‘There Is No Dividend In Short-Term Responses’

Political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta on why our public institutions are crumbling and why we have nnowhere to turn

December 13, 2008 in Politics
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Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Photo: Trilochan S Kalra

The Mumbai attack is being seen as a ‘new moment’. Would you agree?
Yes, it’s significant that the privileged have been made vulnerable; that corporate India and Bollywood dominated television discussions. The powerful have always felt they can access security, but here the fire brigade took hours to come. This has drawn a new constituency to those who feel angry. Also, there’s been a pattern to terror, anonymous blasts; now, there’s a feeling you just don’t know what’s next. We can’t endure our situation nor can we endure the means to overcome it.

What do you mean by that?
The boring and brutal answer is that great effort must go into rebuilding institutions. There is no dividend in short-term responses. There is a real frustration: if they do things to us, why can’t we do anything to them? But we have hit a new low in our politics when even the minimal ceremonies of coming together aren’t observed. The silver lining is that three years ago, this might have created a pro-BJP wave. Now, there is outrage against all politicians. But blaming politicians is not the answer. If there’s no political party we can trust, no institution, then the most constructive of us don’t know what to turn to without feeling compromised. Nobody is triggering a discourse on institutions, including Arundhati Roy, who sets herself as a purely oppositional figure. How do we get a virtuous cycle going?

How do you see the media response?
Set aside the over-emoting and editorialising, what is disturbing is the rank amateurism; the lack of the basic capacity to distinguish fact from speculation, credible sources from hearsay, genuine experts versus thrusting the mike into anyone’s face. We didn’t hear from one credible defence correspondent, just television anchors demanding immediate answers.

If this is an Al Qaeda / LeT sponsored attack, what do you think brought us into the line of fire?
No one can deny there are radical Islamic groups that want a unified ummah, who feel oppressed by countries inimical to Islam. India has become a focus of this war for three reasons. One, it’s a soft target, not just because of weak policing, but our weak state structures. Two, with escalated polarisation, they feel there’s a constituency awaiting mobilisation. Gujarat 2002, the Babri Masjid demolition, the Bombay riots — this local grievance seems ready fodder. And three, there is a perception that India is aligning itself with Western democracies. From being a confluence of civilisations, India is becoming a confluence of conflicts.

Should Indians worry about this shift towards the US-Israel axis?
There is a dangerous illusion that US and Indian interests cohere: a kneejerk position that the US might be detrimental for the rest of the world but won’t bite us. We believe they will fight our battle for us, but will the US pressure Pakistan to close terror camps? They have never pressurised Pakistan on giving us Dawood Ibrahim and Masood Azhar.

What has this attack made you feel?
I have a horrible sense of a noose tightening. Any direction you pull to unshackle it only makes it tighter.

Why is this terror attack unique?
Most Indians have heard about Nariman Point and the Gateway of India through movies and songs. So, it’s not the same as attacking a place in Vile Parle or Sarojini Nagar, which doesn’t resonate to the rest of India. This has, for the first time, affected the well-to-do directly. The attack, which lasted for three days, seemed to have been well-planned.

It brings about a qualitatively different dimension. There isn’t much to distinguish between the numbers of people killed here and in the train blasts earlier. While those were anonymously done, here, you know the people and fought with them. It was a face-to-face attack. You could see them on television and on the monitors. There was an element of high drama.

With all this 24×7 live coverage, is the Indian media crossing a line?
When 9/11 happened, the live coverage was done in a muted fashion. You didn’t see dead bodies being pulled out and politicians making high drama, except for President Bush later. Citizens didn’t go ra ra on television. Even though 9/11 happened, it didn’t take centre stage. In Mumbai, it did. There should be some code of conduct.

I remember seeing a police chap coming up and saying: “You must move back 30 metres because we’re going to do some operations” on television. They think that because they have cut the television connection from the hotel, these people are unconnected. That’s so stupid. If you have a Blackberry you can have connections anywhere in the world. The whole idea of the helicopter hovering over there and people sliding down a rope — I feel quite appalled.

There were very crude attempts of one-upmanship: ‘We got the news two minutes before somebody else did.’ This is a reality show, which just went on and on and on. I was waiting for Bruce Willis to appear any moment.

Do you think the government reacted appropriately?
Why didn’t they have the wherewithal? Why didn’t the police have equipment? The guns they were carrying were not up to scratch. Their security jackets weren’t great. The fire brigade couldn’t turn up on time.

‘It was murky — like a Fredrick Forsyth plot’

Sociologist Dipankar Gupta tells Shriya Mohan that lapses in the media, the NSG, and politics result from a lack of professionalism

ipankar Gupta

Photo: Vijay Pandey

The Taj hotel’s General Manager, Kang’s family, I’m told, died because of the fire. The NSG arrived 10 hours late. Ten hours is how much time it takes to go to England on an ordinary flight!

There has been a whole lot of finger pointing and advance cover-ups. I am not sure about the statement that the terrorists were going to blow up the Taj hotel. I don’t think they had the ammunition to do it. But I think this may have been put out because you may want to take the tension away from the fact that some people may want to criticise you for rushing the job. The Israelis are criticising us. Maybe this was an advance cover. Then you hear information of how many people died after the NSG went in. It was very murky. It was like a Fredrick Forsyth plot. Some guys come in a boat and take over a banana republic.

societal construct? Where is the seed sown for terrorism?
Pakistan is our political Satan. But Pakistan can’t handle it either. President Zardari may be a nice man, but is he in control? If you have to really ramp up things, it will take a long time. The first thing we can all aim to do in our own lives is to be professional. That is where we fail. So you see lapses in the media, the police, the NSG, in politics, in academics. It’s really a lack of professionalism.

Sometimes, I wonder if democracy is only voting. If it’s only voting, it’s not worth it. It was never meant to be just voting. A democracy is supposed to be an efficient state. Now, we say that because we’re democratic, we can’t be efficient. What kind of an answer is this?

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