Dec 5, 2008

India - This is no time to panic

Harish Khare

India must deal with the world in a manner befitting an emerging great power. It must hold its nerve as a democratic nation and make it clear it will deal with the challenge on its own strength.

The modern-day terrorist depends on modern information infrastructure to help achieve his purpose. The terrorist’s objective is to create a sense of defeat and despondency in the ‘enemy’ society and hope that the government of the day will react in such a ham-handed manner that the ‘cause’ finds new adherents and recruits.

The terrorists’ assault in Mumbai has, in part, achieved that objective. The puppeteers must be smirking over the manner in which our mass media reacted: breathlessly manufacturing perceptions of helplessness and anger, of governmental ineptness, of an all-round loss of nerve. Perhaps the terror master-minds were right in their calculations that by targeting upper middle class men and women they can bank on India’s middle-class-centric media to create an anti-politician (and, eventually an anti-democratic) mood.

But this is no time to panic. The terrorists’ long-term objective can be defeated only if the Prime Minister and the Congress President live up to their obligation to govern. Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi need to realise that their model of division of labour and authority has produced institutionalised namby-pamby decision-making. The result is a hemorrhage in the efficacy, prestige, and respectability of central governing arrangements. The current standard operative procedure of mutual deference and diffidence has only yielded paralysis, impeded coherence, and ruled out clarity of ideas, purposes, and objectives.

It is for Ms Gandhi more than Dr. Singh to understand that her statusquoist impulses have jeopardised her original May 2004 objective. After the last Lok Sabha elections, when she stepped aside in favour of Dr. Singh, the idea was to reclaim for the Congress its old reputation as the only political instrument of sensible governance, progressive stability, and collective security. Apart from a presumed ideological and personal commitment to restoring to good health the Nehruvian Idea of India, the May 2004 decision was predicated on the assumption that the Manmohan Singh arrangement would eventually pave the way for the not-so-young Rahul Gandhi.

Four-and-a-half years later, that May 2004 mission can only be described as an unmitigated failure. Ms Gandhi’s reluctance to let the Prime Minister be the master of his own Cabinet gradually produced malfunctionalities at the highest level of decision-making. The Prime Minister’s Office collectively settled for a low-key style of functioning that could only elicit minimal compliance and support from the rest of the system for the Prime Minister’s initiatives and agenda. History will record the fact that it took an unprecedented national calamity for Ms Gandhi to agree to move Shivraj Patil out of the Union Home Ministry. And that too only after Prime Minister Singh himself offered his resignation at the Congress Working Committee.

Ms Gandhi can salvage the situation by letting Dr. Singh be the Prime Minister in unencumbered fashion. The presumption of course is that he retains the intellectual integrity, personal stamina, and political acuteness to mobilise the nation’s vast resources to restore a sense of security and confidence in the citizens. Why, for example, should the Prime Minister continue to hold the ministerial portfolios of Coal and Information and Broadcasting, and now take charge of Finance?

Ms Gandhi and Dr. Singh need to act together and lead in a new, purposeful manner. They must enable the country to feel that decisions are being taken in the national – as opposed to narrow political and electoral – interests. The government has lost the Mumbai narrative. Whatever be the outcome of the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Delhi, most political parties, including those within the UPA and those not aligned with the BJP, will contrive to make governance an almost impossible enterprise.

The country can ill afford abdication or hesitation at the highest level over the next few months. Mumbai has produced a new mood. The coherent way out of the political bickering will be to demonstrate a hitherto absent willingness to do and say what is right for the country. Neither the reaction of this alliance partner nor the response of that regional chieftain should be a factor. Nor should any security initiative be opposed or proposed because this or that community will be offended or pleased. It is time the Prime Minister and the government demonstrated intellectual spunk and administrative muscle.

If a framework of unhindered leadership can be put in place, there will still be a problem: how to prevent decision-making from being stampeded by the electronic mob? The country paid a huge price in 1999 when the government of the day lost its nerve and gave in to media-induced hysteria over the Kandhar hijacking. The anti-politician nerve was touched to coerce the Vajpayee government into swapping major terrorists for hostages; the same mood is being created today to goad the country into an unfocussed confrontation with Pakistan. The same ambience of ‘public anger’ after the December 13 attack on Parliament House pushed the Vajpayee government into an ‘aar –paar’ (do or die) game with Islamabad. The itch for ‘doing something’ against Pakistan must be avoided.

Secondly, good politics and good governance demand that our response to Mumbai should not aggravate communal tensions at home. It is the duty of the Manmohan Singh establishment to use the next few months to educate the country on the sobering reality that rampant communalism over two decades has not made India a more secure place. Sensitive issues ought to be settled boldly and democratically, irrespective of presumed “political cost.”

Thirdly, a clear message must be sent out that the Indian political system has the innovativeness and the wisdom to rise above petty political considerations. There must be an honest and objective evaluation, by somebody outside the present establishment, of how the central and Maharashtra governments responded to the crisis.

Fourthly, we need to deal with the world in a manner befitting an emerging great power. Terror admittedly is a global business but there is no need to be seen as unduly solicitous of U.S. or Israeli security advice. A big country must be able to deal with the menace of terrorism on its own.

Above all, the political leadership must square with ordinary citizens, without either underestimating or magnifying threats to their lives and liberties. People must get a clear feeling that the government is sincere about ensuring their security – and treats this as its primary duty.

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