-over of the home ministry: one, that the prime minister lacks a political base of his own, and second, that he has kept out of politicking in his public life. So, as the March 31 deadline for the superannuation of outgoing home secretary, Dhirendra Singh, approached, a campaign of epic proportions was put together in New Delhi's corridors of power to make the post of home secretary a tenure assignment. The idea was that, like the cabinet secretary and the CBI chief, the home secretary replacing Dhirendra Singh would be in office for two years.
The candidate on whose behalf this campaign was mounted is the current secretary for information and broadcasting, Naveen Chawla. Chawla retires at the end of July. In order to anoint the campaign with a veneer of principle, its promoters proposed that the defence secretary's post should also have a two-year tenure. But they sought to exclude Ajai Vikram Singh, the incumbent, although he has built a formidable reputation for himself in his present job. In New Delhi, the outcome of the campaign was watched closely because Chawla's proximity to the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, is well known. Chawla's wife, Rupika, an art historian, has been a friend of the Congress president for a long time. This is not to suggest that Sonia Gandhi, in any way, took an interest in the campaign.
But the episode was important because there is a surfeit of men and women in New Delhi these days who claim proximity to Sonia Gandhi and insist that they are acting on her behalf. According to sources close to the prime minister, he does not even check with 10, Janpath about the veracity of these claims because so many of them have been found to be falsely coming into the prime minister's office every day. Instead, he relies on Prithviraj Chavan, the minister of state, and joint secretary, Pulok Chatterjee, to convey anything to him from the Congress president. It is to the tremendous credit of Manmohan Singh that he stood up to those who orchestrated the lobbying Blitzkrieg to make Chawla home secretary and give him a two-year tenure, thereby putting off his superannuation. Chawla's competence to be home secretary is not the issue here. But the motives of those who were behind the campaign certainly are.
Of all the ministries in the United Progressive Alliance government, the home ministry is the most dysfunctional. Headed by a gentleman minister, but sorely lacking in any vision, it has stumbled from one fiasco to another, putting the nation's security, reputation and credibility at risk. Shivraj Patil has allowed charlatans in his party of emergency vintage to hijack crises like Goa and Jharkhand. These men and women who brought discredit to Indian democracy had hoped that by bringing Chawla into North Block, they could consolidate their control over the home ministry's vast coercive apparatus. Whether Chawla would have been beholden to them or gone along with their plans if he had become home secretary is no longer relevant. What is important is that Manmohan Singh ensured that this was not to be ' even at the risk of refusing to accommodate someone, whose family friendship with 10, Janpath was common knowledge in New Delhi.
In this process of asserting himself, the prime minister is bringing into the process of governance some principles of coalition government, especially lessons in building alliances and making compromises. The appointment of M.K. Narayanan as national security adviser in succession to J.N. Dixit was a compromise. It is well-known ' especially to those editorial writers in New Delhi who were accosted by Natwar Singh in the days after Dixit's death with entreaties to write in favour of abolishing the post of national security adviser ' that the external affairs minister was hell-bent on preventing another fountainhead of foreign policy from emerging in the prime minister's office. Manmohan Singh realized that the least troublesome way out of this imbroglio was to give the job to Narayanan, even if it meant displeasing the IFS lobby, which had come to view the national security adviser's job as its preserve. The prime minister made another compromise last week and made peace with the IFS lobby by appointing Vijay Nambiar, a diplomat of impeccable credentials, as deputy national security adviser.
For a ringside view of the prime minister's skills in managing diverse pulls and pressures and yet seeing through policies with clarity and vision, one need not, however, look beyond recent developments in the Research and Analysis Wing, India's external spy agency. RAW was in danger of being made redundant only a few weeks ago. The appointment of Hormis Tharakan, who has a credible record of service with the agency as RAW's new chief, helped salvage the agency in more ways than one.
Having upset carefully laid plans by those who wanted to see RAW buried or made an adjunct of the Intelligence Bureau, Singh had to agree to compromises. The most significant of these involved the cabinet secretary, B.K. Chaturvedi. Ashok Chaturvedi, who is related to the cabinet secretary, has been made RAW's deputy chief, although he had earlier been overlooked for promotion. The cabinet secretary declined to recuse himself from the committee which promoted his relative. According to the civil service grapevine in New Delhi, at least two government secretaries expressed themselves against restoring Ashok Chaturvedi's seniority, but the cabinet secretary dismissed their opinion.
But it is in the ministry of external affairs that Manmohan Singh's assertiveness has been most evident recently. Three days after General Pervez Musharraf expressed his interest in visiting India to watch cricket, the prime minister was unhappy that the minister for external affairs had failed to react to the General's initiative. It was, however, typical of Manmohan Singh that instead of pulling up South Block for this lapse, the PMO simply went ahead and announced that Musharraf was welcome in India. This has since been followed up by an expanded role for S.K. Lambah in the PMO on dealing with Pakistan. Lambah, a former envoy to Islamabad and India's one-time point man on post-Taliban Afghanistan, has already been given sensitive back-channel work in the run-up to Musharraf's forthcoming visit to New Delhi. He is expected to eventually fulfil the role played by Dixit in India's dealings with Pakistan.
Nambiar's appointment as deputy national security adviser similarly brings China back into the ambit of the PMO. It is one of the worst-kept secrets in New Delhi's diplomatic circles that the prime minister now relies more on K.S. Bajpai, former ambassador to Washington, for advice on Indo-US relations than on anyone in his own government. All of which suggests that Indian foreign policy is back to square one. After a brief period following Dixit's death, when the PMO conceded ground on external affairs to MEA, the initiative on foreign policy is back with the prime minister the way it has been from Nehru to Vajpayee, with a few exceptions that did little credit to India's image or standing.