Dec 13, 2008

India - Beyond the ‘no security, no taxes’ slogan

Harish Khare

NEW PHENOMENON: Mumbaikars take part in a protest rally against the recent terror attacks. The currently fashionable anti-politician and anti-political-class anger can only embolden authoritarian figures and their anti-democratic ambitions.

Within two days of the terrorist attack on Mumbai, billboards were up in the city with the slogan, “no security, no taxes.” This theme was heard loud and clear on Wednesday, December 3, when Mumbaikars gathered in solidarity and protest at the Gateway of India. Courtesy one television channel, the country was given an elaborate discourse on the “no security, no taxes” thesis by actor Preity Zinta. She wanted to know why citizens like her should be p aying taxes when she and millions of others were being made to feel helpless and insecure in public places. She also catalogued a number of supposedly sound decisions which could have been taken, and some presumably ill-advised decisions which were shoved down the security forces’ organisational throat.

This “no security, no taxes” slogan reflects the larger mood of anger and disappointment with the political class, whether they occupy governing slots in Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad or Thiruvananthapuram. The officers and men who laid down their lives in Mumbai are the new national heroes. The Chief Minister of Kerala has been pilloried for his less than graceful comments about a slain officer’s family in Bangalore, while the Chief Minister of Gujarat was chastised for playing politics outside the Taj Mahal Hotel even as the security personnel were engaging the terrorists inside. The new mood is to insist on some semblance of accountability from those who claim to represent and speak for the “masses” on the strength of choosing to get involved in the “dirty” electoral politics.

Ironically, the “no security, no taxes” sentiment has come at time when, perhaps for the first time since Independence, the Central government did not feel diffident about its taxation regime. Over the last two years or so, the Union Finance Ministry has sponsored a public campaign exhorting citizens to pay taxes due from them to the government, by citing all the visible developmental projects that were being financed from the revenues so generated. This exhortation was predicated on the confidence of an honest job honestly done in the larger public interest. Taxes and their collection was no longer a coercive imposition but a necessary and justifiable exercise of the sovereign functions of the state; and compliance with tax demands was an obligatory element of good citizenship.

The “no security, no taxes” slogan, in fact, suggests that it is now the citizen’s turn to demand of the government to reciprocate with the requisite competence and commitment. The demand carries with it a suggestion that it is not enough that the citizens as voters get a chance, once in five years, to unseat a government that fails to instil a sense of confidence and security. The demand is an expression of anger against the political-bureaucratic establishment that remains satisfied with its minimalist performance. It would be worth everyone’s troubles if political leaders across party lines get jolted out of their self-created comfort zones. Only two years ago the Prime Minister held out a dream of making Mumbai another Shanghai. That dream lies shattered. And if we are not careful, Mumbai could become the metaphor for an ungovernable India.

It is imperative to use the new anger in a healthy and constructive manner so as to reinforce and renew the democratic institutions rather than weaken our collective capacity to face the terrorists’ challenge. If we allow the post-Mumbai anger to de-legitimise democratic politics, we may end up becoming another Pakistan with no institution retaining the credibility or the respectability to stand up to the practitioners of violence.

For example, for the first time the serving chief of an armed force has felt emboldened to question the performance of the electronic media during the Mumbai siege. Admittedly, the electronic media cannot take any pride in its performance, but there can be no doubt that the Chief of the Naval Staff must have felt he had the licence given the new mood of celebration of “martyrdom.” Certainly no political leader could take such a liberty.

The very raison d’etre of the modern state is its obligation to protect territorial integrity and secure the safety of its citizens in the face of challenges from within and outside; it is in pursuit of this responsibility that the state claims for itself the right to put in place stringent laws and to use available instruments of coercion to secure compliance with those laws and regulations. And, in times of war the modern state arrogates to itself the right to demand of its young men and women to go to the battlefield and, if necessary, die in defence of the motherland.

The Indian state has had no difficulty in asking its young men and women to shed blood in defence of its territorial integrity. Nor, for that matter, has the political leadership class found it distasteful to send armies into battlefields. Even military reverses such as the 1962 India-China engagement and the 1999 Kargil invasion, were used to whip up emotional bonding. Lata Mangehskar’s immortal song, Aaye mere vatan ke logo jara aak me bharlo pani, performed first in 1963, continues to move to this day. Traditional wars, fought between regular armies, garner glory and kudos for the political leadership.

The modern-day terrorist, however, has introduced a new element in this equation between the state and the citizen. The Indian state finds itself having to fight a faceless enemy, yet having to reassure its citizens of their safety. It is the terrorist, particularly of the jihadi breed, who is demonstratively willing to die, whereas the state finds it difficult to demand of its citizens the same degree of intensity of loyalty and obedience. The post-Mumbai mood, expressed and being instigated in the “no security, no taxes” campaign, could end up giving an upper hand to the terrorist.

Notwithstanding the very unreal “soft-versus-hard-on-terror” argument among the political parties and leaders, there has been a vast expansion of security outfits and personnel but without any sensible debate on the nature of the terrorist and what it would take to defeat him. Because of a partisan and divided political class, the security agencies, including intelligence agencies, have been happy to take the leaders for a ride. For nearly a decade, a section of the intelligence establishment has convinced a significant part of the political leadership that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence was the source of all of India’s troubles. In the process, the gullible leadership never acquired the nerve to ask the agencies to perform better and in a different manner. It may be that if the political leadership has not been able to make more exacting demands on the vast security apparatus it is because the entire architecture of democratic governance has developed visible credibility cracks. While it is entirely natural that the post-Mumbai anger is used to send down a message that “business as usual” would not do, it cannot serve any lasting purpose if in the process we end up depleting the legitimacy of the governing arrangement.

The nation has already witnessed the disquieting, if only an isolated, expression of a serving officer of the Army getting involved with those who think in terms of a majoritarian vigilante response to “minority” terror. Let us recall the argument that was being bandied about till a few days before Mumbai, 26/11. Hemant Karkare of the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad, who took the terrorists’ bullet on November 26 and who is now being serenaded as a hero, was sought to be vilified because he was close on the heels of unravelling a “Hindu terror” strategy. The argument was that since the government(s) would not move against the presumed jihadi elements, it was up to groups from within the majority community to wield the truncheon. The temptation for such vigilantism is primarily predicated on the Indian state’s inefficacy in putting a permanent end to the terrorist.

This “Abhinav Bharat” itch may grow if the post-Mumbai mood is allowed to deplete further the legitimacy of democratic institutions. The currently fashionable anti-politician and anti-political-class anger can only embolden authoritarian figures and their anti-democratic ambitions. While it is morally defensible to insist that the state and its functionaries perform their obligations to govern in an effective and competent manner, it will be short-sighted and dangerous to create an ideological justification for private armies settling private scores.

The jihadis who attacked Mumbai on November 26 will have achieved a much bigger degree of success than they did if we talk ourselves into becoming a lesser democracy. The “no security, no taxes” campaign should be halted immediately. In a democracy, public anger must be steered into restoring the legitimacy of the state’s instruments.

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