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Internal insecurity

Internal insecurity

Author: Shekhar Gupta
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: August 2, 2008
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/story/343687.html

Introduction: The use-by date on the Kandahar excuse is over. It won't work when UPA faces the voters

For nearly five years now the world media had been celebrating India's rise. From the state of its stock market to its demographic advantage, from the strength and depth of its democracy to the vast reservoir of talent that flourished in its diversity, it was as if the world could see nothing wrong with India. There are now signs that some of that is changing.

And no, it is not just because of those thousand-rupee bundles displayed in the Lok Sabha. It is because of something much more serious, in fact a failure so serious it could, by itself, lose the UPA the next election. These four and half years are the worst in India's history of fighting terrorism. Surely somebody in the UPA will bring out statistics to show that overall deaths were more in some other regime's five years. But this is not just about numbers. It is a spectacular four and a half years of mayhem when not one terrorist has been caught, not one major case solved. Even by the modest standards that Shivraj Patil's home ministry may have set for itself, this is a spectacularly disastrous record.

The world press, if anything, has been late in catching this. Last week, Somini Sengupta of The New York Times quoted a stunning fact from a report of the Washington-based National Counter-Terrorism Centre. It said, between January 2004 and March 2007, India had lost 3,674 lives to terrorism, second only to Iraq. And we can't even claim that this is happening because some imperialist occupation army is running amok here. In fact that number, by now, must have crossed 5,000. If this notion spreads globally, it would do more to damage India's image as an oasis of democratic stability, pacifism and economic growth than any twists in its politics, or even a half-decade reform holiday.

So far the UPA government has had one standard response: compare this with the record under the NDA: Kandahar hijack, Parliament attack, Akshardham. But there is a short use-by date on these arguments. You cannot take them into your next election campaign. Soon enough, the memory of those incidents would have faded, been replaced by new ones: Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Kabul, Mumbai trains, Samjhauta Express and so on. And then the unchecked Naxalite attacks.

Most amazing is the sense of cool with which this government, particularly its home ministry, has responded to these losses. While they can pretend that Naxalite strikes are some sinister happenings in places that are out of sight, out of mind, somebody - most likely the voter - will soon remind them that, while those managing internal security may not care for the lives of policemen in faraway states, never in the history of insurgencies have we suffered casualties like these. In fact, if you go over our five-decade history of insurgencies, the 38 lives lost in the Naxalite attack on the police boat were perhaps the second-largest loss of life by security forces in a day in internal security operations after only the army's casualties on the night of Operation Bluestar. It is rare for security forces to suffer double-digit casualties in insurgencies. Even during the Kargil conflict it was a rare day's fighting on which the army lost so many lives, against an entrenched foreign army. The two most striking things here have been the equanimity - frankly, cynical and sometimes sanctimonious indifference - with which this security establishment has treated it.

The talk of Naxalism in a week when two of our most important cities saw serial-bombings and a third had 23 unexploded bombs recovered, is not a digression. It underlines the unmoving, thick-skinned, incompetent and pusillanimous response to terror from this government. What is worse, it is even politically loaded. And while, ultimately, the UPA may be made to pay for it electorally, too many lives are being lost meanwhile, and too much damage is being done to India's image. The government cannot ride out an entire five years claiming that their predecessors' record was worse.

Soon enough people will also start reminding them that the NDA's six years coincided with a state of near-war with Pakistan, when ISI support to terror in India was unabashed and comprehensive and when an active proxy war was on in Kashmir. It is the four years of relative peace with Pakistan that make the UPA's failure even more striking.

Over the past year or so we have all got focussed on what we saw as the communalisation of our foreign policy: don't vote against Iran at the IAEA because our own Shias would get upset, don't sign the nuclear deal with Bush as that will irritate all our own Muslims, conduct your relations with Israel by stealth for the same reason, even stop the two missile development projects with them, no matter how badly your armies may need them. Last week we saw the prime minister fight back on this, and successfully too. But can he do the same with internal security?

The odds are steeper because that issue was communalised first. It began with the last election campaign and the composition of this alliance. There may have been a sound case against POTA because it was misused, but both in public discourse and political action its repeal was made to look like a favour to the Muslims. Then, the same "communalised" politics interfered in police investigations following the serial blasts in Mumbai trains and Hyderabad. Ask senior police officers there - even Congress chief ministers if they'd dare to speak the truth - and they will tell you how they pulled away in fright, under pressure from the Centre for targeting and upsetting Muslims (voters) in their investigations. This proceeded neatly alongside the utterly communalised discourse on the Afzal Guru hanging issue. Each time this government and its intellectual storm-troopers proffered the minority argument in support of this soft policy, it emboldened the terrorists. They figured they were dealing with a political leadership which had already committed a self-goal by equating counter-terror with Muslim alienation and which had, in the process, totally demoralised its intelligence agencies and police forces. And if it is not guilty of communalising our internal security policy, how does it explain sitting on special anti-terror laws in all BJP-run states when exactly similar ones have been passed for the Congress states? Now you can say special laws are good or bad, but they must be equally so for all citizens in all states. If these laws are good, or necessary, then citizens in BJP-run states have as much need - and right - to get their protection as those in the Congress states. Unless the message is: you want protection, you better vote for us. You vote for others, you are on your own.

It is not going to work. It is morally wrong and politically suicidal. Protecting the citizens' life is the first responsibility of any government. Surely no government can ensure no terror attack would ever happen. But it has to be seen to be trying, fighting, and being even-handed. This government fails on all three counts so far, no matter how nicely ironed its chief-spokesman's bandh-galas, how neatly combed his hair. If the prime minister does not fix this in time, his party will be asked really tough questions in the next election.

- sg@expressindia.com

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