The emergence of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval as a power centre in the PMO has clipped Singh's wings.
It is rumoured that Rajnath Singh did not want to join the Narendra Modi government. But the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh wanted him in. The obedient swayamsevak that he is, Singh gave in. Ten months into his tenure, it seems he is yet to get over the mental block, if you go by the functioning of his ministry.
Every other day Singh and the home ministry court controversy. Two weeks ago, the Congress rocked Parliament accusing the Delhi Police―which is under Singh's ministry―of snooping on party vice president Rahul Gandhi. Three weeks ago, when separatist leader Masarat Alam was released from jail by the PDP-BJP government in Jammu and Kashmir, Singh was clueless about it. He was out of the loop in the negotiations between BJP general secretary Ram Madhav and the PDP leadership. Madhav reported to BJP president Amit Shah, who, in turn, kept Modi posted. Governor N.N. Vohra, too, is said to have directly dealt with the Prime Minister's Office.
On March 23, while speaking at the annual conference of state minority commissions, Singh said a strong anti-conversion law was needed in the country. Then, on March 30, he said in Indore that he favoured a ban on cow slaughter “across the country”. This was when the topic had triggered heated discussions and no consensus emerged. Even some BJP-ruled states had ruled out the possibility of a ban.
Knee-jerk reactions have become the trade mark of the home ministry. When the BBC aired a documentary which had an interview of a convict in the 2012 Delhi gang-rape and murder, the ministry banned it in India. The misjudgment became apparent when the ban attracted wide criticism and the documentary went viral on the internet. Even Kiran Bedi, who was the BJP's chief minister candidate in the Delhi assembly elections, tweeted her displeasure about the ban. In December, the government summarily banned the popular taxi hailing service Uber, after a woman was allegedly raped by a cab driver in Gurgaon.
Suggesting that the government was not a “Twitter machine” to react at an even speed, former home secretary G.K. Pillai said it reacted “too quickly without applying its mind” in many recent issues. “When the government speaks, it has larger ramifications. Therefore, functionaries in the government should think twice before making a statement. The important thing in the functioning of the government is to hold its response for a while,” he said.
The ten months of flip-flops has perplexed many of Singh's admirers in the party. They recall him as a taskmaster and an able administrator. “It was the same Singh who, as the education minister in Uttar Pradesh, had made stern intervention against the practice of cheating in examinations in schools and colleges,” said an associate. “When he was chief minister for a brief period, he put his foot down to crush notorious musclemen in the state.”
The 'Thakur from Mirzapur', in fact, is one of the most ambitious politicians in the BJP. “Rajnathji has a knack of working for the next higher position after acquiring a post,” said a close aide who has been with Singh for a long time. Many BJP leaders said it was a strategic move by Singh to stake all his political capital on Modi as the BJP's prime minister candidate despite reservations by the L.K. Advani camp. By doing so, his aim was to become 'next best choice' if the BJP runs short of majority, said a party source.
Singh sees himself as the political heir of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He tactically chose to contest the Lucknow seat in the Lok Sabha elections as it was represented by Vajpayee. Also, Lucknow has a sizeable Muslim population and the winner here is perceived to have a 'token secular image'. In fact, Singh has friends in all political parties. Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Sharad Yadav and Mamata Banerjee share warm relations with him. “He is good at politics of conciliation,” said an associate. When local heavyweight Harin Pathak was denied ticket from Ahmedabad East in the Lok Sabha elections, it was Singh who persuaded him not to contest as a rebel candidate.
Singh’s reluctance to join the government was attributed to his notion that Modi would carry on with his Gujarat model of administration, in which ministers played largely ceremonial roles. He wanted to continue as the party president, but the RSS wanted its trusted lieutenant in the cabinet. While Nitin Gadkari, the other RSS nominee in the government, has ensured a fair amount of autonomy in the functioning of his ministries (road transport, highways and shipping), Singh appears pinned down by too many heavyweights. He was not even allowed to select an officer of his choice as his personal secretary. Though he wanted Uttar Pradesh cadre IPS officer Alok Singh, he got Uttarakhand cadre IAS officer Nitesh Kumar Jha.
The contrasting trajectories of Singh and Gadkari in the government are attributed to their respective political strengths. “Gadkari’s strength is his Nagpur connection. Singh, in contrast, has emerged as a mass leader from a state which has elected the maximum number of prime ministers. Besides, he had been BJP president for three terms,” said a senior BJP functionary.
Singh, however, is the official second in command in the government. There is a standing order that he would be stationed in Delhi when the prime minister is away. But it appears to be just 'paper work', as, for instance, in most proposals on appointments of senior bureaucrats his approval is taken 'ex post facto'. The bold print at the bottom of most proposals to the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) says, “Approval of the home minister will be obtained ex post facto in the ACC.” On June 18, the cabinet secretariat issued a circular saying the ACC would comprise the prime minister and home minister, doing away with a January 2013 circular which included the concerned minister in the ACC. “The footnotes were introduced by the cabinet secretary,” said a source.
Pillai, who was home secretary under P. Chidambram and a joint secretary during Advani’s tenure as home minister in the Vajpayee government, said the new practice of appointing senior officers is a clear departure from the past. “Only in a few rare cases the home minister was overruled or sidelined in matters of appointments in the past. So far the practice was that before making a formal proposal the prime minister and the home minister discussed the name informally and agreed upon that,” he said.
