India loses patience with inept leadership

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 December, 2008, 12:00am

India is angry. Never before in the independent nation's 61-year history have its people, especially its middle classes, been in such ferment. The rage is spilling out far and wide from last week's heinous terrorist strike on prosperous central Mumbai, in which more than 170 people were killed.

The focus of the fury is both the nation's inept politicians and an old adversary, Pakistan, from where the terrorists set sail.

India, it is felt, needs a leader today who can temper the trauma even as he energises the people and reforms the system to tackle a grave national emergency. The question being asked is: Can Prime Minister Manmohan Singh be such a leader?

'Singh is neither a charismatic individual, nor is he a strong prime minister, since authority in government has always been divided between him and Congress party president Sonia Gandhi,' said Niraja Gopal Jayal, a professor of law and governance at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

'But the situation in India today is such that no single leader can change things,' she added. 'It's not a question of personalities. What needs to be tackled is a deeper institutional malaise. We clearly need better systems in place.'

As police, intelligence and defence agencies tried to pass the buck for the colossal failure to prevent the Mumbai carnage, it was clear that like all previous administrations, Dr Singh's government had been unable to reform the country's security system since coming to power in 2004.

But the primary responsibility for the failure lay not with the Dr Singh, 76, but with his political mentor, Mrs Gandhi.

Reclusive, insecure and indecisive, Mrs Gandhi values loyalty above everything else in the people she promotes. Dr Singh is a beneficiary of this archaic attitude, though fortunately, he is competent at his job. The same could not be said about his just-sacked home minister, Shivraj Patil, who got his powerful portfolio only because he is an acolyte of Mrs Gandhi.

Mr Patil had a reputation for vanity and became a laughing stock when he was seen on television on the day New Delhi was bombed by terrorists in September changing his elegant suits at least three times. His record has been abysmal - this year, he failed to effectively respond to terrorist strikes by Islamist and right-wing Hindu extremists, to the challenge from communist guerillas in the tribal heartland, to a violent Hindu-Muslim political confrontation in Kashmir, and to the bloody attacks by a Hindu radical group on Christians in Orissa.

Despite repeated bungling, Mr Patil could not be touched due to Mrs Gandhi's backing. But his luck ran out with Mumbai.

Dr Singh is an economist and former bureaucrat who stumbled into politics in 1991 when India needed a specialist finance minister to institute economic reforms and tackle a severe balance-of-payments crisis. He is still seen as a 'non-politician'. But he recently showed considerable political acumen by striking a civilian nuclear deal with the US, despite Mrs Gandhi's indecision and strong opposition from communists supporting his coalition government.

As Mr Patil exited, Dr Singh again demonstrated his newly acquired political skills. He used the opportunity to grab the country's economic reins, shifting his reluctant finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, to the home ministry.

After the global financial crisis began, Dr Singh and Mr Chidambaram were reportedly at odds on how to manage its impact on the Indian economy. On taking over the finance portfolio, Dr Singh rapidly set about devising a package of measures to be announced this weekend for tackling the economic slowdown.

Nor is Mr Chidambaram a bad choice for overhauling the home ministry. A lawyer and Harvard MBA, he is intelligent, hardworking and dynamic, and has the managerial, if not the political skills, to fulfil the immediate task - reform of the police set-up, the creation of a federal anti-terrorism force, and more effective laws.

But there are two other challenges confronting Dr Singh that are even more complicated and critical - how to dampen the political fallout from the Mumbai slaughter, and how to deal with Pakistan as war hysteria grips the nation.

'Enough is enough, go for war,' read a placard as thousands gathered after the attacks outside the scarred Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai.

'There are a few more terrorists in India and they are politicians,' said another, displaying people's resentment at the political mismanagement of the country.

National elections are barely five months away, so the anger is sure to hit the ruling Congress party, and benefit the right-wing opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

More worrying, though, is the compelling need now, as Dr Singh promised, to ensure that the 'organisers and supporters of terror pay a heavy price'.

Those organisers are based in Pakistan, and despite lightning American diplomatic intervention, Islamabad appears unable to act against anti-India terror groups.

But surgical strikes on the Pakistan-based terror outfits are impossible, since India lacks the sophisticated special forces or electronic-warfare capability required for such action.

Moreover, this could only result in full-scale war, which would only strengthen the radical militant groups, including al-Qaeda and the Taleban, inside Pakistan.

Dr Singh needs to be extremely shrewd and surefooted now in implementing his promise to 'go after' the terrorists.

'India should give Pakistan time to act, and meanwhile cobble together an international alliance to deal with the threat,' said political analyst Prem Shankar Jha, an old acquaintance of Dr Singh.

'Manmohan's reaction has not been knee-jerk, it's the electronic media that's whipping up a war frenzy.

'India must react effectively, and wisely.'