The Red Herring Dealers of Lahore

There’s more to the Mumbai terror alert than meets the eye

Yesterday, reports in the media indicated that a terror alert had been sounded in Mumbai and across many Indian airports: five terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Taiba had entered the country and planned to target petrochemical installations in Mumbai using the sea routes. These reports were similar to those a couple of days earlier, concerning Gujarat, where coastal police tightened watch over offshore islands and the petrochemical complex at Jamnagar.

Reports in today’s Pakistani newspapers reveal that three of the five alleged LeT terrorists are shopkeepers and a security guard from Lahore, who have sought police protection in the light of the Indian terror alert.

It’s easy to dismiss this as a goof-up by Indian intelligence authorities, citing Occam’s & Hanlon’s razors. To do so would be to ignore the little known fact that the Lashkar-e-Taiba has, in the past, used red herrings to befuddle and embarrass India’s intelligence agencies, including during one of the biggest terrorist attacks in recent times. It would also be to ignore the alacrity with which the three gentlemen from Lahore discovered their photographs, sought police protection and, according to one popular website that peddles a ‘nationalist’ line, were to address a press conference. All this within hours of the photographs appearing in the Indian media. Things do happen pretty fast in the internet age, but a mere three six hours to mobilise all this should raise eyebrows. (Gujarat police had put up the photographs across the state as early as May 6th). [See update below]

So what, other than incompetence, are the possibilities?

The first is that real terrorists used fake identities to enter India. If they have entered India, it means they are still around and might use the lowering of guard caused by this episode to strike. Also, the alerts indicated five terrorists. It is important, therefore, for the authorities and the media to treat the threat as ongoing and serious, and not drift into complacency.

Second, this was an information operation designed to embarrass India and the United States, and use it to show that India always makes false accusations against Pakistan. By implication, Hafiz Saeed and Lashkar-e-Taiba were victims of a ‘false flag’ operation by India (and the United States) to implicate Pakistan. The best time for this would have been when Hillary Clinton was on Indian soil. However, by accident, inefficiency or design, the terror alert was sounded after she left the country. In the event the grand expose in Lahore turned out to be a damp squib.

Be that as it may, the myth-making machines of Pakistan will turn this episode into a narrative of how Hafiz Saeed and Lashkar-e-Taiba are unfairly blamed by India and the United States. Even if its for domestic consumption, it’s still an effort that didn’t go waste.

We must, of course, consider the Occam & Hanlon razors. Did India’s intelligence agencies goof up? They could have erred in terms of the existence of the threat, the presence of terrorists and their identities. Each of these is a separate issue. That said, at this stage, we are better off if they raise an alert at the risk of looking red-faced rather than let the fear of embarrassment cause them to less on the ball.

Tailpiece: There’s also a chance that the Indian media put up the wrong pictures. How and why they’d end up publishing photographs of the three gentlemen from Lahore is a mystery.

Update: May 11th, 2012 Praveen Swami & Mohammad Ali report “late on Wednesday, shopkeeper Mahtab Butt said he had on a whim used Google to search for the word ‘India.’ The search led him to an India Today group site. There, he discovered a photo of himself, fellow storeowner Atif Butt and night guard Muhammad Babar, illustrating a story on the alleged Mumbai terror plot. Mr. Butt said he immediately called Pakistani television show host Mubashir Lucman — a controversial figure known for his dogged support of the religious right — with the news…Later that evening though, both Mr. Butt and Mr. Atif Butt provided The Hindu with a quite different version of events. The two men said they had learned of the report from a common friend, whom they identified as Khubaab.”

This increases the likelihood that India’s intelligence agencies were fed misinformation to either divert or embarrass them. We can only speculate the reasons for this. Embarrassing India during Mrs Clinton’s visit is enough of a motive. While it is unlikely that the ISI would wish to escalate tensions with India at a time when Pakistan’s relations with the US are close to breaking down, it would be inappropriate to dismiss the risk of a terrorist attack.

