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March of the faithful
Sushil Kumar Shinde's rise from sub-inspector to home minister has been meteoric. But is an affable nature and loyalty to the Gandhis enough to tackle the challenges of the new portfolio?
Few in the Congress were surprised when Sushil Kumar Shinde was chosen for a double promotion to Union home minister and Leader of the Lok Sabha, a move necessitated by Pranab Mukherjee's shift to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Despite the fact that the posts are both challenging and high profile, he was the acknowledged frontrunner, being blessed with gifts that guarantee success: he's a Dalit, has a modest and unassuming nature and above all, is totally loyal to the dynasty that rules the Congress.
He proved his devotion for the umpteenth time very recently when he put his services at Priyanka Vadra's disposal during the UP assembly elections to help her with her campaign in the family pocket boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli. His unostentatious demeanour meant his arrival in the locality went unheralded. It also caused confusion because someone had forgotten to make arrangements for his stay. According to a source who was present, Shinde shrugged it all off and curled up for the night with Priyanka's security guards. "That's how dedicated he is to the Gandhi family, " the source marvelled in the hushed tones Congressmen are wont to use when speaking of the first family.
Admittedly, stories like this hardly inspire confidence in the man who is supposed to protect us from terrorists, snuff out the Maoists, oversee a creaking intelligence system and tackle hard-nosed chief ministers while simultaneously leading the government charge in the Lok Sabha and coaxing a belligerent opposition to pass pending Bills. But then, the Congress is not known to match skill sets with job requirements. And Shinde has been a perennial favourite whose name crops up whenever an important vacancy arises, be it chief minister of Maharashtra or vice president of India.
Shinde's meteoric rise from a lowly police sub inspector to Sonia's man for all posts is no mean feat. It is all the more remarkable when seen in the context of his early start in politics as a protêgê of NCP leader Sharad Pawar who encouraged him to contest an assembly bye-election in 1973 from Karmala in Solapur, Maharashtra. If one were to pinpoint the moment he became the Gandhi family's blue-eyed (pun unintended ) boy from Maharashtra, it would perhaps be the day he chose Sonia over Pawar during the tumultuous events of 1999. Shinde stayed back in the Congress when Pawar split the party after being expelled for challenging Sonia's leadership on grounds of her "foreign origin". It was the ultimate proof of loyalty for a Maharashtra Congress leader and Shinde earned the gratitude of the Gandhis, particularly Priyanka who never forgave Pawar for making an issue of her mother's Italian birth. There must have been a sense of immense satisfaction in winning over someone who was supposed to be a Pawar acolyte.
Shinde hasn't looked back since. He was drafted in to assist Priyanka in Amethi where Sonia was making her electoral debut in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls. Three years later, the Congress fielded him as its nominee in the vice presidential elections against the BJP's Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Shinde lost but a year later, he was chosen by Sonia to replace Vilasrao Deshmukh who was forced to resign from the post of chief minister in Maharashtra because of internal wrangling and corruption charges.
He would have continued as CM after leading the Congress to victory in the 2004 state elections but for a last minute coup by the Maratha lobby which succeeded in reinstalling Deshmukh. Congress circles still talk of his quiet compliance with the decision but Sonia was upset that she was unable to reward Shinde for his electoral success as promised and is believed to have vowed to make it up to him. She immediately sent him to Andhra Pradesh as governor. A year later, he came to Delhi as a Rajya Sabha MP and Union power minister. Although he reportedly earned Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's displeasure for non-performance, Shinde could not be touched. And now, the twin promotions, even though he presided over two consecutive blackouts in north India as power minister.
Shinde's core strength is his close ties with the entire Gandhi family, Sonia and her children, Rahul and Priyanka. His first comments after his elevation were to thank Sonia for making a Dalit the home minister of the country. He followed that up by recalling that it was Rajiv Gandhi who first thought of putting a Dalit, Buta Singh, in this sensitive position. "The Gandhi family has always taken care of the welfare of the backward castes, " he said.
But he also has a remarkable ability to win friends all over and retain them. "He's a really nice man and very affable, " said a Congress leader. Indeed, Shinde has proved to be an astute diplomat, keeping up with Pawar even while swearing allegiance to Sonia. He has also managed to juggle friendships with the NCP chief as well as Sonia loyalist Shivraj Patil to maintain a stranglehold over the Solapur Lok Sabha seat where their communities, Maratha and Lingayat, dominate.
Shinde's real challenge begins now that he's in the hot seat. There are many who believe that his soft approach will be a relief. Chidambaram's activism ended up exacerbating social tensions, particularly in Telengana and Maoist-controlled areas which have seen increased violence during his tenure. At the same time, Shinde's gaffes in Parliament have left the Congress red-faced. His "filmy" remark to Jaya Bachchan was particularly unfortunate and he was forced to apologise to her.
It is interesting that Sonia seems to be acutely aware of Shinde's limitations even while she plies him with the loaves and fishes of power. For instance, in the Lok Sabha, she has led from the front, intervening aggressively to make up for his timidity. And for the moment, she has not included him in the core committee which is the all-important mechanism for communication between Sonia and the government. But for the man himself, life has never been this good.
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