BJP in search of a FM: When Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram rebuffed its overtures

Past precedents would lead one to believe in unconfirmed reports that the BJP tried and failed to secure the support of former finance minister P. Chidambaram

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh and former finance minister P. Chidambaram.
Former prime minister Manmohan Singh and former finance minister P. Chidambaram.
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Sujata Anandan

In the mid-1990s when it began to become apparent that the Congress would go out of power both in Maharashtra and the Centre, there were two practical leaders of both the Shiv Sena and the BJP, who readily admitted that their parties were hopelessly inadequate at finding the right talent for the right job.

Pramod Navalkar of the Shiva Sena was more upright and honest. “We do not have anyone to match the calibre of Sharad Pawar for the job of chief minister. Nor do we have anyone as erudite as VN Gadgil (who was then the spokesperson of the ruling Congress Party). How will we find and train anybody to suit the job?”

Pramod Mahajan of the BJP had no doubts about the adequacy of Atal Behari Vajpayee as prime minister but he, too was agonising about how his party would find a suitable finance minister. The BJP, then as now, believed in making up for the talent deficit by stealing from other parties, so their plans were afoot long before Vajpayee was sworn in for his first term of 13 days in government.

They were eyeing Dr Manmohan Singh, the finance minister in the P.V. Narasimha Rao government and thought he would be an easy catch. “He is just a bureaucrat, not a career politician or even a blue-blooded Congressman. He agreed to bail out the Rao government in a period of crisis and it will not be difficult to persuade him to help out the BJP.”

To his chagrin, Mahajan discovered Dr Singh was not for sale, even if he was not a career politician. Mahajan did not say much when we probed him but we gathered the impression that Dr Singh's loyalty to the Congress and Rao who had given him the opportunity of his lifetime proved insurmountable.

The BJP's second choice had been P. Chidambaram who was then with the Tamil Maanila Congress. But Mahajan seemed very upset at Chidambaram’s searing speech against the Vajpayee government during the vote of confidence that Vajpayee would not have won in any case.

For the BJP was short by 72 MPs of a majority and though Mahajan and his fellow MP Kirit Somaiya thought their bags would be enough to persuade these MPs to cross over, at least Mahajan realised then why it would be impossible for some politicians to ally with the BJP.

Had Dr Singh done so, his reputation would have been that of an opportunist and not someone who was destined to pull India out of the doldrums not once but twice. He also would not have been prime minister (though neither he nor any of us could have foreseen that then).

For Chidambaram as a politician from Tamil Nadu it would have been suicidal to associate with the BJP -then as now, for even today it is only Tamil Nadu and Kerala who have kept the BJP at bay.

Vajpayee, though, found his own finance minister – former bureaucrat Yashwant Sinha, who my then editor-in-chief at the Hindustan Times, Vir Sanghvi, described on one of his TV shows as the “worst finance minister” India could ever have.

That might have been true then though Sinha did not drive the economy to the ground. But the worst was yet to come. The late Arun Jaitley during his five-year stint as finance minister in the first Narendra Modi government, who inherited a brilliant economy from Dr Singh and Chidambaram, drove it into the ground.

But if we thought that was worse than any finance minister in India, the last four months have proved Nirmala Sitharaman to be even more clueless and hopelessly inadequate for the job.

She has already rolled back her maiden budget almost entirely and I do not know if we have an economy now or not. For everything is crashing – the auto industry, to begin with. I recently received a call from a car manufacturer pleading with me to buy a new vehicle and they were offering a 50 percent discount for one of their top models in the country!

Sitharaman’s solution of getting government to buy cars to offset their losses is like using a bucket of water to put out a forest fire and I wonder if her solution will run to asking all government officials to buy loads of underwear to help the innerwear industry, which is going into recession.

And will only Parle G biscuits be served to all visitors to government buildings or will this include Britannia which is also seeing a slowdown? But then what about Hindustan Aeronautics Limited which might have to shut down operations – hasn’t the Rafael deal already gone to a private manufacturer who is himself bankrupt and has no experience of manufacturing an aircraft?

Real estate too is reporting a crash, so are fast moving consumer goods and, of all things, soaps and hair oil and related cosmetics. I suppose the government can buy all these up with our taxpayers' money and we should all applaud until we have run out of our own savings?

But this is now why I, in the background of Mahajan’s attempt to steal Dr Singh and Chidambaram years ago from the Congress, am beginning to believe the unconfirmed reports, that the BJP tried to buy Chidambaram again under threat of prosecution and he once again turned down the offer.

The BJP is desperately in need of an intelligent person to resurrect the economy and who better than Chidambaram to pull their fat out of the fire? Dr Singh, of course is out of bounds now forever.

However, I am glad to see that some things like loyalty are still not for sale and marvel at the absolute depths that a party that set so much store by Indian culture and values could sink to.

Along with a notice to Maharashtra Navnirman Sena president Raj Thackeray by the Enforcement Directorate, it is clear that the current dispensation thinks everyone can be frightened, bribed, cajoled or threatened into submission.

Both Chidambaram and Raj are proving they are made of sterner stuff and have enough courage of their political convictions to take on these mighty bullies. In these dark times in India, they hold out a glimmer of hope to us all.

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