Chidambaram’s New Book Is Not A “Neutral Observer’s” Account

Chidambaram writes about what the UPA did right – while holding the NDA to account on its promise of achhe din.

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“The Opposition’s task in a parliamentary democracy is to ‘oppose, expose and depose’ the government of the day,” observes P Chidambaram in the introduction to his book Standing Guard: A Year in Opposition, which is a collection of his weekly columns published in The Indian Express over 2015.

Chidambaram, a Congress heavyweight and a former Finance Minister and Home Minister in the UPA government, freely admits that the pieces are not written from the standpoint of a “neutral observer”. Rather, they are written from the perspective of a member of a robust Opposition entrusted with the task of critiquing the current government’s plans, policies and politics.

Even so, it is to the writer’s credit that none of the articles in the book reads like a cantankerous diatribe against the NDA government. This is not the voice of a rabid partisan trying to shout the government down. Indeed, Chidambaram’s singular achievement here is that while he is unwavering in his effort to show up the missteps and shortcomings of the current dispensation, he manages to inform each piece with logic and reason.

Challenging the Government’s Claims

He may mock Prime Minister Narendra Modi or indeed, his government’s lack of delivery on promises made, but Chidambaram’s tone is always cool and civil, his arguments always backed by hard data and sharp analysis. Depending on your political affiliation, you may or may not find his conclusions palatable.

But for the vast majority of readers who don’t much care about the Left, Right or the Centre, and would merely like to prosper on the back of good governance, his lucid pieces on matters of policy and polity could make for compelling reading.

The articles in the book are not in chronological order, but are grouped thematically under various heads such as Governance, Economy, Budget, Policies and Programmes, Politics, Legislation and so on.

Chidambaram at the launch of his book.&nbsp;(Photo: <a href="https://twitter.com/Madrassan/status/703561109857390592">Twitter</a>)
Chidambaram at the launch of his book. (Photo: Twitter)

Since Chidambaram was India’s Finance Minister for six years, expectedly, he devotes a lot of analysis and column space to the current government’s achievements (or the lack thereof) in managing the economy.

He points to the “flat growth rate”: 7.3% in 2014-15, 7.0% in Q1 of 2015-16 and the “forecast of 7.3% for the whole of 2015-16”. He draws attention to the fact that not enough jobs are being created, that exports are down – October 2015 marked 11 consecutive months of negative growth, he writes in one piece.

He argues that contrary to the government’s claim, negative inflation in the wholesale price index is not a sign of economic health. Rather, it depresses the prices for producers, especially farmers, and leads to distress in the agricultural sector. Again and again, he posits the government’s claims on the economy with data that run counter to them.

What the UPA Did Right

Economy apart, Chidambaram also tackles a gamut of other issues in his columns. From OROP (One Rank One Pension for ex-servicemen) to the Goods and Services Tax Bill that is gathering dust in Parliament, from the debate over intolerance that roiled the nation last year to the rash of bans (beef, websites, documentaries, books, cuss words in films etc) that came into play, from the lessons of the Bihar polls to the Prime Minister’s studied silence when Sangh Parivar hotheads ran riot – the book captures the dominant leitmotifs of India, circa 2015.

Of course, each issue is seen unabashedly through the prism of political opposition. Almost every criticism of the government’s failings on the economic and social fronts — its sputtering development agenda and its roaring divisive voices – is accompanied by a pat on the back for the UPA years of 2004-2014.  

In fact, the columns are peppered with comparative data – UPA vs NDA – on a variety of indicators. We are told, for example, that between January and May 2015, incidents of communal violence had increased by 24% compared to the same period in 2014 and deaths in communal incidents had risen from 26 to 43.

The we-did-things-way-better narrative can be a tad jarring at times. But it is par for the course. And on the way, it does remind people of some interesting facts such as the clever repackaging of UPA schemes like Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan and No Frills (Zero Balance) Accounts into NDA flagship programmes like Swachh Bharat and Jan Dhan respectively.

The cover of Chidambaram’s book. (Photo: <a href="https://twitter.com/KartiPC/status/707438701090045953">Twitter</a>)
The cover of Chidambaram’s book. (Photo: Twitter)

Writing in May 2015, Chidambaram states blandly that 24 crore new accounts were opened under the UPA until March 2014 as against 12 crore accounts opened under the NDA.

In one of the pieces, he refers to a newspaper editorial which said: “The previous government did a decent job of running the economy but a lousy one of noticing it and letting the public know.”

Chidambaram, the politician-columnist, is clearly making amends here. He is letting people know what the UPA did right – while holding the NDA government to account on its promise of achhe din.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist)

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