Why fixing drains will help counter terrorism

India cannot be competent in internal security without being competent in overall governance

“If 26/11 is not to become another one in an endless series of fatalities,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes “we need to keep asking the question: how can a people who have much to be proud of, be endowed with a state that has much to be embarrassed about?” The answer is in a guest post I wrote on Dilip D’Souza’s blog last year. Here is the post, in full:

Since those Pakistani terrorists attacked Mumbai in the last week of November, I received innumerable emails and phone calls from nice people expressing righteous anger against two targets: the incorrigible Pakistan and our own arrogant, self-serving and incompetent politicians. Shouldn’t we just bomb that place Muridke, where the ISI trains jihadis? Shouldn’t we punish politicians and bureaucrats who failed to prevent these attacks from happening? It was difficult to reason with them: no, we can’t just bomb Muridke, because, you know, that would start a war with a wretched, broken country that has nothing to lose. And besides, that’s exactly what the Pakistani military-jihadi complex wants us to do. Now, I didn’t think that I would have to defend myself against the charge of being a “dove”. But let that be for now.

What about our politicians and our security agencies? Shouldn’t they be punished for ignoring the terrorist threat until it was too late? Sure. But first, let’s ask when was it that we gave them a credible signal that we think this was important. And let’s ask ourselves why it should be surprising that our intelligence and security apparatus failed to prevent a sophisticated amphibious assault mounted by both the might of a powerful intelligence agency and a well-organised organised crime network.

South Mumbai is one of India’s richest constituencies. It also has the lowest voter turnouts. The Maharashtra state government routinely fails to protect its citizens from the ravages of the monsoon. Mumbai didn’t complain. The Maharashtra government failed to put uppity political goondas in their place. Mumbai didn’t complain. The state government shelved plans to invest Rs 2000 billion to modernise the city. Mumbai didn’t complain. Plans to transform it into an international financial centre disappeared into another black hole. Mumbai didn’t complain. The good citizens of India in general, and Mumbai in particular had seceded from the nation—choosing to provide for themselves the basic public goods that the government ought to have.

It is unreasonable to expect competent policemen and intelligence agencies when the public works, healthcare, education and environment departments are characterised by non-performance, corruption and worse. Unless the overall quality of governance improves, one cannot expect India to battle terrorism and other lesser threats to human security. And you can’t expect law enforcement to comply to the civilised norms we expect. In this context, it is just as unreasonable to expect the Indian state to be effective against terrorism as it is to expect it to show regard for human rights of suspects. The upshot is that overall governance must improve. How?

By voting. By giving money, legitimately, to politicians to support their election campaigns. And by holding them to account. I’m stopped at this point by people who say it won’t work, and we need to do something “stronger” to change politics. I find this amazing. Because despite being one of the simplest instruments available to Indians, it is dismissed as being ineffective by people who have not even tried it. If the vote is empowering the historically downtrodden segments of the Indian population, won’t it empower the middle class too? No, it’s not a quick fix, but our politicians are a smart lot—they are bound to notice a bank of votes and notes when they see one.

It doesn’t matter if the choice on the ballot is between a criminal and a person who has broken the law, between a former and current member of the same party, between a candidate of this party or that. Voting is the most credible signal we can send to our politicians—both to fix the drains and to secure us from terrorists. It’s time we send it loud and clear, above all the noise we make.

19 thoughts on “Why fixing drains will help counter terrorism”

  1. Nitin, let me say again what I said when I saw this essay: this is pretty much exactly how I see the issue.

    “Unless the overall quality of governance improves, one cannot expect India to battle terrorism and other lesser threats to human security.”

    If there are folks who think saying this makes you a “dove”, I can only say two things: those folks are interested only in weakness, and we should all be such doves.

  2. Nitin,
    A year ago, I was one of the many who were in support of inane policies like “stop giving tax”, “strike at POK” and all that. Then I saw the voter turnout in the Mumbai elections and that too just after 5 months of 26/11.

    Its been crystal clear to me from that point onwards.

  3. I don’t definitely consider Nitin a “dove”, not in the pejorative sense at least, because his dove-ness stems from a pragmatic standpoint wedded to India’s interests.

