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Islamic terrorists continue to attack soft targets
Is India a weak link in what used to be called the global war on terror? That question, raised most dramatically by the horrific Mumbai attacks of 2008, resurfaced after Monday’s bombing of an Israeli diplomat’s car in New Delhi. Police suspect a motorcyclist planted the bomb, which exploded a stone’s throw from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s “Indians ought to ask whether their irresponsible political class is leaving the country less prepared than most to deal with terrorism.” -Sadanand Dhumeheavily fortified home. An Israeli defense official’s wife and three other people escaped with injuries, but the audacity of the attack, in what ought to be the safest square mile in the country, should send shivers down the spine of India’s security establishment.
With tensions in the Middle East rising, international speculation dwells on the affiliation of the motorcycle-borne assailant in New Delhi. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Iran, most likely acting through its terrorist proxy Hezbollah. The Iranians deny the charge, and Indian analysts point out that Tehran has little to gain by alienating its top oil importer and one of the few major countries skeptical of wide-ranging economic sanctions against the Islamic republic.
Regardless of who turns out to be behind the attack, Indians ought to ask whether their irresponsible political class is leaving the country less prepared than most to deal with terrorism. Exhibit A in this case is Law Minister Salman Khurshid. While campaigning for assembly elections in the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh earlier this month—where nearly one in five voters is Muslim—Mr. Khurshid implied that Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi teared up over photographs of Islamist terrorists slain in a 2008 shootout with police in Delhi.
Another party leader quickly refuted the claim, but the fact that Mr. Khurshid hoped to gain from it in the first place is disturbing. In no other major democracy would a frontline politician calculate greater benefit from siding with terrorists than with law enforcement agencies. Claims that the slain men—members of a homegrown terrorist outfit called Indian Mujahideen—were innocent have already been rejected by the National Human Rights Commission, the Delhi High Court and Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram.
Mr. Khurshid isn’t alone in seeking to exploit conspiratorial thinking rather than to tamp it down, or in wanting to mix national security issues with petty identity politics. Also on the campaign trail, Azam Khan, a senior leader of the socialist-leaning Samajwadi Party, sought to turn Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna’s recent visit to Israel into an election issue. And the Congress Party’s Rahul Gandhi, widely tipped to be the country’s next prime minister, took aim at an opponent’s support for Israeli drip irrigation technology in Bundelkhand, an arid part of impoverished Uttar Pradesh. “People are thinking ‘we don’t want Israel, we want Bundelkhand…and you are talking of turning Bundelkhand into Israel,'” he declared.
Then there’s the fact that this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival was marred by the state government’s inability to guarantee security for a video appearance by Mumbai-born author Salman Rushdie. This after the state police allegedly had concocted tales of a murder plot to scuttle an in-person visit by Mr. Rushdie, who is reviled by some Muslims for his 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses.” During the drama, national-level politicians like Mr. Singh and others in the Congress Party never rose to Mr. Rushdie’s defense.
These incidents reveal a political class unable to form a baseline consensus on the most vital issues of national security and democratic life. To be sure, India’s police are far from perfect, but to politicize counterterrorism operations for a few votes is scraping the bottom of the ethical barrel. And while reasonable people can disagree on Israel, the fact remains that few countries co-operate as closely with India on counterterrorism, intelligence sharing and defense technology transfer.
At a deeper level, Indian politicians’ tendency to pander to the most retrograde elements of the country’s 150-million strong Muslim population, and to ignore the most liberal ones, has serious consequences. Instead of working to forge a pan-Indian identity that transcends caste and community—as the leaders of the independence struggle against the British had hoped—India’s current crop of leaders have placed communal identity at the heart of political discourse.
And in part because India fails to live up to secular ideals at home, it’s increasingly caught flatfooted abroad. New Delhi has been ineffective in its response to an Islamist coup in the Maldives, the return to prominence of violent Islamist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan and the dangers of a nuclear Iran.
How can India take a principled position that advances its national interest—by supporting democracy and pluralism in its neighborhood and beyond—when its most prominent leaders apparently fear offending every two-bit fundamentalist at home? How India answers this question will help determine whether it will be a weak link in the global war against radical Islam or a bulwark against its spread.
Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI.
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