Policy muddle

Published : Mar 23, 2012 00:00 IST

Home Minister P.Chidambaram. He says the NCTC is being accorded bare minimum powers.-V. SUDERSHAN

Home Minister P.Chidambaram. He says the NCTC is being accorded bare minimum powers.-V. SUDERSHAN

The UPA puts the NCTC on hold following opposition from non-Congress governments and regional allies of the Congress.

WE seem to be turning out into classical practitioners of Lenin's famous aphorism one step forward, two steps back'. From foreign direct investment [FDI] in retail to the Lokpal Bill to the National Counter-Terrorism Centre [NCTC], our government seems to have set new records in creating political and administrative confusion.

This was how a senior leader of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), a partner in the United Progressive Alliance ( UPA) government at the Centre, responded when asked to comment on the government's latest policy muddle, the NCTC. The leader went on to point out that the NCTC imbroglio is yet another reflection of the general drift and lack of direction that the UPA leadership has displayed in the past two and a half years. He added that the downslide accelerated in the past six months following the controversies over the Lokpal Bill, the FDI, the Army chief's age and now the NCTC.

The views expressed by the NCP leader was, of course, sotto voce, but other junior partners of the UPA, such as the West Bengal-based Trinamool Congress and the Jammu and Kashmir-based National Conference (N.C.) have been more open about their reservations on the NCTC. There is little doubt that these views have received endorsements in private at various echelons of the UPA, including in the party leading the coalition, the Congress. Agreeing with the NCP leader, a senior Congress Minister from south India commented in private that sections of the government and the Congress, particularly the lawyer brigade, which is calling the shots from time to time, seem to have lost all sense of political anticipation and the skills of political nuancing and negotiation that emanate from political anticipation.

Any politician or administrator with common sense would have known that almost all opposition-ruled States and some States run by UPA partners would have reservations about a move like the NCTC which seeks to appropriate so much power to the Central government. Of course, there is little doubt that terrorism needs to be fought more effectively, as the concept behind the NCTC argues. But this cannot be done effectively without the support of the States. And hence there was need for widespread discussions on the issue with different stakeholders, including political parties and governments led by them, before finalising the details. But unfortunately, we did not deem it fit to do this. This is exactly what happened in the case of FDI in retail. But our leadership, particularly Home Minister P. Chidambaram, failed to draw any positive lesson even from this, the Minister pointed out to Frontline.

As in the case of FDI in retail, the government has now initiated discussions on the NCTC, too, with various State governments and other stakeholders. This followed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's letter to Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal asserting that in forming the NCTC, it is not the government's intent in any way to affect the basic features of the constitutional provisions and allocation of powers between the States and the Union. The negotiations have ensured that the original schedule conceived by the Home Ministry for setting up the NCTC would not be followed. The original plan was to start it from March 1. The Home Ministry's expectations in the context of the negotiations are that there would be enough clarity on the issue at least by mid-March. A national meeting of all State Directors General of Police (DGP) is scheduled for March 10. Expectations are that this meeting will pave the way for reconciliation.

However, as things stand now, the stalemate continues, with a clutch of States still opposed to the move. Central to the opposition is the apprehension that the NCTC, especially the empowering of it with Section 43 (A) of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, will infringe on the powers of the States. The Centre's position, as delineated by Chidambaram, is that the NCTC is being accorded the bare minimum powers necessary for counter-terrorism operations. He also added that the powers conferred on the NCTC under Section 43(A) must be read with the duty under Section 43 (B) to produce the person or article without unnecessary delay before the nearest police station. Chidambaram asserted that the police station was in any case under the State government and that the appropriate authority in the police station would take further action only in accordance with the provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). All these explanations, however, have not brought about a substantive change in the attitude of the State governments that have opposed the move.


At a larger political level, the Chief Ministers opposed to the move have pointed out that the current concept of the NCTC violated the very fundamentals of the principles of federalism upheld by the Indian Constitution. Talking to Frontline, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar pointed out that the NCTC would impinge on the powers guaranteed to the States by the Constitution. Police and law and order are State subjects and the State police should be allowed to handle law and order and internal security issues. By violating this, the current concept of the NCTC has challenged the very basis of the security and administrative structure that we have had in the country. At the level of day-to-day functioning also, the NCTC is ill-conceived. First and foremost, it locates the NCTC within the Intelligence Bureau [I.B.], which is not subject to any legal statute. It was established in 1887 through an office order to spy on Russian activities, and later on the Indian national movement, Nitish Kumar pointed out.

Nitish Kumar's point of view finds wide acceptance among those who have opposed the current concept of the NCTC. Speaking to Frontline, a former senior police officer pointed out that no effort had been made to legislate keeping the I.B. in mind, make its existence legitimate and bring it under parliamentary supervision, as is the practice in a large number of democratic countries.

However, the country's leadership in the past six decades have assured us that the I.B. had no powers to arrest and make seizures. The fear now is that with the NCTC, it may actually acquire that power. Now, whatever information or evidence that the I.B. collects is handed over to various other security institutions that function under strict rules and legitimacy, including the State police and the Central Bureau of Investigation. Armed with the powers of arrest and seizures, the I.B. could well become a persistent bugbear, especially given its track record of shoring up political dirty tricks and intrigues for the powers that be, the officer said.

It is apprehensions like these that have led to broad unity among Chief Ministers against the Home Ministry's move. States with governments belonging to parties that have divergent ideological and political positions, such as the Left-run Tripura, the centrist-run Orissa, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, and the BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Gujarat have come together on the issue. The Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal and the N.C. government in Jammu and Kashmir have also joined the chorus of protests. In all probability, the election-bound States of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, currently ruled by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine respectively, are also opposed to the move.

At a larger political level, some observers have perceived the beginnings of a new Third Front in the coming together of the Janata Dal (United), the Trinamool Congress, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), in view of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The perception is that these regional players could form such a grouping, which would enable them to bargain with the mainstream parties, the Congress and the BJP.

While this, of course, is a premise that would develop only in the medium term, the big immediate question in the context of this unity among different States and the Union government's current initiatives to bring about a reconciliation is about the exact meeting ground between the two positions. Would the negotiations lead to a concrete and positive result? Would it finally lead to a powerful anti-terrorist body that is able to maintain the spirit of Indian federalism? These questions have no positive answers at the moment.

Given the general drift and the state of confusion at various levels of the UPA government, it may be too much to expect a major turnaround, especially in the background of the battles between the various Ministries of the UPA government, including the ones headed by Congress Ministers, as also the belligerence of the Trinamool Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Congress' ally from Tamil Nadu.

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