India and international financial services

The opportunity in the crisis

In today’s DNA, Mukul Asher & Azad Singh Bali argue that it is an opportune moment for India to make a serious play in developing international financial services:

It may seem odd to stress the need for developing international financial services (IFS) during the fragile recovery from the global financial and economic crisis. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has argued with considerable justification that its conservative approach to liberalisation of the financial sector has significantly contributed to mitigating the macroeconomic impact of the current global crisis.

Nevertheless, diminished prospects of the current providers of IFS due to the crisis and subsequent rethinking of the appropriate role of finance; India’s own growth prospects; and its vision of emerging as a major economic power strongly suggest that this is an opportune time to develop IFS in India.

…The development of IFS in India primarily for domestic needs should be the first priority. This phase may last perhaps a decade. As India’s financial and capital markets acquire greater depth and size, in the subsequent phases, India could consider serving the needs of international clients and become a global financial centre. It is therefore clear that the policymakers and the stakeholders need to sustain their efforts and focus over a long term, and plan sequencing of this process carefully.[DNA]

Experimenting with compulsory voting

Let’s find out whether it works

This blog has long argued that for governance to improve more citizens must vote. So what should we make of the Gujarat state’s decision to make voting compulsory in all local body elections?

Constitutional and philosophical reasons apart (see Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s op-ed for this) this is an interesting experiment and it will be valuable to see what it leads to.

Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s chief minister and a proponent of compulsory voting calls it a “historic move to strengthen democracy” that will take “drawing room politics to the polling booth level.” But Mr Modi might be making the OMIPP—mistaking correlation for causation.

High voter turnouts might bring about responsive accountable governments because voting rate is a sign of an engaged electorate. But forcing everyone to vote might not have the same effect, because the people are merely forced to queue up and press a button on the voting machine—they are not being forced to “engage”. A non-engaged, apathetic electorate when forced to vote, might vote randomly, whimsically or spoil the ballot.

So compulsory voting might be equivalent to introducing a political wild-card without necessarily improving governance outcomes. The effect might vary ward by ward, constituency by constituency and region by region—it’s hard to answer the question of “who will it benefit?”

The experiment should be allowed so that we can add empirical evidence to the list of criteria we use to assess whether the idea of compulsory voting is a good one.

Pearson, Gujarat and editorial independence

The next time one of its publications claims editorial independence, it’ll be a little less credible.

Pearson, the company that owns the Economist, Financial Times and fDi Magazine—an offshoot of the latter—can no longer credibly claim that its publications enjoy editorial independence. It just showed that the proprietors of the company can overrule the decisions of one of its publications’ editorial management team, albeit in response to vociferous lobbying. Surely it is reasonable to assume that if Pearson’s management can yield to one group of well-connected lobbyists, it can also yield to others? Of course, if governments exert pressure on media companies it is coercion; if shrill members of ‘civil society’ do it, then it is not only acceptable, but accepted.

We are talking about the episode of fDi Magazine’s Personality of the Year 2009 Award, which now has been given to the Indian state of Gujarat. Gujarat became a personality after the Gujarati personality it was initially awarded to was suddenly found unworthy of the award—although the factors causing the unworthiness were not hidden to the people who initially gave the award. When it first recognised Narendra Modi—fairly in the Acorn’s opinion—for his achievements in attracting investments to Gujarat, fDi magazine certainly knew that his role in the post-Godhra riots of 2002 was under judicial scrutiny. Now, there have been arguments that Mr Modi’s achievements are overstated—just as there have been arguments that Manmohan Singh’s role in the post-1991 reforms, and indeed those reforms themselves have been overstated. It is inconceivable that a publication with the FT pedigree could have been unaware of these criticisms. (See V Anantha Nageswaran’s post). They still chose to give the award to Mr Modi.

But Mr Modi’s detractors couldn’t digest that. They targeted the management of Pearson in an email campaign, dropping names of people and organisations that Pearson’s CEO was affiliated to and demanded not only that the award be taken back, but also a “public statement of regret” from the publication.

In such circumstances, you would expect a media organisation of repute to stand behind the decision made by its editors. It would not have been difficult for Pearson’s management to respond to Mr Modi’s critics—that he is innocent until proven guilty by the Indian justice system, and that they would be prepared to rescind the award in the event that he is pronounced guilty.

