Nov 29, 2008

India - Failures at the top

T N Ninan

The quote that stands out from the last three days is of the soldier who escorted to safety guests who had been herded into a salon in the Taj Mahal Hotel. “Don’t worry, the first bullet will hit me,” he said as he asked his frightened flock to follow him. That remark showed this unnamed hero's awareness that a wry sense of humour can help break the tension, it showed that he was not looking to his own safety, and it showed a confidence in his ability to manage the situation: he knew what he was doing. The question is, did the country’s leaders?

Think of Kargil. It was the soldiers who went willingly on suicide missions up steel mountain slopes as the enemy fired on them from above, paying with their lives for the failures of their generals. Or, to come back to the hotels under attack, every hotel guest who went through the ordeal has spoken of staff who kept their cool as they worked out options, were unfailingly courteous, looked to their guests’ comfort in every possible way, and even telephoned some guests to warn them not to come near the hotel because there was trouble. India has good luxury hotels with a high standard of service, but it would be hard to beat this demonstration of grace under pressure.

Do our politicians come off quite so well? It is impossible to not think of the relentless campaign mounted by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar against the officers of the anti-terrorist squad of the Mumbai police, for following the leads they had in the Malegaon case. All manner of accusations were made. So what do the critics have to say now, after Mr Karkare and Mr Kale have laid down their lives? Were these the kind of people who would have been playing political or communal games, or were they simply officers who did not shrink from doing their duty?

It was a great sight to see the professionalism of the commandos who shimmied down ropes from a helicopter onto building rooftops in order to storm into the floors below. But did Shivraj Patil cover himself in glory by revealing the time when the National Security Guard would reach Mumbai? And has he cared to admit his mistake publicly, or apologise to his forces? Or just resign?

The same pattern is repeated in different contexts and situations: the guys in the frontline do themselves credit, the chaps at the top fail at their jobs—and the poor sods lower down the food chain as well as innocent citizens pay the price. Among the people in the dock are those at the helm of government, for being unable to stop the steady stream of terrorist outrages month after relentless month, and for not finding a way to respond to 25 years of sustained low-grade warfare by Pakistan; the intelligence agencies for either not providing intelligence or not acting on them even when the terrorist operation involved is such a massive one (can we have a three-level warning system for the public as they do in the US: green, orange and red?); all those on the crisis management group who could not coordinate even a proper media briefing (or why would there be separate media briefings by the Mumbai police, the NSG, the army and so on?); and, to complete the list, hotel managements who should have thought of proper security, especially after what happened to the Marriott in Islamabad (why don’t our best hotels have even two-decade-old technology like access control swipe facilities inside elevators, so that only guests can access the rooms above?). Our failures are the failures of our leaders. But none of them ever pays the price. Or offers his head.

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