Posted by: John Elliott | December 12, 2008

Chidambaram takes the first steps to improve security

The government yesterday began to give some of the lead that India needs following the Mumbai terrorist attack of two weeks ago. Speaking in parliament, home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram and foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee spoke impressively about what India needs to do internally to strengthen security and externally to deal with terrorism organisations based in Pakistan.

They were backed up by prime minister Manmohan Singh – and by his one-day heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi, who made the important point that security services should spend less time providing flamboyant (my word) services for VVIPs and more time looking after ordinary people.

Announcing that India has asked Pakistan to hand over 40 people it believes have been behind militant attacks, Mukherjee ruled out military action against its neighbour as a solution when he asked why India was not attacking Pakistan. “That is no solution,” he said.

That may look like a climb-down from some of his earlier remarks, but it is the reality – the risks of attacks escalating into a potentially horrific confrontation between two nuclear powers make it almost unthinkable that India would send rockets across the border to hit terrorist camps. Such an attack would increase the likelihood of attacks in retribution and would only wipe out people actually in the camps, not the many located elsewhere.

In any case, with the US and United Nations putting pressure on Pakistan to rein in terrorist organisations, and with Pakistan beginning to respond, there is less need for India to scare the world with threats against its neighbour.

Looking ahead, Chidambaram mapped out a range of security measures, including a new National Investigation Agency, plus strengthened intelligence gathering and security troop training and deployment, and advanced technical equipment.

He wants to present legislation setting up the agency to parliament next week. First however he has to win support from individual states such as Uttar Pradesh, whose chief ministers like to be able to control and influence police activity in their states and do not want a national organisation interfering in their highly politicised (and therefore inadequate) police forces. More justifiably, they also want to be able to resist interference from what might one day be a domineering central government.

Chidambaram was careful not to be too specifically critical of the appalling performance by security agencies because he needs their co-operation. He said that India’s basic intelligence structure seemed sound, but there was a need to make intelligence gathering and sharing “more effective and result oriented”.

So far so good. Now comes the much more difficult job of pushing changes in structures, attitudes and working practices down the line. We can only wish Chidambaram well!

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