The emergence of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval as a power centre in the PMO has clipped Singh's wings. Doval is said to have overruled Singh’s choice of Ajit Lal, former chief of Joint Intelligence Committee, as the chief interlocutor for talks with the Naga outfits in favour of R.N. Ravi, the current chief of JIC. A source said Doval was directly in touch with the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and National Security Guard (NSG), which report to the home ministry. Though Doval makes it a point to attend meetings on infrastructure, which are chaired by the prime minister's principal secretary Nripendra Mishra, he often avoids the daily morning security review meetings in the North Block, which are chaired by Singh. That Modi deputed Doval to visit the site of the Burdwan bomb blast in West Bengal in October 2014, rather than letting the home minister take charge, illustrates the power equations in the ministry. Doval met Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and handed over a list of 180 suspected terrorists hiding in the state.
Pillai found Doval’s overarching ways of functioning quite intriguing, as, in the past, the NSAs never directly interfered with the affairs of the home ministry. “I, as home secretary, never received a call from the NSA with any kind of direction,” he said. “The NSAs used to seek reports and they were provided to them by security establishments through the channels within the home ministry.”
It is not just Doval. Haribhai Chaudhary, minister of state at the home ministry, is a close aide of Modi. A former vice president of the BJP in Gujarat, Chaudhary is learnt to be calling the shots on most of the important matters pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir, left-wing extremism, internal security, foreigners, union territories and police modernisation. Within days of taking charge in November last year, he started asserting himself in the North Block. Intelligence Bureau chief Dineshwar Sharma, National Investigation Agency director general Sharad Kumar and some additional and joint secretaries in the ministry are regularly seen waiting for an audience with him. An official said Chaudhary was the “eyes and ears of Modi” in the ministry.
Singh, however, has managed to get a coterie of officials to fall back on. Additional secretary A.K. Singh (Uttar Pradesh cadre), who handles the sensitive Centre-state relations, and joint secretary M.A. Ganapathy (Uttarakhand cadre), who looks after the internal security division, had served him when he was Uttar Pradesh chief minister. Singh's other close aides are Sudhanshu Trivedi, his personal astrologer and former political adviser, and Amrendra Tiwari, who handles his social media.
Singh takes special care to keep his RSS links intact. A few months ago, he dashed off to Kerala when an RSS activist was killed, allegedly by some political opponents. He has been stoically silent on the emergence of hardline hindutva forces in various parts of the country. Even the ghar wapsi (reconversion to Hinduism) drive by some hindutva organisations, which accounted for a near washout of the Rajya Sabha proceedings in the winter session, did not elicit any response from him. As the issue snowballed into a major controversy, it was Parliamentary Affairs Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu who came to Singh's aid.
The Congress's Rajya Sabha member P. Bhattacharya said the home minister was being utilised for implementing the RSS agenda. “When the police are indulging in snooping activities, churches are being torched, nuns are being raped and ghar wapsi programmes are being allowed unabated, the government and the home minister appear to have shut their eyes deliberately,” he said.
The RSS approves of Singh's ability to take along large sections within the party. When Advani had to quit as BJP president for praising Muhammad Ali Jinnah during a Paksitan visit, Singh was the natural choice to fill the vacancy. He was again called up when Gadkari had to quit as party chief over alleged misappropriation in a business concern his family owned. Singh's troubles started days after he joined the Modi government, when gossip began doing the rounds suggesting that Modi summoned Singh’s son Pankaj and admonished him for his misdemeanour. The PMO and the home minister took to Twitter to deny it. But the Congress did not waste the opportunity to taunt the home minister. “We would like to know very politely from Rajnath Singhji that when the Congress as the main opposition party did not make any such allegation, who levelled these allegations against his son?” asked Congress leader Ajay Maken.
The rumour has subsided, but Singh has slipped into a shell of being a reactive minister and is mostly seen these days giving clarifications on controversies raised by opposition parties and the media. It was evident in the way he handled the naxal threat. In September 2014, he ruled out talks with the Maoists. But after an attack that killed 14 men of the Central Reserve Police Force in Sukma in Chhattisgarh on December 1, he said Maoists were welcome for talks. Also, a policy initiative of the government, which is expected to give a major push to anti-naxalite operations in 10 states, is yet to take off.
Singh's transition from BJP president to home minister is, at best, a work in progress. And Singh knows that there has not been much progress. Which is why there are reports that he wants to get back to party work. With Amit Shah at the helm of affairs, it may not be as easy as it seems.
Singh out of sync
Singh was silent on the ghar wapsi programme, which led many to believe that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was calling the shots in the government.
The ban on cab provider Uber, after one of its drivers allegedly raped a Delhi woman, was seen as a knee-jerk reaction that did not have any long-lasting impact on women's safety.
In December, Singh said the Maoists were a 'national challenge' and the government would succeed in 'tackling the menace'. But no concrete steps have been taken and the Maoists are apparently gaining ground in the northeast and in states like Kerala.
The government banned India’s Daughter, a documentary on the Nirbhaya rape case. BJP leader Kiran Bedi blasted the decision on Twitter.
The lookout notice issued against Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai was quashed by the Delhi High Court.
There were allegations of corruption against Singh’s son Pankaj, who is the general secretary of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. Prime Minister Narendra Modi apparently admonished Pankaj and Singh.
National Security Adviser Ajit Doval seems to have sidelined Singh.
The beef ban in Maharashtra led to widespread criticism. Singh has now said that the government will use “all its might” to ban it nationwide.
The release of Masarat Alam, a Hurriyat leader, sparked controversy. Singh, however, was not consulted on the issue as others from the BJP talked to Peoples Democratic Party leaders.
Congress workers gathered outside Singh’s residence to protest the government's alleged snooping on their leader Rahul Gandhi.