| Chinese foreign minister Li Zhaoxing greets Pranab Mukherjee before their meeting at the UN headquarters in New York on Saturday. Picture by Jay Mandal/On Assignment
Nainital, Sept. 24: The government of India came under attack but the defence minister was missing.
The finance minister’s rarefied logic was proving a flimsy shield and the academic-turned-Prime Minister was looking around for support. None came even from Sonia Gandhi.
As the Congress’s general secretaries and 14 chief ministers turned up the heat on the Centre today, the party president seemed to be enjoying the government-versus-party battle.
It was at this moment that Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram would have badly missed a figure in specs who was away in New York shaking hands with Nato secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Schaffer.
Pranab Mukherjee, with his experience, fund of anecdotes and ability to bury critics under an avalanche of facts and figures, would have been Singh’s best bet as trouble-shooter on the second and final day of the party chief ministers’ conference.
Like a good lawyer, Chidambaram argued well, but to many in the restless audience, his dispassionate, clinical arguments lacked political savvy and sensitivity.
The more the finance minister resisted a national agriculture credit act and changes to the money-lending act, the more he put his adversaries’ back up.
For instance, he pleaded he couldn’t intervene in agriculture as it was a state subject. Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda immediately shot back: “Then why have we been called here'”
Again, when Chidambaram shot down the demand for a one-time loan waiver to the drought-affected states’ farmers, an All India Congress Committee member said: “It is this mindset that is posing problems for the government.”
The finance minister had started with a disadvantage, anyway. Most of the criticism targeted Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar’s agriculture ministry, and Chidambaram was forced to defend decisions he did not personally support.
Embattled home minister Shivraj Patil, under fire for his failures on internal security, sat grim-faced through the day but never tried to take on the party.
The minister of state for commerce and industry, too, found himself on the ropes when he opposed raising import duty on cotton. Even Manmohan asked Jairam Ramesh: “Why do you not increase import duty on cotton'”
The session on agriculture saw general secretaries Digvijay Singh, Margaret Alva, Satyavrat Chaturvedi and Janardhan Dwivedi pounce on the Punjab and Haryana chief ministers.
While Hooda fumbled with his replies, Amarinder Singh was sharp. Attacked for providing farmland for special economic zones, he said: “In Punjab, I do not have an inch of barren land.”
He defended setting up five SEZs, saying he needed alternatives to agriculture. “If I do not do this, nobody will come to Punjab. Hasn’t the Volkswagen project gone to Bengal instead of Punjab'”