Ever since Shashi Tharoor took charge as the minister of state for external affairs in the second tenure of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, controversy has followed him, largely based on his point of view articulated through the social networking site Twitter. The chorus of protests (also from within the Congress) has been laced with demands that the minister be sacked. If this happens, it would indeed be a case of shooting the messenger.
Take, for example, Tharoor’s remarks opposing the move to tighten tourist visa rules after it came to light that Pakistani-American David Coleman Headley had obtained a multiple-entry visa from the Indian consulate in Chicago to visit India to facilitate the terror strikes of 26/11. Most of the criticism levelled against Tharoor focused on the fact that the minister had broken ranks and violated the cardinal rule that dissent should be expressed within the cabinet and not outside of it. I am not even sure as to whether as a minister of state, he got such an opportunity; normal protocol is that only cabinet ministers and those with independent charge attend cabinet meetings. But that is not the point here.
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What has got lost is the message: Can such bureaucratic tightening of rules really prevent another Headley from surfacing? Highly unlikely. The recent experience of the US should be an apt example. Despite operating as a virtual fortress and carrying out detailed profiling (some allege that at times it is racial, focusing on people with surnames such as Khan) of incoming passengers, a potential bomber got through. An analogy in India would be the emergence of “gated communities” and their failure in curbing domestic burglaries or violent crimes.
So should we simply stop manning our borders? Absolutely not. Instead, we should remember that restrictions only reduce the risk, but do not eliminate the possibility of an attack—a terrorist has to only succeed once while the security machinery has to be foolproof all the time. There is a trade-off between freedom and security; pushed to either extreme, it will be extremely counterproductive.
The second, and probably more important issue (may be not intended), underlying the Tharoor versus critics episode is that as a country we have no stomach to engage in public debate even on important issues such as terrorism. Either the debate is acerbic and vitriolic (recall the name calling between the Congress and the Bhartiya Janata Party in the run-up to the 15th general election) or it isn’t undertaken. This inability to question and debate was fine when India was just a middling economy; not when it is being viewed as an emerging power.
Maybe this is why a recent study—titled Report on the Workshop on International Studies in India and released on 4 January—by Singapore-based Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy found that research work about India, and about India and the world is abysmal; if we can’t stomach critical views about ourselves, then how can one encourage and absorb objective research. Kishore Mahbubani, the school’s dean, in an interview to this columnist pointed out that it was in stark contrast to China—where, logically, we would assume that an autarkic regime, unlike democratic India, would suppress any debate. Surprising all the more, given the success Indian academics enjoy abroad.
Mahbubani’s surmise is that it is something more fundamental. “There is yet disbelief in India that it should start preparing itself for its role as a great power. You have so many domestic issues, challenges—inevitable when you have such a large country as India—there is a tendency to be insular and look inwards. So India is not aware as to how the rest of the world is viewing it from outside.”
Frankly, I think the current political leadership believes the country’s time has come. Not surprising, therefore, that it has been assiduously worked on an image makeover of the country by taking a more proactive role in multilateral negotiations—whether they be on trade or climate change.
Does the rank and file believe so? Apparently not, if the episodes involving Tharoor are any indication. There is a sense of déjà vu here. A similar response had followed the country’s decision to pursue accelerated economic reforms in 1991 with most critics targeting then finance minister Manmohan Singh and key high-profile bureaucrats. The then prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, did not lose his nerve, at least till just before the end of the government’s tenure, and backed Singh. Slowly and steadily, opinion turned and most people, more importantly the rank and file of political parties, are today convinced that liberalization is for the global good of India. The debate now is on the substance of reforms and the need to make their benefits more inclusive—not on whether the country should reform or not.
But this took nearly two decades to achieve—a luxury that is unlikely to be afforded this time. The financial meltdown has accelerated a shift in global dynamics. While the US will continue to be the dominant global power (its economy is valued at $14 trillion, or around Rs640 trillion, while that of China is around $4 trillion and of India at a little over $1 trillion), Europe is fast losing its global clout. As Mahbubani (in an interview to Mint published on 16 January) argued, the time has come for India and China to invest in the management of global polity. The world is ready, but is India?
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comment at email@example.com