Political revamp far off despite bloodshed

They could not even let the blood dry.

Indian officials’ post-Mumbai opportunism and finger-pointing began while lives remained in danger, and has continued long after. They have bickered, bumbled and placed blame, but have done very little of what they are paid to do: lead.

As commandos prepared for a final assault on the Oberoi Hotel, Narendra Modi, who is the Gujarat chief minister and a divisive, charismatic national figure for the opposition BJP, offered 10 million rupees compensation to the family of the Mumbai antiterror squad leader Hemant Karkare, who was killed in the attack. The family rejected the offer, perhaps because the previous week Mr Modi had verbally abused Karkare’s squad for implicating Hindu nationalists in a previous bomb attack.

That same day, the BJP ran a political advertisement on the front page of the Hindustan Times (national parliamentary elections are scheduled for early next year). Immediately below an editorial calling for political unity, the blood-splattered ad blamed the “brutal terrorist attacks” on a “weak and incapable government."

Hours after terrorists were finally evicted from the rooms of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, Vilasrao Deshmukh, the chief minister of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, took a celebrity film director on an official visit to the hotel. “Many people come to such places,” he said. Such nonchalance apparently trickles down. Of the assault, Mr Deshmukh’s deputy, R R Patil, said, “small incidents like this do happen in big cities”.

But the impropriety may have peaked with V S Achuthananthan, the chief minister of Kerala, who was turned away when he tried to offer condolences at the home of a commando killed in the attack. “Had it not been a martyr’s house,” he said later, “not even a dog would have gone there.”

For Ramachandra Guha, historian and author of India After Gandhi, this has not been a proud moment for India. “There’s just no excuse for this shameful, vulgar behaviour,” he said.

“It’s a consequence of the weakness and shortsightedness of Indian politicians. There’s also a larger systemic cause, this fragmented polity, wherein every coalition is extremely vulnerable and looking at short-term survival as opposed to the efficacy of security, education, health policy or anything else.”

Indeed, the leadership in New Delhi has fared little better. The Mumbai reaction speech by Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, conveyed neither confidence nor conviction. And after the resignation of Shivraj Patil, the home minister, who as terror attacks piled up in recent months looked more and more like a deer in headlights, P Chidambaram, the finance minister, stepped into the post.

Mr Singh, an economist himself, temporarily assumed the finance portfolio – leaving India without a full-time finance minister during the 21st century’s first global financial crisis.

Combined with the jaw-dropping security and intelligence failures that led to the assault, the inability of any public leader to adequately frame the nation’s roiling mix of anger, fear, outrage and sorrow has revealed the fragility of the Indian state. Urban, informed Indians have responded to the leadership vacuum with a groundswell of venom.

In thousands of online forums and viral text messages, young Indians are denouncing their opportunistic, deceitful and inept politicians. An angry, anti-politician demonstration outside the Taj hotel attracted nearly 20,000 Mumbaikars on Wednesday – a huge number for the normally laissez-faire metropolis.

Leading columnists, well-known authors and Bollywood stars are prodding Indians to be accountable and ask the same of their leaders. Others have urged people to refrain from voting or to stop paying taxes. Perversely, the anger seems directed more towards politicians than terrorists. Perhaps because the Mumbai assault targeted not just foreigners but the Indian upper class, who were suddenly moved to act.

“All the horror and outrage is because it’s the Taj, a symbol of aspiration for a very long time,” Mr Guha said. India’s poor suffer similar upheavals practically every day.

The death toll from a cyclone that hit the Tamil Nadu coast on the first full day terror gripped Mumbai, for instance, has passed 180 – making it more deadly than the terror attack. The storm has also displaced nearly 2.5 million, yet elicited barely a whimper from either the media or the newly activist urbanites.

So will this vague, narrow-minded rage result in a political reckoning? Some early signs are encouraging.

Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan and Jammu and Kashmir have each held state elections since the Mumbai assault, and all recorded higher than average voter turnout.

The Association for Democratic Reforms, a network of 1,200 democracy advocate organisations across the country, is pushing to include a “none of the above” option on ballots and pressing for the right to recall candidates.

Yet if crying for change is no silver bullet, neither is removing politicians, as it is impossible to ensure the rise of effective successors. For now, the focus should be on improving security, and the creation of a central intelligence agency for terrorism based on the model of the US Department of Homeland Security is a good first step.

The next is depoliticising a hoary security system in which senior appointments are made by politicians. “In that kind of situation, where the security apparatus is always looking to please political masters, you cannot have efficient functioning,” Mr Guha said.

Grossly incompetent intelligence and security institutions; flailing, venal, and morally questionable leadership; and a populace separated by yawning divisions of income and geography: is India the world’s largest democracy or its biggest banana republic?

“Because India is so diverse and complicated it will always be vulnerable to conflict and attacks of this kind,” Mr Guha said. “This will not lead to the collapse of Indian democracy. We will stumble along, hopefully we will learn something and move on.”

--- ran in The National, www.thenational.ae, on Dec 7.

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