Even before the country could ascertain the implications of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's much-awaited cabinet reshuffle, especially since it is supposedly the last major one before the next general election, the Mumbai blasts reminded it yet again of its dangerous neighbourhood and volatile domestic scene.
For the present, the terrorist outrage appears to be the handiwork of an indigenous group, probably the Indian Mujahideen. But the curious coincidence of these attacks taking place on the 13th and 26th of a month points to the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba's hand.
Before the multiple explosions in Mumbai on Sep 13, the German bakery in Pune was a terrorist target on Feb 13, 2010, before which occurred the horrendous Mumbai massacres of the Pakistani suicide bombers on Nov 26, 2008. The year 2008 was one of the worst for India since, besides the Mumbai carnage, there were six blasts in New Delhi on Sep 13 of that year, in which 26 people were killed.
Two months earlier, on July 26, 2008, there were as many as 20 explosions in Ahmedabad, killing 57, while 68 were killed in Jaipur on May 13. There were other outrages, too, in addition to these ones on various days of the month, but the choice of the 13th this time is indicative of a particular group.
The fact, however, that India has experienced no more than two major terrorist attacks in the nearly three years after 26/11 is a sign that the security situation has improved since the days of the "spectacularly inept" Shivraj Patil, to use the Wikileaks quote about the former home minister. There were minor ones, of course, as in Varanasi on Dec 7, 2010, in which two people were killed.
But one probable reason for the improvement is that Pakistan may have decided to rein in its jehadis because of the realisation that another Mumbai-style attack will earn it the wrath of the world as never before. However, there is every reason to believe that P Chidambaram has proved himself to be a competent home minister. That is undoubtedly the reason why Manmohan Singh did not change his portfolio despite a brief speculation that he may be shifted back to finance.
The prime minister's decision to leave the Big Four - home, finance, defence and external affairs ministers - untouched may indicate a high level of satisfaction with their performance in the opinions of both Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
At the same time, it is probably also true that apart from Chidambaram in home, Pranab Mukherjee in finance and AK Antony in defence, the Congress's cupboard is quite bare where efficient ministers are concerned. Even in the case of the external affairs minister, SM Krishna, it is no secret that his tenure hasn't been a notable success. While his gentlemanly demeanour is a plus point, he has all the makings of a stop-gap arrangement, except that the party seems to have no one else at the senior level to turn to.
For instance, Sushil Kumar Shinde has failed to make a mark in the power portfolio and Vilasrao Deshmukh has damaged his own resume by his failures as the Maharasthra chief minister before and during 26/11 and subsequently earning a judicial reprimand for the alleged misuse of his official position.
At the next level, Jairam Ramesh has been too busy hitting the headlines with his controversial stances on environment earlier and land acquisition now to be a serious contender for a responsible post. Of the others, Veerappa Moily's mild tantrums after his ministry was changed and Gurudas Kamat's major outburst also rule them out.
Even if the near-permanent status of the Big Four shows that the Congress is not brimming over with talent, it does give an opportunity to them to focus on their jobs for the next few years. In the context of the Mumbai blasts, the fact that Chidambaram will have a relatively undisturbed tenure is to be welcomed because it will enable him to put in place an effective counter-terrorism and also counter-insurgency strategy since the Maoists, too, pose a grave threat.
Where terrorism is concerned, the home minister's brief overlaps with that of the external affairs minister because of the Pakistan factor. Even as the ministerial level contacts continue between New Delhi and Islamabad, both sides cannot be unaware that they are passing through a transitional phase in view of the changing scene in the AfPak region.
As Pakistan's relations with the US hit a rough patch with the stoppage of American aid, the uncertain conditions in Afghanistan presaged by Ahmed Wali Karzai's assassination are a warning to India. Even if India has staved off a majority of the terrorist attacks, as Rahul Gandhi has claimed, the ordinary people will have to live in fear of sudden outrages in the foreseeable future.