The most depressing aspect of the debate that is swirling around India in the aftermath of last week’s Mumbai terrorist attacks is that no-one has an answer to the problem of what to do about the dire failings of India’s government and security services.
No-one has an answer because of the corruption-driven incompetence, and complacent inefficiency, that pervades all levels of government from the security agencies and government ministries down to officials running local fire brigades. This is so deeply entrenched that there is no simple answer.
How can you quickly introduce change in a society where, as I have written before, few politicians have any care for the future of the country, when caste and prestige rivalries block co-operation at all levels of government, and when selfishness dominates public life.
On the 24/7 television channel last night, Vikram Mehta, chairman of Shell companies in India, talked about a “collapse of decision making” and “systemic failure”. He spoke of the horror, watching last week from his Mumbai flat, the slow response of fire fighters at the Oberoi Trident Hotel – they took three hours to arrive at the site and pump water.
In the past day or two we have heard how warnings of an attack from the sea on Mumbai targets, including the Taj Hotel, came in the days and weeks before the attack from sources ranging from US intelligence officials to local Taj waterfront boatmen. Even Ratan Tata, head of the Tata group that owns the Taj, says he was warned – the hotel’s front entrance was partially barricaded but, he added, simply, the terrorists came in the back door.
So it is not just national and state governments that are to blame. It is the whole country that seems to regarding security merely as a ritual (as I wrote on Sunday) – even though there have been 12 major terrorist attacks this year.
But even more worrying than the failures is the fact that no-one has any viable answers. The despair and anger against politicians, bureaucrats, and procedures – and the corruption that governs many policies and actions – is so deep that people are clutching at straws.
After delivering a damning indictment of the government machine last night, Mehta had no instant solution because there isn’t one. He fell back on what is a nice thought, but nothing more, saying “we need 40 or 50 young people as politicians to be in parliament and hold the balance”.
On the same tv program, Milind Deora, the 31-year old MP for South Bombay where most of the attacks took place, said he was “ashamed to be a politician”. Commenting on the way that politicians had reacted with indifference and a lack of leadership to the outpourings of grief and anger in Mumbai over the past few days, he said it was as if “they had rubbed mud in our faces”. The son of India’s petroleum minister, Deora is the sort of young MP that Mehta had in mind, but what can he and a handful of other similar young politicians do!
Palaniappan Chidambaram, the new home minister, is to produce an initial security plan on December 10. That might address some of a list of ten points listed in the Times of India on December 1, maybe including: unifying coastal and Indian Navy security operations, removing “turf walls” between the various security agencies (easier said than done), setting up National Security Guard (NSG) units in major cities, reviewing VVIP security so that it does not help politicians “strut around and flaunt their status” (something I mentioned recently), create a quick-response disaster and crisis management system, and introduce measure to de-politicise and improve policing.
It will be near impossible for Chidambaram however to execute many such reforms quickly, certainly not with a general election due by next March or April. Politicians and officials – including senior officers from the armed forces and security forces – will realise that he will probably not have the same job after the election so will delay changes, hoping he is replaced by a softer option that they can ignore.
What is needed is leadership from the top, and that cannot happen with this government because of the dual-leadership role performed by Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, and Sonia Gandhi, the government’s de facto political leader. She does not have the stature and there is little point Singh trying because Gandhi’s courtiers will warn her that he is becoming too self-important and is challenging her role.
So what to do?
I have heard two extreme ideas this week.
One is to have a state of emergency or even military rule. That is surely unthinkable.
The other is that the country needs tough rule by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by its highly controversial Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi.
I wonder how long it will be before the failings of more acceptable politicians leads to Modi becoming prime minister?
- See later post – Mumbai votes for Narendra Modi as national leader – https://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/2008/12/05/mumbai-votes-for-narendra-modi-as-national-leader/