Mumbai: The main political parties are talking tough on terror in the run-up to general elections, vowing to crack down on extremist violence in the wake of the deadly Mumbai attacks.
The Congress-led administration of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is billing itself as the only credible party able to unite the country to deal with the “scourge of terrorism” that it says is spreading across South Asia.
“We are in the middle of a ring of fire,” Home Minister P. Chidambaram said Tuesday at the release of a Congress manifesto for tackling terrorism.
Guaranteeing the security of every Indian citizen will be the party’s “mission number one” if returned to power in the 16 April-13 May elections, Chidambaram said.
The main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has described Congress’s record on fighting extremism as “a nightmare” that has left the country “helpless in the face of terror”.
But despite the strong rhetoric from both sides, national security will come well down the list of priorities for India’s 714-million-strong electorate,“ analysts said.
“National security is never going to be a very central issue,” said Ajay Sahni, executive director of the Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi. “Mumbai is a fading memory in the minds of people across the country.”
India’s fragmented political structure and vast size means that few parties can claim to have countrywide appeal. That and a strong sense of religious and social identity means that local and regional issues will be more to the fore.
“Local issues in the end are going to dominate... and often of the worst and lowest common denominator — caste and communal mobilisation,” Sahni said.
Wilson John, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank, agreed, saying “local issues of governance, economics, politics and of course caste and religion” are the main voter focuses.
As a result, parties will concentrate on promising to do more to improve creaking or non-existent infrastructure, boost healthcare and education provision in rural areas and help farmers, analysts said.
Protecting the country is also likely to overlap with other policy areas, like India’s approach to its neighbour and rival Pakistan, or appear in “oblique” references in discussions about Hindu-Muslim relations, they added.
National security was pushed up the political agenda in the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, which followed a series of bomb blasts in Indian cities blamed on Islamist militants.
The daring strike on India’s financial capital by 10 heavily armed gunmen, that left 165 dead and more than 300 others injured, highlighted glaring intelligence failings, a lack of co-ordinated response and ill-equipped security services.
Public outrage led to the resignation of home minister Shivraj Patil, as the government cowered from accusations of complacency and incompetence and was forced to admit “lapses”.
Congress responded by tightening anti-terrorism legislation, increasing defence spending and proposing a new agency to probe terror-related crimes.
Sahni suggested other than political point-scoring, the BJP may not campaign too hard on national security after its criticisms of Congress’s record largely failed to sway voters in recent state polls.
Another reason could be the BJP’s own record on fighting extremism when it was in power between 1999 and 2004 — a period that saw a high-profile strike on parliament in 2001, a wave of bombings in Mumbai and increased bloodshed in Kashmir.
“They don’t have a leg to stand on. It’s not a convincing electoral platform for them for the simple reason that people can turn around and say, ‘what did you do?” he said.
Political analyst Kumar Ketkar, editor of Mumbai’s Loksatta newspaper, suggested there is little difference between the main parties in terms of implementing national security policy.
And whoever wins will face a bureaucratic headache to push through any reforms.
“It’s a Tweedledum, Tweedledee difference,” he said.
Security issues, though, are likely to be considerations in certain areas, including Mumbai, the analysts said.
Others include Kashmir, where a long-running anti-India insurgency has left more than 47,000 people dead, and the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where there is support for Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers separatists.
Many poor, rural areas have also been gripped by violence by Maoist-inspired guerrillas.