They have failed us

on Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Rajiv Desai

The political class is like the public sector, which seeks to run a modern enterprise in a bureaucratic fashion. Politicians and bureaucrats and their cohorts try to operate a modern nation state with command and control techniques more suited to the colonial era.
This contradiction was outlined in stark relief by the terrorist strikes in Mumbai. Not even the most modern nation state could have anticipated the strikes. However, the key is the response. Right or wrong, governments in the United States and Western Europe responded swiftly to similar attacks on their cities. Certainly in the US there has been not even a minor incident of terror since 9/11. Now compare that to the dithering, uncoordinated response of the Indian authorities. A cogent approach might, at the very least, have contained the number of casualties.
It took nearly 10 hours for commandos to show up. Plus the police proved once again unable to do the simplest job of sanitising the area. Instead, you had crowds of curious onlookers and the inevitable television crews and reporters. What’s more, television reporters, in their eagerness for ‘breaking news’, were oblivious of the negative impact that their coverage could have, especially in keeping the terrorists informed about the commandos’ tactics.
Various spokesmen fed the media with information about police plans, government strategy and commando tactics in a random manner. It was clear that no one was in charge: not the Union home minister, not the state chief minister, not the state home minister, not the NSG chief, not the police commissioner, not the state and central information ministries. It was a comprehensive failure of governance.
The question arises: Could politicians and bureaucrats have done any better? Of course, they could have. So why didn’t they? Why did it take the state chief minister so long to grasp the true nature of the attacks? Why did his deputy, who also serves as home minister, downplay the magnitude of the problem? Why did the Centre take so long to wake up? What was the national security adviser doing? What was the home minister doing? A National Disaster Management Authority office was established recently. Was this not a disaster included in its terms of reference?
Nevertheless, let’s not play the blame game. Instead, let us analyse why things went so terribly awry. One, the position of a politician in any party is vicarious. Except for the supreme leader, no one is secure. This puts a premium on sycophancy that cascades through the ranks and explains why politicians wear
several rings, undergo elaborate religious rituals and are deeply superstitious. Their survival is not on the basis of performance or leadership. If he should in some way displease the leadership, it’s curtains.
Neither chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh nor any of the Patils (former central and state home ministers) was capable of getting anything done except ceremonial posturing, which in their minds would please their overlords. In such a culture, politics becomes process rather than goal-oriented. Meaningless gestures and flatulent rhetoric are all you get. Hence Deshmukh’s “terror tourism” trip to the Taj with Bollywood celebrities or Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s gift of money to the family of a slain security officer. Compare that to 9/11, when the New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani took charge and directed the response.
National priorities are much lower in the politician’s hierarchy of values. Every situation he faces is judged on the basis of whether it strengthens or weakens his position. In addition to sycophancy, the political culture celebrates opportunism. This explains why the chief minister of a neighbouring state rushed to the Oberoi hotel, where he swaggered before the assembled media, charging the Maharashtra government with failure and calling for new laws and what have you. If ever Modi was stripped of his recent image-building sheen, this was it. He was shown up for what he is: a small-time opportunist with an agenda that is clearly too large for him. Meanwhile opposition leader L K Advani, with his refusal to support the government,wrote his own obituary as a possible prime minister. Contrast that to solidarity shown by American and European politicians in the face of similar terror attacks.
Innovation and ideology are an intrinsic part of modern political cultures. Barack Obama steamrollered his way to the presidency of the US with a high-tech campaign and a message of change. In India, Mayawati is feted for her ability to rally the impoverished and oppressed Dalit castes, flaunting diamond jewellery and disclosing mind-boggling assets. The BJP, with its pursuit of a communal anti-Muslim agenda, offers no real message other than hate and deceit. The failure of the party to emerge as a centre-right alternative is unforgivable and speaks of a lack of vision.
On the other hand, the Congress is hopelessly paralysed by various competing factions including a socialist left that seeks to return to the days of Indira Gandhi, feudal groups based on caste and religious affiliation, and a ruling progressive section that is held in check by the various factions. The result is reform by stealth, a hesitant foreign policy and mindless populism. Sapped by such a debilitating culture, the political class was simply incapable of responding to the terrorist assault on Mumbai.