Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has announced a number of measures with the purpose of reducing India’s vulnerabilities to terrorism. Unsurprisingly, his pronouncements are being met with cynicism by the broader public. This negativity is legitimate if one considers the historical record of India’s political leadership. Mr Singh’s speech sounds too much like the beginning of New Delhi’s traditional ‘talk cycle’: an initial high-sounding policy roster followed by the quiet burial of most of the recommendations after a few months and, for the few actions that actually see the light of day, a drawn-out death through official apathy. Sadly, this talk-cycle is particularly evident when it comes to national security. The Henderson-Brooks report, a post-mortem of India’s 1962 military debacle, has never been made public. Much of the Subrahmanyam report on the failures that led to the Kargil incursion remains under wraps. Official secrecy has its place. But too often, ‘top secret’ becomes a way to ensure that the Indian public does not know what went wrong or what is being done to make it right.
The PM’s recommendations are non-controversial. But they are little more than administrative reforms. The real issue is how to address a far deeper rot in the system of governance in India. The first issue is accountability. No human organisation can work efficiently if its components believe they are immune to punishment. A first test will be whether any official suffers because of what has happened in Mumbai. A second one is constant review. Countries with successful counter-terrorism policies like the US and Israel are notable for the perpetual churn within. They hunt for new ideas, try to predict the future, check and recheck their existing systems.
The final requirement is political will. Terrorist groups represent a degree of threat and commitment that runs counter to the attention span of most election cycle-driven politicians. Building a commonality of purpose within India’s leadership is beyond legislation. Until the security process is seen as immune to partisanship and treated as equally important by each successive government, India’s answer to terror’s implacability will continue to be the talk cycle.