Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has often signalled his belief that the most difficult barriers in the way of India’s rise are the threats that come from across its border. The unfortunate truth is that after over 60 years of Independence such threats have multiplied, both in number and intensity. As Home Minister P. Chidambaram recently noted, India in the 21st century has “turned out to be the confluence of every kind of violence”. India’s founding fathers would have been astonished at the spectrum of security threats that the country faces today, ranging from a first-use nuclear strike from a failing State to forms of religious terrorism unprecedented in their willingness to cause mass casualties. India faces no shortage of economic and social challenges at home. But at least their solutions are largely an issue of India’s own willingness to seek a solution. This is not necessarily the case when it comes to external threats.
Among all these threats, Islamic terrorism from groups that are largely based in Pakistan tops the list. It is a clear and present danger. India has traditionally been remarkably passive about addressing these threats. The 26/11 Mumbai attack and the attempts to recruit Indian minority members into the ranks of terror make it clear that the economic and political costs of such passivity are too high for India. India needs to reform its national security system to a level that transcends the superficial.
There is reason for optimism. First, recent statements by Mr Chidambaram and Vice-President Hamid Ansari, for example, indicate there is some healthy debate about the nature of the administrative overhaul of the security apparatus. The key issue of public oversight of the intelligence agencies has rightly been raised from the start. Second, the government has begun looking not merely at the predictable — like, who the intelligence agencies will report to; giving the National Security Guards airlift capability, etc. — but also at far thornier issues like patching up a moth-eaten, demoralised constabulary. However, as Mr Chidambaram has noted, routine and complacency have strong roots in the bureaucracies of the home and defence ministries. The United Progressive Alliance began its term with Shivraj Patil manning the country’s defences. The real test will be whether there is enough political will to implement changes and policies that, after all, still exist only as rhetoric.