New Delhi: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is under pressure to look at whether to send in the military to quell a growing Maoist insurgency in central India after an attack left 35 police and civilians dead.
A string of deadly attacks this year has undermined the government’s claim to be winning the war on the Maoists. The rebels blew up a bus in the mineral-rich state of Chhattisgarh on Monday, a month after 76 police were killed in another attack.
The decades-old movement is now present in a third of the country and while they have made few inroads into cities, they have spread into rural pockets of up to 28 states and now hurt potential business worth billions of dollars.
The Congress party, which heads a coalition union government, has long opposed using the military against the militant left-wing movement because of the support the Maoists have in parts of India and for fear any severe crackdown will lead to a loss of votes from Congress grass-roots support base.
India has a record of inflicting a disproportionate number of civilian deaths when using the military to crush insurgencies.
But Singh is now facing a dilemma because if he continues the current policy of using the police he risks being seen as weak.
“A military offensive could lead to large-scale civilian deaths, and it will create a perception that the government is hitting its own people, which will have adverse political impact on the Congress,” said D H Pai Panandikar, head of New Delhi-based private think tank RPG Foundation.
“And the Congress knows whatever the stand of the opposition parties -- some seem to support the use of military -- they will not be part of the action and will not be held accountable if there is large-scale casualty.”
Differences over Strategy
Some of the key government allies face local elections in the coming months, including in West Bengal, one of the affected states where the Trinamool Congress party is hoping for power and is unlikely to support any military action by the coalition.
Only last month the Trinamool helped Singh scrape through a no-confidence vote in Parliament in New Delhi.
There are sharp differences within the Congress on how to tackle the four-decade-old insurgency that has fed off the resentment of those in the countryside left out of India’s economic boom.
Union home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram suggested on Monday he favoured using the military to defeat the insurgency, which Singh considers India’s greatest internal security threat.
Because of the political implications, the final decision in the matter will most likely be taken by Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party chief.
But Monday’s attack may be strengthening the demand for involving the military.
“I was given a limited mandate,” Chidambaram told NDTV in an interview late on Monday when asked about the possibility of involving the military in the offensive against the rebels.
“We will go back to the cabinet to revisit that mandate in light of (the changed Maoist tactics),” he said adding the chief minister of the affected states wanted air force support.