The terrorist attacks in Mumbai have begun to have their impact, albeit largely at a political level at this stage. The top two members of Maharashtra’s political leadership will be replaced shortly. A federal agency to counter terror has been announced. And, most significantly, we also now have a new minister for home affairs in P. Chidambaram.
The people, meanwhile, have been vociferous in their expressions of both rage and the need for reform. Newspapers and television channels have begun parading pundits, poseurs and politicians, each with sure-fire remedies to counter terror.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
While there is no doubt that wholesale changes are required in our preventive and reactive approach to internal security threats, one area in which the state machinery has drastically failed its people this time is communication.
During the 56-hour ordeal, the primary source of information about the rescue operations were TV news channels, all of whom widely varied in their estimates of the number of dead, injured, terrorist operatives and hostages. Government announcements were few and far between and, in many cases, various agencies of the state machinery contradicted each other. After the operations were ended, for instance, Maharashtra’s deputy chief minister said that terrorists had intended to kill 5,000 people. The National Security Guards later indicated that they did not carry enough explosives for destruction of that scale.
This chaos was complemented by the silence from the Prime Minister’s Office. Manmohan Singh first spoke to the nation on 27 November in a televised speech that was widely considered insipid. The only communication that has been received since then has been the Prime Minister’s opening remarks to the all-party meeting on 30 November.
This is a shocking lapse on the part of the government. After the incidents of 9/11, much compared with the Mumbai attacks, President George W. Bush spoke to the nation the same night and on a regular basis after that. The White House arranged for daily press briefings by spokesperson Ari Fleischer.
This mechanism does not need a multiparty consensus or bureaucratic wrangling, but merely a cognizance of the nation’s need for information, consolation and leadership.
An emergency communication protocol should be among the long overdue list of reforms that the Mumbai attacks should hasten. And while the government is at it, the Prime Minister would do well to hire a new speechwriter. When a nation needs to act tough,?it?can?start by?talking?tough.
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