“For Delhi, every day is pivotal and every hour is vital”
Living in India as a reporter for a total of nearly 20 years, I have always been curious about why problems are left to fester till they escalate into crises instead of being tackled before they do serious damage, and why everyone assumes that, to use an English theatre expression, “it’ll be alright on the night”.
Current events make this not just an academic question that can be left, like the problems, for another day, or month, or year, but one of immediate importance.
Inefficiency, lethargy and corruption have come to haunt the country and dominate the news this week on two quite different issues– the alarming spread of Naxalite violence (right), and the inadequate preparations for the Commonwealth Games that are to be staged in Delhi a year from now. That’s leaving aside, for a moment, India’s appallingly inadequate defence readiness in Arunachal Pradesh and elsewhere on its north-eastern borders with China where tensions are rising.
“For Delhi, every day is pivotal and every hour is vital,” Mike Fennell, the Olympic Games Federation’s president said in Delhi yesterday at the end of a week’s visit to the capital that exposed serious delays on both construction projects and operational systems. And so it is across a whole raft of issues that require action.
Palaniappan Chidambaram, the home minister, has been issuing that message to States increasingly besieged in recent weeks by Naxalite rebels, but his strong warnings about the need for immediate action have been diluted by a pathetic debate about whether or not the primary focus should be on economic development in Naxalite areas (of course it should, long term), and whether the Indian Air Force should fire on rebels in self defence (obviously, what else should it do!).
The armed forces have been issuing Fennel’s warning in different words to the Defence Ministry for years to accelerate orders for urgently needed new equipment ranging from guns to helicopters and training jets that are mired in bureaucratic inertia, corruption, and the manipulations of competing suppliers that trip up each other’s potential orders. (The same applies to equipment needed for internal security such as tackling the Naxalites). How Pakistan and China must enjoy watching the self-inflicted damage that India does through all this to its own war readiness – could those two countries themselves do more damage in a border war?
Well-founded gossip about massive extortion on every games contract has been swirling around Delhi, and about how that extortion is not just making those involved richer but is also disrupting progress on contracts and on the hiring of much needed foreign help (a point made by the Olympic committee in the past week).
Sometimes the lack of action on potential crises is intentional, stemming from a belief that some blood-letting is needed before a major issue can be tackled. I first came across this when I was part of a Financial Times interview with Indira Gandhi, then the prime minister, shortly after 6,000 people had been killed in riots in Assam. We asked Mrs Gandhi why she had not acted earlier to stem the killings, and she replied that one had to let such events take their own course before stepping in.
I remember how horrified I was by her answer, though I now understand (but don’t accept) the logic. The same probably applied in a slightly different way to the Khalistan movement in then Punjab that she allowed to escalate into a crisis that led to her putting troops into Amritsar Golden Temple, and later to her assassination.
Then there are the Naxalites, who have been threatening areas of India since they started as a peasant revolt in West Bengal 40 years ago. The government assumed they would slowly fade away or, at worst, remain virtually out of sight in remote forested tribal areas where they have operated since the 1960s.
Three months ago, on this blog, I asked “What must Naxalites do to rate as a real threat to India?” I wondered whether Delhi was in denial about the approaching crisis, along with the rest of the world, because the Naxalites had not assassinated a top leader.
Since then the rebel atrocities have escalated, and it is now clear that they intend to threaten urban centres in the coming years, not just where the tribal forests. They are already active in more than 223 of India’s 600-plus districts (see map) across 20 states. Between January and August, they were involved in more than 1,400 violent incidents, and the killing of nearly 600 civilians, according to official records.
In the past few days, widespread attacks have included killing 17 police, blowing up mobile phone towers and stretches of railway tracks and disrupting power supplies, not just in their home areas of Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal in eastern India, but in Maharashtra on the borders of the west.
So why is it that India waits for crises before acting? Maybe the country is just too big and complex, its borders too long, and its peoples too varied for any government to govern effectively. Maybe centuries of repressive foreign occupation, plus the debilitating shortages of 45 years of economic controls after independence, have bred an acceptance of things as they are.
That of course does not fit with the new international image that India has of itself as a big (almost super) economic and diplomatic power. Sadly that image is not sustainable. China’s recent 60th anniversary celebrations show the gap between the two countries, as does a comparison of last year’s Olympic Games in China with India’s stumbling towards next year’s events.