UPA’s ‘soft on terror’ label turns sticky

UPA’s ‘soft on terror’ label turns sticky

New Delhi: India’s most brazen urban terror attack that continued 24 hours after it began as a shoot-out in Mumbai has left the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) reeling mid-way through critical state assembly elections, reinforcing opposition claims that the government had been “soft" on terror.

An inexplicably long delay in senior party or government officials speaking out and an abrupt cancellation of a Thursday morning cabinet press briefing only worsened the perception, with many cabinet ministers and key Congress party functionaries seemingly demoralized by the overnight attacks.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh eventually addressed the nation via television at 4.30pm, some 18 hours after the attacks first began. He offered a resolute stand and made veiled references to Pakistan, and several experts maintained that the UPA government could regain its footing on the issue if actions followed rhetoric.

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“We will take up strongly with our neighbours that the use of their territory for launching attacks on us will not be tolerated, and that there would be a cost if suitable measures are not taken by them," said Singh.

With military and police authorities struggling to put an end to the attacks, TV channels claimed that one of the two arrested terrorists had been traced to Pakistan.

The terrorists, estimated to be around 25, had sought to target very high-profile landmarks, including the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, Oberoi Trident Hotel, Metro Theatre and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus) railway station in Mumbai. By Thursday night, at least 100 people were dead, including three top police officers of Mumbai, and several hundred injured.

The terror strike, which began on the eve of polling in Madhya Pradesh, where the Congress is seeking to wrest power from its rival the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is now expected to cast a shadow over the electoral verdicts in the states of Delhi and Rajasthan, which are due to go to polls on 29 November and 4 December, respectively. While the BJP overtly said it wouldn’t politicize the attacks, the Congress would be hard-pressed to defend its governance in the light of what have been repeated terror strikes in the last four years; including six attacks in the last six months that have now taken some 250 lives.

The UPA has been particularly vulnerable because, until now, it has continued to defend home minister Shivraj Patil. Even on Thursday, the Congress party backed the minister, summarily dismissing demands to replace him as well as National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan.

“The government has broken down," said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank. “The administrative system has broken down, the political process has broken down. What is going to be its political impact is difficult to say, but what we know is that it’s going to lead to further corrosion of civil society."

India’s corporate chieftains, normally loathe to publicly attack the government, but reeling under a severe economic downturn that could get worse now, were blunt.

“What has happened in Mumbai since last night is clearly an example of a very weakly governed state," said Rahul Bajaj, chairman of the Bajaj Group and a Rajya Sabha MP. “I am a proud Indian, but suddenly I am not sure I have reasons to be proud of now... The prime job of an elected government is to ensure the safety of life and limb of the people and if it cannot even make its cities safe...then it is clearly a completely inefficient government. Are we a banana republic now?"

While privately saying ‘we told you so’, the BJP, which had repeatedly attacked the Congress-led government for its handling of the internal security situation, was publicly circumspect.

“This is an hour for all sections of society to sink their differences so that the nation must stand up as one body. We expect that the issue of terrorism is kept above the politics," the party said in a statement, after a high-level meeting chaired by senior party leader L.K. Advani.

But while BJP vice-president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi was saying the BJP would “extend any type of cooperation to the government to face the crisis", mobile text messages being sent by the party’s Delhi unit, maintained: “India can no longer afford a weak government."

Until Thursday morning, the BJP was in a dead heat with the Congress in a bid to win power in Delhi state. It is unclear if political damage to the Congress would be more pronounced in urban areas such as Delhi, which have already been the target of terror attacks, or also show up in a largely rural state such as Rajasthan. And then there is the question of what this might do to the timing of national elections, which were expected to be called before April 2009, as well as the fortunes of the main parties.

“The impact will be felt more in urban areas in Delhi, where anti-incumbency is an issue," said Kanchan Laxman, research fellow and terror expert at the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management. “The BJP will re-emphasize the point that they have failed to tackle the issue. Voters who have not decided about their votes 48 hours before the election may decide to go against the Congress."

While the Congress still has a couple of days in Delhi before voters cast their ballots, polling for the 231-member Madhya Pradesh assembly took place on Thursday, just as India woke up to a day-long televised battle with terrorists that was still ongoing late into the night in a raging firefight at the Trident hotel.

“Whatever chances we have had in the state elections are likely to vanish with these attacks," said a senior Congress minister, who didn’t want to be identified. According to another minister, who attended Thursday’s cabinet meeting, but also didn’t want to be named: “The ministers were too shocked to react."

Political analyst and visiting professor at the Centre for Policy Research, B.G. Varghese, said the reaction to the Mumbai terror strikes could go both ways: “Although terrorism and internal security were electoral issues on the way to people’s hearts, this seems to have shocked the electorate and they may not like to politicize it."

K.P. Narayana Kumar in New Delhi and Ruhi Tewari in Jaipur also contributed to this story.