Will P.Chidambaram succeed Mr Manmohan Singh The Economist article
Dec 1st 2012 | from the print edition
HE HAS always looked like the cat that got the cream. Now Palaniappan Chidambaram, India’s finance minister, may feel he can start lapping. Chubby-cheeked, bespectacled and often sporting a self-satisfied, feline grin, the 67-year-old Mr Chidambaram is a veteran of the tortuous politics of the Congress party, which heads a battered governing coalition. Long a cabinet minister, it was assumed that as a big-brained southern Tamil with a posh English accent and almost no voter base, he could not hope for the highest party or government post. Yet, since “PC” (he loathes his other nickname, “Chids”) returned to the finance ministry in August, his fortunes have brightened.
Take his part, for instance, in the week’s two big political events. Parliament threatened to topple the government some 18 months before elections are due. A stroppy former ally, Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal, wanted a no-confidence motion. This effort fell to bits, but the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did demand a vote on the government’s plan to allow foreign supermarkets to invest in India’s huge (and hugely inefficient) retail industry—the issue over which Ms Banerjee had flounced out of the cabinet in September. If the government had lost the vote, it would, just about, have been finished.
Without an outright majority in either house in parliament, Congress had to do some adroit alliance-building. Mr Chidambaram is not known for that: many MPs find him snooty, impatient, argumentative and dismissive—he is, after all, a Harvard-educated lawyer. Yet his bedside manner is improving, says a close observer. At an all-party meeting this week he cajoled and coaxed with aplomb. In conversation he says that letting foreigners invest in shops is mostly a symbolic move—a mood-changer—to restore confidence, but also that it would create jobs. Both are needed: of late the economy has become lacklustre (for India), growing by 5.5% or so this year, far below its average of the past decade. In the end, enough allies—notably a Tamil party, the DMK—said they would back the government in a vote on supermarkets. PC’s part in the negotiations is a feather in his cap.
Then on November 27th the finance minister shoved himself forward again, announcing dates for a grand welfare reform that has been in the works all year. The idea is to switch from benefits in kind and subsidies to cash-transfers into bank accounts, with beneficiaries identified by biometric data. That should cut waste and corruption. It is a rare reformist policy that voters might like; even the opposition is cheering. From January 1st, said Mr Chidambaram, 51 districts will start cash transfers for 29 benefits schemes. By the end of next year—handily, almost on the eve of polling—all India’s 629 districts should be covered.
Once a fierce opponent of the biometric scheme, Mr Chidambaram now hails it as the flagship programme of the second term of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh. He even used a speech on the subject in Jaipur last month to give his first-ever public address completely in Hindi. Asked about that, he is uncharacteristically bashful. Yet, the import is obvious: if you have the highest ambitions in India, Hindi helps. It is the official national language, and mother tongue of the politically powerful north.
So Mr Chidambaram’s clout grows, just as India’s flabbily inactive government starts showing more sense of purpose than at any point since Mr Singh’s re-election in 2009. And though the economy is not yet revving up again, the efficient, punctual Mr Chidambaram is seen as making a push for it to do so (“old Chids will save us,” chortles a fan). If inflation and then interest rates were to fall in the next couple of months, as looks likely, a deft budget in the spring could send his standing higher than ever.
Some commentators dismiss as laughable the notion that he might dream of replacing the 80-year-old Mr Singh when the prime minister at last throws in the towel. But look around and Mr Chidambaram—aloof, patrician and tainted in some eyes by unproven allegations of corruption—stands out, faute de mieux. His fiercest rival used to be Pranab Mukherjee, the (lousy) finance minister he succeeded. The two clashed a year ago, during a spat over a vast telecoms scandal. But Mr Mukherjee was sidelined, booted upstairs to become India’s president. Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that holds Congress together, was supposed to be the pretender. But even his cheerleaders are now too embarrassed to predict when Rahul the Unready will screw up the courage to join in at the pinnacle of Indian politics. And though Sonia Gandhi, Congress’s president, expects, health permitting, to hold on to back-room power, she needs a partner to front the show.
If she trusts him, Mr Chidambaram may fit the bill. He is solicitous towards her, knowing he needs her support, for example, against those pesky accusations of graft. But he is not as fawning as many towards the dynasty. In 1996 he dared quit Congress for a breakaway Tamil party, returning only in 2004. Nor does he believe that a Nehru-Gandhi leader is essential, pointing out that Congress coped for much of the 1990s without one.
For all that, it is hard at the moment to see Mr Chidambaram—or any of his party rivals—as a credible prime-ministerial candidate. But the great fillip for Congress is that leaders of the BJP are too busy scrapping with each other to produce one either. The party may end up falling in behind the bearlike Narendra Modi. He expects to win re-election at state polls next month as Gujarat’s chief minister, but finds national support elusive because of his reputation as a hardline scourge of the Muslim minority. Mr Modi is also admired as the most competent economic manager among Indian state leaders. With him at the fore, the next election could become a contest over whom voters trust more with the economy: all the more reason, perhaps, to field Congress’s smug feline against the BJP’s gruff bear.