The other battle

Print edition : December 19, 2008

The Congress and the BJP began a slanging match in less than 24 hours after the crisis began.

in New Delhi

At the J.J.Hospital in Mumbai on November 28, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi beside a person injured in the terror attack.-PTI

IMMEDIATE political reactions to the terror attack in Mumbai revolved around one word: unity. Initially, leaders of all political parties said repeatedly that the issue of terrorism was beyond petty politicking and that politicians of all hues would stand united in this hour of crisis. But the assurances did not last even 24 hours. By the time the battle of the security forces against the terrorists had entered the second day, the two mainstream political parties of the country, the ruling Congress and the principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), were engaged in a war of words.

Diverse instruments of propaganda, including public statements, newspaper advertisements and announcements about rewards to security personnel, were used in this political war. At one level, the propaganda contest reflected not only the rivalry between the two parties but also a struggle for prominence within the BJP.

The first strike came from the BJPs self-professed face against terror Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Reaching Mumbai as the battle of the security forces entered the second day, he said he could not hold himself back in Ahmedabad though he was advised against visiting the trouble-torn city at that juncture. On arrival, he announced a reward of Rs.1 crore to the families of all martyred security personnel and lashed out at the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre for its poor preparedness in preventing terrorist attacks and shoddy reaction once the attack had taken place.

Criticising the Prime Minister specifically, Modi said he was disappointed with Manmohan Singhs address to the nation after the terrorist attack. For the first time, terrorists from Pakistan have attacked us from the sea. I had warned the Union government some time ago that Pakistan could use boats seized from Indian fishermen in terrorist activities, he said.

Modis statement clearly indicated that his warnings were not taken seriously and acted upon by the Union government. He demanded strong action against Pakistan, in accordance with the principles of the United Nations, for violating maritime norms.

Modis salvo was followed up by the BJPs Prime Minister-designate, Lal Krishna Advani, who charged the UPA government with having a non-serious approach to intelligence gathering. He said the governments overall approach to terrorism was one of pussyfooting and that it had consistently refused to arm the security agencies with appropriately tough anti-terror laws. The reference, obviously, was to the BJPs demand to bring back the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA).

Advani added a new dimension to the BJPs criticism of the UPAs anti-terror policy by saying that the preoccupation of the intelligence agencies with Hindutva terror had helped the terrorists go ahead with their plot in a totally undetected manner. This was a direct reference to the Mumbai Anti-Terrorism Squads (ATS) ongoing investigations into the Malegaon blasts, which was allegedly perpetrated by a group of Hindutva terrorists.

Like Modi, Advani also targeted Manmohan Singh. According to him, the Prime Minister had initially indicated that they would travel to Mumbai together, but just before leaving for Mumbai, I was told the Prime Minister had changed his mind and would follow a little later. Advani said that he was told that he would be informed about the venue of a meeting in Mumbai but received no information thereafter.

The Congress condemned the principal opposition party of playing cheap politics in the middle of a national crisis. The counter-attack was led by the partys spokesperson M. Veerappa Moily and the Union Minister for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal.

Sibal said the BJP had exposed its true colours when it sought to convert a human tragedy of massive proportions into a political opportunity. They had themselves said that the nation should present a united picture during such times of crisis, but it has been proved beyond doubt that they pay only lip service to such ideals, he said.

He added that the statements by Advani and Modi showed not only their lack of political maturity but also their lack of national commitment.

Moily alleged that Modi and Advani were indulging in a competitive anti-government campaign with the basic objective of establishing their supremacy within the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar. Modi wants to have a shot at becoming the BJPs prime ministerial candidate in the next Lok Sabha elections itself while Advani wants to hold on to his designated position. The competitive statements are essentially about that, he told Frontline.

According to Moily, the rewards announced by Modi were a sham. The compensation announced by the Chief Minister to Gujarat policemen after the 2002 Akshardham attack are yet to be paid and here you have Modi using the same ploy once again and trying to win accolades from the rank and file of the security forces as well as the people, he said.

Moily also expressed surprise at Modis so-called inability to hold himself back in Ahmedabad. Here is a man who was barely 200 metres away when the Akshardham temple was attacked by terrorists but took 12 hours to reach there, Moily pointed out.

Minister of State for Home Sriprakash Jaiswal said certain political parties have been targeting the Mumbai ATS for the last one month and that this is a factor that would be probed in future investigations. He said that it should be noted that three senior ATS officers had died in the fight with the terrorists.

Many of the points made by the leaders of the two parties found reflection in the newspaper advertisements they brought out in no time. The BJP advertisement, which had a blood-splattered look, had the following slogan: Brutal Terror Strikes at Will. Weak Government. Unwilling and Incapable. Fight Terror. Vote BJP.

The Congress countered this with an advertisement that sought to remind the people that terrorist attacks had happened during the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime too. It made references to the Kandahar hijack (1999), and the attacks on the Red Fort (2000) and Parliament House (2001). The final line of the advertisement referred to the Mumbai attacks too and stated that all these were part of a larger terrorist game plan to wreck India, which should be foiled on the strength of resolute and united peoples power.

Beyond the sloganeering, the assessment within both parties was that the climate created by the terrorist act would benefit the BJP in the Assembly elections in Delhi and Rajasthan, which were due on November 29 and December 4 respectively. According to a senior BJP leader of Uttar Pradesh, the partys assessment was that the Mumbai terror attack had exposed the UPA government as one that was unprepared to face the threat of terrorism. This perception is gaining ground in urban constituencies of Delhi and Rajasthan. This is accentuated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs inability to remove Shivraj Patil despite the latters poor performance as Home Minister, he said. He said the Mumbai attacks had nullified whatever electoral advantage the Congress had gained by highlighting the Hindutva terror issue.

Many Congress leaders agreed with this assessment in private. According to them, informal estimates within the party were that there would be a shift of 2 to 3 per cent votes in favour of the BJP on account of the Mumbai attacks. We are trying our best to overcome the negative effects, especially by trying to highlight the strong message sent by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Pakistan and asking the chief of the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] to come to India. However, it remains to be seen how far it would be successful in an electoral sense, said a senior South Indian leader, who has been active in the elections, to Frontline.

In his view, the party will have to do some serious stocktaking after the polls, if it were to prevent serious political damage on account of its poor management of internal security. Undoubtedly, it is time to do some serious shake-up, particularly at the top of the Home Ministry. It has proved time and again over the past two years that it is completely inept at handling issues of internal security, and it is proving to be extremely costly in political terms, he said.

Clearly, the message of unity that was sent out in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks by the government and the opposition lost all its value in about 24 hours. Thankfully, other political forces such as the Left parties, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), did not join in the politicking and add to the unseemly spectacle.

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