    But the doves that lecture us from a “Indo-Pak friendship forum” platform (“we have so much in common you know, ghazals, garlic naan ..”) are no doves at all in my view, but the very ones responsible and accountable for the kind of politics that resulted in the kind of governance we have.

  4. I agree with you. The way to go is electorally. And one step further is to mobilize public opinion so people clamour for change. Once you have this huge population of ours clamouring for change and voting as well, the political landscape will change. It will happen, slowly, and I cannot understand why people feel there is no hope.

  5. Nitin, Dilip,

    Please allow me to thank you once again. I had hoped this kind of thing could be done on a more regular basis, maybe once every quarter or so, where divergent POVs could get together at a common forum and simply agree on some core issues. Or even come as close as they could to agreeing, which is good enough.

    Let me also thank Rohit Pradhan for his opinion piece at IndianMuslims at about that time.

    I would have liked to keep pinging you guys, but you would have gotten irritated beyond a point 🙂 and life kind of got in the way for me too.


  6. Totally agree with the idea that overall governance must improve as a pre-requisite for future growth, security, and development…whether in Maharashtra or in Jharkhand.

    There is no alternative to voting, but there is little incentive for the people to vote – ideally you should need no tangible incentive. But India today, amidst all the growth, needs incentive to respond. And intangible incentive of empowerment does not work effectively for the growing middle-class.

    The reason, as I see it, is that, since most of the growth/development in recent years has come from private sector, the people seem to think that bad governance does not necessarily act as a barrier to personal growth… Even the mother of all disasters cannot stop them from the daily grind of making money. Will bad governance stop them? Heck no. Will losing your job stop you? Heck yes. That is the reason why the vote is empowering the downtrodden, who do not have a private sector to depend on, esp. in the rural areas, but will not be used by the middle-class happily cocooned in their own bubble and living the “incredible growth story”…

    What I would like to ask you is whether you see a more influential role for the big businesses in driving the administration to provide better governance. Make that an integral part of the “social responsibility” agendas. Donate money and expertise for public service and governance projects. Instead of simply mobilizing people, one needs to mobilize the big businesses and get them to protest and retaliate, credibly. There must be some way to leverage that influence.

    I know the argument is a bit weak – profit-oriented big businesses generally do not have a conscience and it can be a tough job to mobilize them. But for a city like Bombay, which is all about money, the only alarm bells the government and people will respond to will be those of big businesses leaving to set up shop somewhere else. That is true for the rest of urban India as well. Not just the voice of people…that is too cheap and too divided in this country. I can’t help feeling a bit cynical.

  7. I have seen people in my village come out and vote because they hoped the next government would do something for their village (build road, bring power etc). Often voting is not a choice but a compulsion coz that is the only tool available to them to get their voices heard.

    Contrast this with people living in a city – electricity (though interrupted) is ensured and roads (though with pot holes) are there. We have outsourced our responsibility to communicate to media and we hope our politicians pay heed to what the media says. Most of our breads come in spite of the government, not because of it. Excuse me, but where is the compulsion to vote!

  8. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea. — Antoine de Saint-Exupery”

  9. I will have to agree with the sentiment that there is no real incentive for many Indians to vote. Our “system” is fatally corrupt to the core. Most people seem to have a weary sense of resignation that this is “the best” that we can have.

    How bad has it become ? We even understand why politicians are corrupt and dont expect any better.

    For people to vote in large numbers, they need to be very determined to do so inspite of all the reasons not to. And this determination has to prevail for a long period of time. How likely is that?

    Take 11/26 for example. Is there a more a glaring example of how utterly incompetent and impotent the Indian Government was/is and can be ? We have a Prime Minister who is prancing around in the US on the eve of the first anniversary – i cannot imagine a more insensitive gesture than that.

    Nitin, you should be thankful that people still came out and voted 6 months later in the General election and that too for the same party that was responsible for the failures of 11/26. What signal does that send to the Congress and other politicians ?

    It very clearly says that the Indian public by a large majority does not care a whit about personal or national security.If not even one person in the Indian Govt has not been held accountable for the Govt’s failure, why is it ?

