Monday 1 December 2008

Hang the politician?

Ever since the terrorists landed at the Taj, politicians of every hue have been under attack by the talking heads on TV, the general population on streets, and each of us over emails, posts and blogs.

I’m sure the politicians are at fault in many ways. The way that the opposition has sought to gain from this crisis is disgusting too. Yet, I believe we are getting it frightfully wrong by making politicians the scapegoats.

First, by doing so, we do precisely what the terrorists want. They want us to be headless, have no faith in democratically elected leaders, and even ask for military or foreign takeover. Of course, the leaders have done little to deserve our faith (What have we done to deserve better?) and blaming them is logical, but that misses the point.

Terrorists wage psychological, not logical, war (if there is any logic in killing). Under terrorist attack, we need to rally around something, to fight the terrorist in our heads. By definition – ‘terror’ is the operative word here – that’s where the war will be fought for most of us. Probability dictates that far more among us will die under the wheels of a car in an accident than by a terrorist’s bullet or bomb.

The rallying point is the state, and the person who rallies the people is their leader. We don’t have even one leader who can do that. We are making matters worse by displaying our paucity to the world.

We have a right and a need to be angry, but that can be directed at (a) asking meaningful, not oratorical, questions and (b) taking whatever immediate steps we can.

Thankfully, many are already doing the first. Each day newspapers and websites are coming out with questions from ordinary Indians. Some professionals, ex-cops and ex-soldiers, are asking even tougher questions: One cannot accuse them of being theorising cowards, because they have been in the line of fire. Incidentally, most of these questions are to the police, the military and to the management of the hotels.

A fewer number suggested training to face crisis and use arms as well. Guests and staff outnumbered terrorists 100:1 at both the Taj and the Trident. The former were not lacking in courage; there are enough eyewitness accounts to prove that. Yet, they could only take bullets, not fire back. If some of them were armed, we might have had a very different story today.

To come back to the main point, blaming the politician also shows we don’t quite understand what their role can be under our system of government. We think they are our mai-baap, expecting far more from them than is possible under a democratic set-up, where their job is primarily to legislate, scrutinize (ask questions in parliament, etc) and set the overall policy (as ministers).

The enormous gap between the nature of the system and our expectations from it may be at the root of many of the ills that besiege us, now literally. When things don’t happen, we bribe politicians to exercise power, forgetting that their influence, and duties, should be very limited in the first place. In fact, the politician’s job is supposed to be voluntary. We are supposed to send our best and brightest to legislature to speak, think and vote on our behalf for a limited time, welcoming them back to their previous lives once they have done their work to the best of their abilities. Obviously, that is very far from how the system functions, but its design, and our minds, refuses to take reality into account.

So, I fail to see how a chief minister or even a legislator can be directly responsible for fire brigade trucks and bulletproof jackets. Police and fire brigade are services bought with, in the end, tax money. We are also supposed to pay for them by volunteering time. So, caveat emptor? Well, no customer has the right to expect a service provider to lay down his life on line of duty. Nonetheless, some questions and rage ought to be directed at lower rungs, babus and municipal counsellors, rather than at MPs and central ministers.

Besides, what did we do as citizens (service customers) to protect our own backs (literally again) besides cheat on tax and make snide remarks now and then? How many of us know the names of our local counsellor, the chap who’s supposed to see to it that our streets are patrolled and fire engines have pipes? If we know the system is rotten, and have known it all along, why haven’t we replaced it?

We have set up, by voting with our feet, parallel education, medical and distribution system (private schools, hospitals and shops) respectively. Since we’ve done that, we refuse to ‘subsidise’ the corrupt and wasteful state systems, by not paying taxes. Perhaps that is fair.

Anyway, we underestimated the odds of terrorist attack, and didn’t set up parallel security and damage control systems. We guessed wrong. We’re paying the price - psychologically now, materially later. If the politician has done nothing since the 1993 blasts, neither have we. If the politician has repeatedly come in the way of investigation, administration and reform, surely he knew very well that none among us bother to even ask if he has any right to influence what he supposedly dictates.

Finally, do we know what we want from politicians? I’ve repeatedly heard the terms ‘soft state’ and ‘tough terror law’ over the last few days. Does one need tough terror laws to act on tip-offs? To have trained and well-equipped police? To learn how to use a gun? To hang condemned criminals? Are we mad that we need new laws to submit to security checks conducted for our own safety? Is there any evidence that hard states (Who? Israel and USA?) Do better against terrorists than soft states (Who?)? Why should a suicide bomber fear a law, no matter how tough it is? Or are these laws targeted at local operatives? Are we sure the locals are sinning for money alone?

Or do we want them to bomb Pakistan? Are we sure that bombing Pakistan will not have the Pakistanis and Chinese nuking us in return? Has bombing Iraq and Afghanistan has solved America’s problems, or anyone’s problems, except the terrorists’, by turning their own hate into entire populations’ hate? Anyone who thinks beyond Stage One can figure out that even if war can stop direct terror killings, and there is no evidence that it does, war’s price invariably leads to far more deaths than it prevents.

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