The last few weeks’ events have once again reinforced my view that India as a state has become deaf and mute. The only time the state responds is when people take to the streets and/or there is threat of some violence. Ensconced in their ivory towers, the rulers of India could not care less. Increasingly the middle class (and other socio-economic layers in and around it) do not have any grievance redress mechanism and hence they are frustrated with what they see as an uncaring, unresponsive, selfish and venal system. This obviously will deeply impact the way society evolves. I hope that this doesn’t sound like a rant although I am acutely aware that parts of my write up will.
Let’s take the latest case of skirmishes on the Indo-Pak border where two soldiers were brutally killed and one was beheaded. This is the latest in a series of outrages that are being perpetrated from across the border with unerring regularity. But the Indian administration right from the top seems to be in some cuckoo land where it believes that we should not use any tough words, and keeps mouthing inanities like “we shall not let them go scot free”, “the perpetrators will have to pay for this” etc. Token routine statements are made by the Home Minister and others in the administration when it is obvious from actions across the border, before and after the events, that the state of Pakistan has no intention of doing anything. The foreign minister of Pakistan has accused India of war mongering and diligently maintains that no beheading took place. In fact, the state of Pakistan itself is involved in most of the dastardly acts.
In Sharm-el-Sheikh in 2009 the Prime Ministers of the two states issued a joint statement which acknowledged Pakistan being a victim of terrorism and for the first time Baluchistan made its way into a joint statement. The goal post had suddenly shifted. Notwithstanding the continued cross-border terrorism, we still want to pursue talks with a rouge state which has no intention of giving peace a chance. While talks should not be abandoned and policy should not be dictated by the rants in TV studios, why cannot the Indian administration talk tough, ban cricket matches with the Pakistan team, refuse to play Pakistan in any international sporting event? Will any international cricket event today succeed commercially if India withdraws? Bring pressure where it hurts most. Why give MFN (most favoured nation) status to Pakistan when that country is not extending the same to India; when it has not taken any steps to bring the perpetrators of 26/11 to justice? This is not war mongering, but being pragmatic and forcefully articulating the nation’s strategic interests even as talks continue.
Mani Shankar Aiyer, Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha, in an Op-Ed piece in the Indian Express on 16th January (The hostility industry), in his usual articulate manner makes a case why India should have uninterrupted dialogue or peace with Pakistan and the PM should continue with his proposed visit to Pakistan. He says that the mood in Pakistan is changing. However, he fails to give a shred of evidence in favour of the same except saying that there is a “huge change in mindset in Pakistan”. Has anyone else seen or sensed this changed mindset? And who is in charge in Pakistan, which is increasingly resembling a failed state which is imploding? Another favourite argument of “aman ki asha” proponents is that people-to-people contacts should continue. But is the Indian state speaking to the people of Pakistan or the state of Pakistan which remains hostile towards India? Why pretend things are normal when they are anything but.
While talks at a level should continue for sure, India should not forget its interest of securing itself and furthering our strategic interests. A body blow to such security was the measures taken by I K Gujral when he was the Prime Minister and the intelligence infrastructure that India had within Pakistan was dismantled (read Swapan Dasgupta’s “Pak provocative, India squeamish”). This was a great disservice to India by the late Prime Minister and hopefully decades from now historians will throw proper light on his legacy. As someone put it very aptly quite some time ago, we need a Prime Minister who stops dreaming of having breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. One may add that we also need a Prime Minister who stops dreaming of winning the Nobel Peace Prize!
Stung by criticism the Prime Minister came out with some strong words finally saying it cannot be business as usual. Could his response have come earlier when the dastardly acts were perpetrated? Why did the wife and mother of the beheaded soldier have to go on a hunger strike for the state to react? Why did the families of the brave hearts who lost their lives when the parliament was attacked have to return their medals to the government demanding justice for their loved ones? But the government remains deaf and mute to their pleas. I do hope the Prime Minister’s words are followed with action and he announces categorically that his proposed visit to Pakistan stands cancelled and India will suspend all sporting and cultural ties with Pakistan till 26/11 perpetrators are brought to justice, even as bilateral talks continue.
There is a pattern to this belated response of the state to any event and the response is absent till the situation spirals out of control. The same happened after the horrific rape and murder of a young girl in New Delhi on 26th December. People in Delhi and other cities had to come out on the streets, before the powers that be, came out with a response. It is happening again in Kashmir where the situation, after a few months of peace, is once again getting out of control. Over 100 village sarpanchs in the valley have tendered their resignation citing threat to their lives. This was brewing for some time. But did the system respond? No, it slept at the wheels till terrorists shot down a sarpanch. The same happened when young stone throwers took over the valley a few years ago.
Look all around the country and you will see the same pattern. Take the Telangana issue. It’s a decades-old problem. It took a prolonged hunger strike by the Telangana Rashtra Samiti leader K Chandrashekhar Rao to elicit a response from the central government. At midnight of 10th December 2009, the then Home Minister, P Chidambaram, announced the UPA government’s agreement to the formation of Telangana, only to withdraw the proposal a few weeks later. Three years on, not much progress has taken place. Cynic that I am, I expect the UPA government to announce something before the 2014 election with an eye on electoral gains in a state where it will otherwise be completely routed.
Rewind, and you will see the same response after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. Vilasrao Deshmukh was removed as the Chief Minister and promptly rewarded with a ministerial position in the UPA cabinet. Remember the Jessica Lall murder trial? The message to the general public was clear – we know how to manage your protests and care two hoots about your views and feelings. If things get out of control, there is always the police and paramilitary forces, as was seen in Delhi in December. The point is that the state doesn’t care and responds only when people take to the streets and/or resort to violence.
Is this all relevant? Yes, it is. All this dents the confidence and economy of the country and paints the country in a poor light. A deaf and mute state lurches from one crisis to another and decisions are only taken under pressure – whether threats from rating agencies or threats from people on the street or sometimes rants in the media. As we all know decisions taken under pressure are often short sighted and the country is paying, and will pay, a heavy price for it. India has lost nearly a decade – the last decade has been a decade of missed opportunities and the confidence of India is dented today. Hopefully the next decade will be painted differently.