Dec 3, 2008

India - Securing the home front

Even before he takes his first meeting, Home Minister P Chidambaram has one thing going for him— he takes over from a man whose reputation was so poor that anything his successor does will be a big improvement. More seriously, the home minister’s job requires, at the end of the day, attention to detail and the ability to ensure that various arms of the central and state governments work in tandem; even Mr Chidambaram’s critics cannot fault him on his attention to detail, his focus on getting a job done and his managerial competence. It is evident for instance that, contrary to what the former home minister may have claimed, there was sufficient intelligence pointing to an impending attack on Mumbai from the sea; indeed, Shivraj Patil himself warned of a sea-borne threat. But it would appear that there was no system in place to monitor the action taken on this intelligence.

An important decision that Mr Chidambaram will have to push through Parliament is the creation of a new “federal” agency (though, since India is a “union” of states, it would be a good idea to have the agency’s name reflect the reality). With elections due in five months, the agency will come up only after Mr Chidambaram demits office, but it is up to him to speed up the process. Mr Chidambaram will also be expected to get parliamentary approval for a new law to deal with terrorist activity, now that the government has decided that a new law is indeed required. However, this law should be drafted while keeping in mind the widespread misuse of its three predecessors (the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act), which was the reason why each of those laws had to be repealed.

Meanwhile, the obvious operational failures in responding to the Mumbai attack suggest their own solutions. It would seem, for instance, that there is no emergency plan of action of the type that got India’s soldiers on the ground in the Maldives within hours of a coup there, when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, or crack commandoes would not have been cooling their heels in Delhi waiting for an aircraft to come from Chandigarh, and then for surface transport arrangements in Mumbai. Couldn’t they have simply used a civilian aircraft, of which there is no shortage? Why was there a vacuum in the decision-making process? In any case, why should the National Security Guard be stationed only in Delhi? Even worse, navy commandoes were stationed much nearer Mumbai but were not pressed into action, pointing once again to the lack of a proper emergency drill. And were the commandoes given night-vision glasses, to operate in the dark (which would have given them a critical advantage over the terrorists)? There seem to be issues here that raise questions about training and equipping the commandoes properly. It may be a good idea to make comparisons with best practices in other countries.

The new home minister needs to be alert to the possibility of communal tensions escalating. For a start, he could ensure that the authorities in Mumbai do not keep leaking details of the investigation into the Malegaon case, since this could be a factor in escalating communal tensions.

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