26/11 Mumbai attacks

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 9 December 2008

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This article was published on 'The Indian Express' on 9th December 2008.





Article Title:”The new new thing”

While the world rallies behind us after the ghastly attacks in Mumbai, India’s political leadership has not been able to close ranks. There were attempts, but they were botched.  Nevertheless, due to unprecedented public anger at politicians, it isn’t yet a lost cause to hope that from the ashes of Mumbai could yet emerge a pragmatic, centrist response to the problem of terrorism that could span the political spectrum.

First, there is no doubt whatsoever that the world is rallying behind India as never before.  A brief scan of the headlines and columns in mainstream media around the world quickly confirms that the Pakistani connection to acts of terror in India is now unequivocally accepted and denounced.  This is no small thing.  Even in the post 9/11 era, even when Pakistan was already being described as the ‘epicentre’ of worldwide terrorism, the compulsion to treat it as a ‘frontline ally against Al Qaeda’ led many western powers to balk at demanding that it be tough on groups that almost exclusively targeted India.  What Indian foreign policy had not been able to achieve in decades is now a fait accompli.  It’s a pity, though, that this could only come about through our bumbling, laissez faire approach to tackling terrorism.

The Mumbai attacks have been described as a threat to “the idea of India.”  While that threat is real, there is nothing new about it.  All previous waves of terrorism — involving ethnic, regional or religious separatist movements — were just as much a threat to the idea of India.  Whether it was the Nagas, Sikhs, Tamils, or Kashmiri separatists, the underlying threat was that India was too large to govern, and that it could not continue to exist in its present secular and diverse form.  What is new about terrorism in the post 9/11 era is the extent to which it has succeeded in polarising India’s polity.

Until a few years ago, there had been an underlying, and unstated, national consensus on such threats, which had kept political opportunism within limits.  Even during the eighties, when terrorism emanating from the Punjab threatened to tear the country apart, the extent of political opportunism was limited to opposition parties pointing out, quite accurately, that the Congress government in Delhi had flirted with Bhindranwale during his early days.  But beyond that, there was not such severe disagreement about how to tackle it.

The breakdown of this consensus has polarised Indian politics.  Today, positions have hardened to such an extent that respected commentators have said ‘there is no common ground’ between the BJP and the Congress to thrash out a consensus on terrorism.  In this era of coalitions, the problem also extends beyond these two largest national parties and requires the involvement of other parties to arrive at a consensus.  But between one set of parties to whom acting against terror groups with Islamic connections is anathema, and another whose nationalist stance is diluted by allegations of prejudice —and by their discomfiture with even a hint that some terrorists may not be Islamic — India’s polity remains fractured.  This has meant that every act of terrorism has led to predictable, knee-jerk reactions by political entities.

In this gloomy scenario, there is one ray of hope:  India’s rising middle class has at last been aroused.  This section of our population, now numbering in the hundreds of millions, has now forcefully expressed its disgust at politicians of every hue.  This is quite a turnaround from the apathy for which they are known. For unlike the middle classes in longer-established, western democracies — where they play an active and vital role in politics — our middle class usually doesn’t even bother to vote.

The traditional view in India has been that middle class votes don’t count, and this has conditioned both their own response to politics, apathy, as well as politicians’ neglect.  But times are changing.  Besides their increasing numbers, what remains underestimated about our middle class is their ‘soft power’, their increasing ability to influence national opinion.  It is middle class outrage, aided and abetted by the media, which has forced political changes in Maharashtra.

Fifteen years of satellite television has also exposed us, particularly our demographically significant young population, to political activism in other countries in new, vibrant ways which are beginning to have an impact here. Thus the widespread admiration for grassroots campaigns like that of Barack Obama’s, and the praise with which John McCain’s gracious concession speech was received in this country.  Even among the political classes here, there is grudging admiration, and the recognition that Indian voters are wistfully hoping for similar energy and grace in our polity.

When Mumbai happened, the first instinct of India’s political leadership, both ruling and opposition, was to seek and demonstrate national unity.  Even though that instinct frayed quickly, it was a remarkable change from recent years of predictable responses.  The subsequent missteps, again by both ruling and opposition leaders, have been punished by public opinion.  The answer to whether India’s politicians can come up with a united response to terror lies in whether voters truly demand it of them. In this, the middle class will have a significant role, either by gradually letting the outrage of Mumbai fade into the background, or keeping its memory, and their zeal, alive.