By Swapan Dasgupta
The 26/11 attacks in Mumbai two years ago was a horrific event that exposed the inadequacies of India's counter-terrorism strategy. Yet, the incident did have its redeeming fallout. The UPA Government at the Centre was compelled to acknowledge that Indian lives and property would continue to be at risk if the political charge of anti-terrorism was entrusted to someone who was as visibly uninspiring as Shivraj Patil. It is said that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was delighted to be given the opportunity to shift P.Chidambaram from Finance—where he had acquired a reputation for rigidity and unresponsiveness to expert advice—to Home. The PM's happiness was understandable but it was fortuitous that Chidambaram turned out to be the right man to lead the Indian challenge to terrorism.
This assessment may well be contested by those who see in last week's Varanasi bombing the evidence that it is back to square one. That impression may be bolstered by the harsh exchange of words between the Centre and State Governments over intelligence inputs—a spat reminiscent of the bad old days of political one-upmanship over terrorism.
Yet, to be fair, the situation does not lend itself to despondency. For a start, it is well recognised that the state's capacity to confront terror has improved significantly ever since Chidambaram assumed charge. Indian intelligence and policing still have a very long way to go before the country can be reassured of the safety of its citizens. But it would be pragmatic to realise that total, fool-proof security is impossible. It is impossible in the United States and it is impossible in Israel, a country that knows a thing or two about counter-terrorism. India's open society and the character of its carefree society make it a ready target for every determined terror group. Therefore, if in the aftermath of 26/11, there have only been two major terror attacks—the German Bakery blasts in Pune and the Dashashwamedh Ghat bombing in Varanasi last week—we should compliment Chidambaram for ensuring that the situation isn't as bad as what prevailed between 2006 and 2008.
More to the point, it would be unfair to blame either the Centre or any state government for wilful dereliction of duty. The levels of security may vary from place to place, depending on the efficiency of the authorities, but there is nothing to indicate that any of the elected governments are either wilfully unconcerned or hand-in-glove with the terrorists. The political culture in India is deficient in many respects but there is a consensus that terror has to defeated if politics is to survive. All politicians, both on the Right and Left, know that proven laxity on the security front will cost them dearly electorally. The Indian voter has repeatedly made clear its partiality for a bi-partisan approach to security.
This is why the recent pronouncements of Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh on the 26/11 incidents come as a surprise. Digvijay's intervention isn't innocent. He was mischievously trying to suggest that the killing of Mumbai ATS chief Hemant Karkare was not an offshoot of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba attack on Mumbai two years ago. He was trying to link it to the outrage of Hindu extremist groups over their alleged complicity in bombings in Muslim-dominated areas. Digvijay, who has earlier campaigned against the so-called miscarriage of justice in the Batla House encounter case and has publicised the alleged RSS involvement in retributive attacks on Muslims, may well be attempting a form of secular equivalence: that terror is multi-denominational and cannot automatically be pinned on Muslim extremists.
Unfortunately, his political zeal is misplaced. It is not the job of politicians to get involved in the operational aspects of the offensive against terrorism. Any attempt by the most important Congress functionary (after the two Gandhis) to influence the course of inquiries or, indeed, to muddy the waters of existing inquiries, must be firmly rebuffed by the state. With investigative agencies already under a cloud for being too susceptible to political interference, the last thing the country needs is for counter-terrorism to become an instrument of political vendetta.
There are already questions being asked of the ability of the investigators into the Varanasi blast to penetrate some no-go areas in the neighbouring Azamgarh district. Earlier, political interference prevented investigators from coming to grips with some groups who were operating from deep within the ghettos of old Hyderabad city. Digvijay's posturing is tantamount to drawing a Lakshman rekha for the authorities. Indian security is compromised by such political markers. This is as true for Digvijay as for many in the BJP who have pre-judged the 'Hindu terror' issue. Anti-terrorism cannot be successful when conducted from inside the strait-jacket of political expediency.
Equally, now that the WikiLeaks have corroborated local intelligence inputs that the LeT was carefully targeting Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, it is time the Centre abandoned its curious disdain of these threats. The Congress may not like Modi politically but that is no reason to be either indifferent or dismissive about terror threats. India needs to evolve a bi-partisan mindset to cope with assaults on its citizens. There is a place for partisan politics but its arena must not extend to national security. Terrorists are always inclined to exploit such fissures.