Title: Standing Guard – A Year in Opposition; Author: P. Chidambaram; Publisher: Rupa Publications; Pages: 206; Price: Rs.500
P. Chidambaram is perhaps unique in Indian politics in having held both the home and finance portfolios when the Congress ruled, which give his writing the authority of a practitioner of public policy, who as insider to government has the experience of implementing his convictions on good economics.
This – his second such book – is a collection of 51 essays, earlier published as a series of columns in the Indian Express, covering a wide range, from the 2015 Bihar elections, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill and union budgets, to the debates surrounding the Land Acquisition amendment ordinances, foreign policy and the alarming rise of intolerance in the country.
Displaying clarity of expression, command over data, mastery over detail and understanding of electoral politics, Chidambaram provides an agenda of debate, giving insight into the complex links between economics and politics from an insider’s perspective, but expressed now as an outsider.
Speaking of the great discipline inculcated by writing these weekly “900-word” columns, at the launch here of the book, Chidamabaram said a period out of office was very valuable for a politician to rethink stated positions, as well as reflect on why so many policies fail to deliver.
“Only outside of government do youm realise the limitations of government, and as to how you can improve governance. After 60 years we still don’t know how to make our laws and policies litigation proof,” Chidambaram, a practising lawyer, told the audience that included former prime minister Manmohan Singh and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi.
A great example of Chidamaram’s call for the return of compassion into politics is available from his time in government from his position on the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
“As home minister, I was convinced that AFSPA deserved to be repealed. Many senior officers of the CRPF and BSF agreed that they could discharge their responsibilities just as well without AFSPA,” he writes.
“The Tripura chief minister has actually removed AFSPA. The state hasn’t gone into the militants’ hands,” he said at the book launch.
On the pan-India Goods and Services Tax (GST), proposed by Chidambaram himself in the budget for 2005-06, he explains the current Congress position on the matter.
He writes: “Section 18 of the Bill imposes an additional tax of not more than 1 percent on goods in the course of inter-state trade that will be assigned to the states. This is a retrograde provision and negates the very character of GST. The Chief Economic Advisor Dr.Arvind Subramanian has criticised this provision.”
It is reassuring to have someone like Chidambaram in the political opposition, standing guard, as he declared that he was “proud to be in opposition, but I am not an enemy of the government and ruling establishment” to what appeared to be a rejuvenated opposition from the many former union ministers in the audience and the likes of former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah, CPI-M leader Sitaram Yechuri and JD-U leader Pavan Verma.