26/11: Strong response could have made difference

26/11: Strong response could have made difference
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First Published: Thu, Dec 04 2008. 11 00 PM IST

Updated: Thu, Dec 04 2008. 11 00 PM IST
The week that will live in infamy is past, but its lessons live on to haunt us. Our initial response to the acts of terror suggest that some basic lessons remain to be learnt.
The reactions of a corporate organization to a crisis is determined by its value systems and the way these values are communicated to its employees. So also in public life. The capacity of a nation to rebound from a crisis is determined by the ability of its leaders to provide a clear, persuasive value system for its people. Such shared values are powerful. They can motivate citizens or employees to go beyond the call of duty and make the right decisions when faced with conflicting choices. It would appear that judged both by the yardsticks of clarity as well as of alignment with public opinion, the message sent by the government needs to be reinforced.
Clarity of strategy is of the essence in crisis situations. Lack of clarity on sensitive issues of national security only dissipates the strong and united focus we need to show as a nation at such times. On the media we hear that security experts are clear in their conviction that our neighbour has a long-term strategy which is adverse to Indian interests. These individuals have suggested many direct measures as a strong response to these attacks. Yet, the initial reaction of the government seemed to suggest that the best way forward was through a dialogue with an inimical state. Can both views be right?
If we assume that officials across a spectrum of forces have no incentive in misleading the public, then such widely divergent views only dissipate the strength of public sentiment, and are the political equivalent of creating a company whose leadership does not have a common vision. It is, therefore, important that there be a single view of a problem to find its solution and the government has a role to play in providing clarity through its words.
There also needs to be greater alignment between the outraged spirit of our citizens and the comparatively measured reaction of the government. Reflecting public opinion, other countries in similar situations have sent out stronger messages to their people. After 9/11 in the US, President George W. Bush, speaking to Congress, made a series of demands on the Taliban, but also went on to say “These demands are not open to discussion or negotiation”.
In contrast, that kind of robustness of sentiment needs to be more evident in the messages we hear from New Delhi. If the spirit of Mumbai appears bowed, it is because, at a time when its citizens seem to want strong action, there appears to be a reluctance to take a hard stand with the perpetrators of terrorism, until pushed by the weight of overwhelming public sentiment.
That common values which sync with the hearts of people can make a big difference to our response to terror was demonstrated during the event itself. One need look no further than hear the awe-inspiring stories of the staff of the Taj and Trident hotels, whose morale and resourcefulness saved large numbers of guests. It is unlikely that many of the employees involved were specifically trained to deal with such a situation, but a strong value system, which placed service above all, came to the fore at a time of crisis.
Furthermore, in a crisis, it is not sufficient to just make symbolic gestures. There also needs to be tangible actions which can make a difference. Over the past week, several persons have questioned why banks and companies that operate in India cannot be asked to certify to our authorities that they do not operate in Pakistan. Surely, organizations that seek to profit in India could be asked to make an economic choice between the two markets. It is also not clear why efforts such as people to people cooperation, the Samjhauta Express, cultural cooperation or TV serials using Pakistani artistes need to continue in such a situation.
Finally, strong responses in word and deed are one way to salve a wound that otherwise will not heal. It is now recognized in psychology, sociology and?politics?that?societies?need closure for hurt they have borne. Providing closure is the duty of a government and can only be done with some form of retaliatory action.
The US government, while defending the decision to sentence the perpetrators of the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, reiterated that societies and countries demand closure after such events. But we have managed to avoid the execution of someone sentenced by our Supreme Court for an attack on Parliament.
Going by what we have seen in various public gatherings including the very large one at the Gateway of India this week, the citizens of Mumbai can achieve closure through the extraction of an economic or political price from the perpetrators of this act. How long will the citizens of Mumbai and (Jaipur, Delhi and other cities) have to wait for this?
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First Published: Thu, Dec 04 2008. 11 00 PM IST