Shekhar Gupta: India's Problem Is Politics

Given its hapless response to last week's deadly Mumbai attacks and other recent terror strikes, domestic critics these days tend to castigate India as a soft state that has neither the spine nor the skills to fight threats to its people—or to its very existence. In fact, until recently the opposite was true. India may have looked soft, but it had a titanium-hard, brutal core. For decades it used the strongest of methods to squash internal threats. It used air power against tribal insurgents in its northeast back in the sixties, and in 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used tanks and artillery to put down the Sikh rebellion in Amritsar.

Even in more recent times, terrorists were often met with great resolve, either killed or arrested before they had achieved their objectives. When armed members of Jaish-e-Mohammed attacked India's Parliament on December 13, 2001, they were shot down by the security guards before they made it to the building, and their accomplices were ultimately caught and tried under strict antiterrorism laws. To this day, India has a army that's tough, well trained, highly motivated—and above all, not afraid to take casualties.

Yet in the past two years, this same India has lost more lives to terrorism than any other country but Iraq. Its intelligence services have failed to sniff out and prevent major strikes. It has also failed to acknowledge the advent of homegrown terrorists, including Muslims seeking to avenge the bloody 2002 Gujarat riots, and now Hindus supposedly out to punish Muslims for past bombings. India's police and intelligence agencies have succeeded in nailing some of these groups, but almost always after the damage has been done.

How did a historically strong state come to look so weak? The answer lies in the distorted politics of the past decade. In 1998, a government led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. For decades, India's sizable Muslim minority had voted for the Congress Party as the most acceptable secular alternative to the BJP. Suddenly the defeat of Congress heightened Muslim's insecurities, as did the racial profiling of Muslim populations that followed 9/11.

Initially India's Muslims stayed out of trouble. But the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which more than 1,000 people were killed, changed that. They left India's Muslims angry, fearful and frustrated and persuaded some, particularly the young, that their community needed revenge. That meant terrorism. This created something India had not seen before: genuinely homegrown terrorists. It also played straight into India's increasingly complicated electoral politics.

In May 2004, the BJP was dealt a surprise defeat and a left-of-center coalition led by Congress, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), came to power. Congress still nurtured a fond nostalgia for the days when Muslims used to vote for it en bloc, and many of its UPA allies consider Muslims their captive voters. So whereas the BJP had tried to paint terrorism as a phenomenon caused and rooted exclusively in Islam, the UPA went to the other extreme: total denial. It also proceeded to repudiate everything that the BJP stood for and had done in government. This included, as one of the UPA's first acts, repealing the very tough Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) that the BJP had passed, and under which the surviving conspirators of the Parliament attack had been tried and convicted in a fast-track court. The UPA junked the special law, painting it as anti-Muslim. But this allowed the BJP, under whose reign police had often indeed misused the law to harass Muslims, to accuse the UPA of appeasing Muslims and blame each subsequent terror attack on the government.

By taking such extreme positions, the two coalitions have managed to trap India's politics. Neither side now has room to maneuver. If the UPA maintains its current approach, terrorism will continue. If it switches course and toughens up by enacting another strong antiterror law, for example, it will seem to admit responsibility for four years of woolly-headed policy and the loss of thousands of lives. No government could afford that in an election year. (India goes to the polls sometime before May 2009.)

Thus rather than fight terror at its roots, the UPA has used the recent capture of a suspected Hindu terror ring, including an Army lieutenant colonel and a woman preacher, to try to embarrass the BJP. The BJP, for its part, has called the whole thing a fabrication aimed to help the UPA retain Muslim support. Terror has been politicized from both ends. And the result is that India's ability to prevent or fight attacks against its economy, icons and population has been weakened dramatically. The intelligence agencies and police forces feel orphaned, with one side calling them partisan and the other, incompetent.

Meanwhile, the country's leaders seem incapable of transcending cynical competition. India's politics have grown so bitter that the heads of Congress and the BJP can scarcely talk to each other. This has made it impossible to establish a unified position against terror, or to even enact a strong but reasonable antiterror law after a healthy debate in Parliament. India's democracy has always been its strength. But in recent years, its politics have become a deadly weakness. The result has been one stunning terrorist success after another.