New Delhi: After the Hyderabad blasts and Sushil Kumar Shinde’s abject failure, it is important to ask this: What makes a successful home minister? And, why was Sardar Patel, India’s first home minister, such a brilliant hit?

Sardar Patel was one of M.K.Gandhi’s close aides, perhaps the closest. Because he was a blind follower of Gandhi, he unquestioningly accepted his decision that Jawaharlal Nehru be independent India’s first prime minister. In no way was Patel less, and perhaps, seeing his foresight on Chinese perfidy in 1962, his remarkable success in integrating the princely states without bloodshed, and his bias towards market economics, being a Gujarati, with entrepreneurship running in his veins, he would have arguably been a better prime minister than Nehru. But once Gandhi indicated his preference for Nehru, Patel gave him full loyalty as home minister.

In other words, Patel was capable of being prime minister but was content to be number two since that was Gandhi’s wish. That is the first quality to seek in a home minister. He must be politically and intellectually equipped to be prime minister, which means he must bring considerable more weight than required to his office. No Indian home minister except Patel carried this quality, although some of his successors went on to become prime ministers.

Then, the home minister must be self-assured, a visionary, and a political heavyweight such as Patel. To be a first-class home minister, you must have intimate knowledge and understanding of the country. Patel had this on account of being a political organizer and freedom fighter which entailed crisscrossing the country and meeting all sections of people ceaselessly. Without this grasp of the country, you cannot be a politician of any class, leave along a heavyweight. And when the essential requirement for a home minister is a heavyweight, the candidates are few or none.

It is because Patel was a front-ranking political leader who could hold his own apropos Gandhi and Nehru that he was so successful in bringing the princely states into the Union. In the negotiations with the princely rulers, Patel played tough and cool, applied psychological pressure, gave glimpses of the military power of the Indian state when necessary, and broke their resistance. If Nehru had been in Patel’s place, there would have been nearly six hundred Jammu and Kashmir clones clamouring for independence.

When Patel was home minister, the buck stopped with him. It didn’t travel up to the prime minister. Everyone knew this. He never became the alternate power centre to Nehru, although he was the deputy prime minister. That would have been militating against Gandhi. But he ensured that there was no interference in the running of the home ministry, not even from Nehru. So everyone negotiating opposite the table or glowering across the fence from Patel knew he was the boss. There was no circumventing him and the home ministry.

No prime minister would like such a powerful home minister. Nehru, inherently an authoritarian, was relieved when the Patel era ended, rather quickly in 1950, despite his respect and admiration for him. Indira Gandhi and her successors in the prime minister’s office have sought yes-men to head the home ministry, with the exception A.B.Vajpayee who chose L.K.Advani, who, however, was not equal to the assignment.

Given this background, this writer has no hope that things will improve in the Union home ministry. Shinde may be an awful home minister, but his predecessor, P.Chidambaram, wasn’t any better, despite the flash and fawning media coverage. If Chidambaram had set up systems that work and do not undermine the states, such as the controversial National Counter Terrorism Centre, the blasts in Hyderabad, or earlier in Poona and Delhi, may have been preempted.

Chidambaram and Shinde’s problem is that they are political ciphers. They don’t know the country and even less the ground situation. Neither has vision or wisdom. They fail on all the Sardar Patel parameters. Manmohan Singh may or may not want a Sardar Patel. But Sonia Gandhi won’t stand for Sardar Patel II. Two good candidates for the home ministry, Arjun Singh and Pranab Mukherjee, were denied the appointment when the United Progressive Alliance came to power for the first time in 2004. Given his performance as foreign minister, Pranab should have been alright. But Arjun Singh, despite his angularities, would have been outstanding. But the fear they provoked in Sonia Gandhi worked to their disadvantage, and to the favour of the sharp dresser and champion bungler, Shivraj Patil. It has been downhill since.

Could the situation be retrieved? Not till the United Progressive Alliance is in power. Like the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Intelligence Bureau is being misused for political purposes. This has naturally rendered the Bureau deficient in other areas, including counter-terrorism. The result is the blasts in Hyderabad. When institutions are being subverted in this fashion, how do you expect the security situation to improve?

Before writing this piece, this writer proposed recommending Jairam Ramesh immediately to succeed Shinde. Ramesh is the best minister in the Manmohan Singh government, is honest, has some vision, and he is willing to learn. He also travels to the interiors, and is politically engaged.

Jairam Ramesh would set things right in the home ministry, but for one or two problems. He is not liked by Manmohan Singh. Second, he is too close to 10 Janpath. He would be unable to resist 10 Janpath’s agenda in the home ministry, which is to target the opposition, principally Narendra Modi. It is hopeless. Sardar Patel would be helplessly raging in afterlife.