But in this case Pearson caved in. In a laughable move, it gave the Personality of the Year award to a region, and to boot “decided to highlight the geographic regions of all the other winners.” But it is unclear whether Iraq’s al-Anbar province, Nigeria’s Lagos state, Denmark, Mexico’s Yucatan state and United States’ Louisiana are also recognised as ‘personalities’ now (psst if you are a critic of Bobby Jindal—you know what to do!). fDi magazine also airbrushed Mr Modi from its webpages. (The original pages live in Google cache, for now).

Pearson comes out of this one with its reputation dented. The next time one of its publications claims editorial independence, it’ll be a little less credible. That’s a pity, because without the presumption of independence, it would only be fair to question the motives of the highly opinionated views coming from the Economist and the Financial Times. You know, someone might just have dropped the name of the president of the club that the editor is a member of…

Tailpiece: This episode shows that Mr Modi’s critics are the mirror image of his supporters. The former see him exclusively in the dubious context of the post-Godhra riots (where he has much to answer for) while the latter see nothing but the post-Godhra economic take-off that took place under his watch. And by ignoring reasonable arguments from the other side, they damage their own.

Police-public partnership in Surat

How a city beat the terrorists

No less than 18 bombs were discovered and defused in Surat. That’s nothing short of an amazing achievement. It happened because citizens and the police force enjoyed a relationship that made it possible for the city to react quickly (linkthanks Swami Iyer). Now there is something that needs to be investigated further.

The chief of the city’s police force, R.M.S. Brar, lauded residents for taking the lead in providing information to investigators that resulted in the recovery of 18 live bombs from 10 locations, most of them around the diamond hub of Varachha.

The people in turn believe the police should be given credit for succeeding, so far, in averting a tragedy and saving innocent lives, unlike in Ahmedabad where a series of 16 explosions on Saturday killed dozens.
[Calcutta Telegraph]

Narendra Modi’s foreign affairs

The Gujjus of Astrakhan

Newspaper columns this week are mostly about Narendra Modi, and mostly about domestic issues. Those interested in foreign affairs will find K P Nayar’s piece in The Telegraph of interest:

While India’s strategic community and sections of the media have been obsessed with the India-United States of America nuclear deal, it has largely escaped their attention that Modi travelled twice to Moscow to cash in on traditional Indo-Russian links, going against the recent fashion in New Delhi of running down such commercial-cum-cultural ties with Russia in an eagerness to suck up to Washington. No one should be surprised if it is Modi who has the last laugh at the Americans, who denied him a visa in a moment of extreme bad judgment and short-sightedness in Washington. Continue reading Narendra Modi’s foreign affairs

The secular demand for security

The writing is on the wall: internal security has become an electoral issue

The march of terrorism in Indian cities, along with the government’s inability to prevent attacks, this blog wrote this August, was “on the verge of crossing the chasm and (rightly) becoming a electoral issue. The parties that fail to see it are quite likely to pay a price”.

And in November, The Acorn noted that “if the UPA government’s pussyfooting on counter-terrorism was due to electoral calculations with an eye on the Muslim vote bank, here’s something for Congress Party strategists to think about: terrorist attacks across India are making security an aam aadmi electoral issue. Muslims are not likely to relish a situation where bombs go off every now and then putting them on the defensive. Conspiracy theories too are subject to diminishing returns; and one attack too many—as we have seen in the last couple of years—could cause a secular demand for security.”

That’s exactly what Shishir Gupta concludes from the results of the Gujarat assembly elections. Narendra Modi’s electoral victory owes itself to many factors. Yet the fact that his government delivered on security was not lost on Gujarat’s voters.

The right lesson for all political parties—including the BJP but especially for the Congress—is that there is a tangible electoral advantage to be had by being serious about forcefully countering terrorism. These are not merely the words of some opinionated blogger (or, for that matter, a columnist in The Indian Express). After the Gujarat election, they are revealed preferences of the electorate. The demand for security is secular in every sense of the word.