    It is because the public has zero faith in the Government – a sense of skepticism that comes with the the experience of terrible Governments for the last five decades. And consequently it comes to believe that the Government is incapable of doing anything of worth when it comes to 11.26

    Let’s not forget that 11/26 was not a sole incident of terrorism that dropped by one day. How many terrorist attacks have happened in India in the last 6 years ?- i can remember atleast one each in Delhi, Hyderabad, Bombay, Bangalore… BEFORE 11/26

    How many people in this forum think that this was the last major terror attack on Indian soil ? At this point its merely a rhetorical question.

    We dont expect a whole lot from ANY Govt and there are hundreds of good reasons for that. That’s how it is. and it isnt going to change any time soon.

  10. The problem at the core can be the structures of governance itself. The first past the post system in a very diffused political system now does not lead to a truly representative government.

  11. Individual votes do not matter in India. That is the way our constitution structures state machinery. Local representatives do not matter. It is political parties that win elections, not individuals. The voters cannot be blamed because they are rationally ignorant and they are embroiled in a negative feedback loop.

    Unless the constitution is altered to transfer more power from the center to the states, the states to the cities and to the individuals from the cities, we will not see any palpable increase in the number of voters.

    If that were to happen, the individual would be truly empowered, and the middle-class will have a reason to voice its opinion through the polls.

    Let us be honest, how many of us even know the names of our local state assembly representatives? We (the middle-class) have better things to do than go vote at some election, things cannot be expected to change through individual votes. This is rational ignorance. Give us some real incentives, make our votes matter. Reform the constitution!

  12. Pankaj has made an excellent point. “diffused” is a brilliant word to describe the situation. IMO, the best discussion on the structure of our system is by Arun Shourie in his “The Parliamentary System”.

  13. Let us look at the responsible middle class common man. He pays his taxes, abides by the laws of the land etc. When he is given a chance to vote, he looks at the list of the people in the fray and puts in his choice.
    Is this the beginning of his duties as a citizen or the end? How can he be more socially caring and active? How should the citizen be made aware that he can have the right and choice to not only grin and bear but also productively complain and be heard?
    Is there a “join and put in your mite to help the departments work better” outfit?

  14. Jai,

    You triggered a good thing going there- more such would be nice.
    Also, something is wrong with the blog your id now links to. As cool as I am sure you are, you don’t sound the type to be among ‘4 girls. Yea. We are mad cool’ (?!)

  15. I would just like to amplify the sentiments expressed by Paritosh. India’s big business is nowhere in the picture, and they really ought to be involved in much more visible way in philanthropy, parterning with the government to accelerate urban redevelopment, and infrastructure provision.

    I mean… Ambani brothers’ net worth is now snapping at the heels of Bill Gates, Laxmi Mittal’s Mittal Steel’s assets are about the size of West Bengal’s GSDP. And other than business, all they are in the news for are their daughters lavish weddings, multi-billion dollar homes, and fiendish fraternal rivalries.

    Could such folks not play a role in such basic things as helping speed up the transition from Kala Pila taxis to air-conditioned taxis. A charitable grant, or seed money to transition existing drivers’ away from their old cabs would suffice. Many of Mumbai’s museums and art galleries are in terrible condition. Have any of you been to Chhatrapati Shivaji (FKA Princeof Wales of Museum) Museum in Fort recently? It is still not airconditioned. Antiquities and artifacts are in terrible shape. Ditto for nearby Jehangir Art Gallery. I also visited Elephanta caves. The ferries haven’t changed from the 1970s. The local hotel/restaurant is in terrible shape.

    When endowments, and charitable contributions for such basic urban conveniences and the cornerstones of the city’s culture cannot be obtained from a rising Indian business class, let alone from the state, I really worry about the character of our Nation, and Mumbai in particular. Everyone is too caught up keeping his/her head above water (literally) to notice -or complain about- the broader the slippages in the broader quality of life which is really what is worth defending.

  16. #17: Fchiramel,

    Thanks. There’s a spellor. my decidedly uncool apology of a blog is at jaics not jacs. its a placeholder really, for a blog ID.


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