“TERROR SHOULD not be politicised”, argue ebullient television anchors and outraged op-ed columnists. Some go on to claim that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s defeat in the recent Delhi and Rajasthan state elections is an express rejection by voters of the “politics of terror.” That is, the voters demand a bipartisan approach towards terror and would punish parties which attempt to take advantage of terror attacks for electoral gains.
An attack like the one on Mumbai on November 26th, 2008 is indeed an attack on India—”an attack on our ambitions” as the prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, himself put it. It is a given, therefore, that political parties and civil society must unite in their condemnation of such dastardly attacks and back the government in its attempts to tackle future threats. As Ajit Kumar Doval has argued in last month’s issue of Pragati, in an era of coalition politics and divided polity, a bipartisan approach facilitates framing of a national anti-terror policy.
Nevertheless, to argue that the issue of terrorism can be de-linked from politics presupposes that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s attitude towards terror was not framed by politics. Yet, in one of the few decisive actions the UPA government took, it abrogated the Prevention of Terrorist Act (POTA) enacted by its predecessor. For the last four years, despite multiple terrorist outrages, its ministers have dismissed the need for POTA and ridiculed those demanding a special anti-terror law, repeatedly arguing that existing laws were sufficient to tackle terrorists. So when it conceded the need for special laws after the Mumbai attack, should it not be asked: What changed? POTA of course could not have prevented Mumbai attacks—no law can—the issue is merely symptomatic of the government’s lackadaisical attitude towards terror. Therefore, while a bipartisan approach is welcome, it cannot serve as a veneer to ward off accountability. It is the right and the duty of the opposition—in fact, every citizen, to demand that the government explain its failures.
Second, the sonorous cry of no politics with terror ignores the essence of democracy. As Henry Adams put it: “Politics, as a practise, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organisation of hatreds.” In other words, multiple political parties exist because there are different individuals with varying beliefs. In a democratic system, the heterogeneity of polity—of ideologies; leaders; and policies—is an essential prerequisite for its proper functioning. If political parties cannot criticise each other, how can they compete for political power? It is their criticism of each other and their attempt to distinguish themselves, which helps the voter choose a particular political formation.
Third, at its heart, tackling terror is a matter of governance. An ineffectual government which fails to ensure good roads or cannot ensure the minimum level of public goods can hardly be expected to be an effective anti-terror agency. Naturally, if terror cannot be de-linked from processes of governance, competition among different political parties is essential—indeed welcome. After all, political parties regularly compete on poverty which arguably afflicts far more Indians than urban terrorism. Unsurprisingly, the angst against mixing politics with terror is led by the elite which has long seceded from the republic and shown little interest in the democratic process. Because they have no stake in governance except for a “world class anti-terror policy”, as one prominent actor put it, they find politics on terror distasteful. They are fundamentally disinterested in politics—of any kind.
It would be reasonable to argue that all politics cannot be electoral—there is a case for moral leadership—pursuit of national interest above personal aggrandisement. But if the history of the world is any indicator, then moral leadership—with honourable exceptions—has caused more damage to national interest than frequently derided electoral politics. Because placed as they are on a higher pedestal, a ‘moral leader’ frequently escapes accountability simply by citing a lack of personal interest in the policies pursued. Be that as it may, it does not necessarily follow that the policies they favour are also the correct ones or the ones most beneficial for the people. Electoral politics frequently frustrates and might even bring about policies which are damaging to the national interest—nevertheless, accountability and an ability to force a change in policy is arguably easier in politics of numbers than in politics of morality.
So instead of initiating a war on politics itself, it is more important to examine the kind of politics. If it is of the kind that Amar Singh indulged in after the Batla House encounter, or the BJP hypocritically pursued while defending those accused of carrying out the Malegaon blasts, then it harms national interest. In states like Kerala, convicted bombers like Abdul Nasser Madani have been glorified. Similarly, the UPA government’s neglect of internal security was at least partially guided by communal concerns.
It is here that the role of voters is crucial. By punishing bad politics, and, in turn, rewarding good politics, voters signal the kind of leadership and policies they want. If parties believe that there are no electoral gains from taking counter-terrorism seriously, they are unlikely to do so. Similarly, by punishing leaders who defend terrorists, citizens can indicate clearly their intolerance for terrorism—of any kind or ideological hue. The simplest way to accomplish this is to vote—for the right candidates; parties; and polices. A slightly more challenging task is to be informed citizens—to question; demand; and offer feedback. Pursuing national interest is important but politicians are unlikely to do so at the cost of personal loss. It is only the correct incentives from voter which can force their hand. And in a democracy there is no stronger incentive than the one offered by the power of vote.
Democracy matters. Politics matters. Incentives matter. Even a government which has refused to take terror seriously, was forced to act in the aftermath of Mumbai attacks: to sack ministers; to enact tougher laws; and to launch a review of internal security. It acted not because of the fear of the chatterati but because of politics—the voters.