||India - Strong Economy, Weak Politics|
Corriere della Sera - November 28th 2008
Despite its famous democracy and its much-admired economic growth, India is a violent place. Bombs are frequently set off in markets, railway stations and other crowded places in many Indian cities. Nevertheless, the attack in Mumbai, the country’s financial capital, is deeply shocking, not just to outsiders but to India too. Unlike the “normal” terrorism, this felt like being invaded by a well-organised army, firing machine guns, throwing grenades and taking hostages in several locations simultaneously. The only similar event in recent years was an attempted attack by gunmen and suicide bombers on the Indian parliament in New Delhi, in December 2001. That event brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war, the following year, with their armies mobilised on either side of the border. Given that both are nuclear powers, this was a terrifying moment.
It is the danger of a repeat of 2001-02 which gives this attack international significance, well beyond the fact that luxury hotels and foreigners were involved. There is little information yet about the perpetrators, beyond a claim by India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, that the attack was organised outside the country, which is usually code in India for Pakistan. It may not prove true: a mysterious local group, calling themselves “the Deccan Mujahideen”, has claimed responsibility, and the attack does follow earlier claims that Indian police were treating local Muslims badly. Still, even the prime minister’s accusation could have consequences.
During the past two months, Pakistan’s new, democratically elected, president, Asif Ali Zardari, has been making surprising and rather courageous efforts to improve his country’s relationship with India. He described Islamic militants in Kashmir, the territory disputed between the two countries and which has prompted armed conflict between them as recently as 1999, as “terrorists” rather than “freedom-fighters”. And then he proposed that the two countries should open up their largely closed border to trade, forming an economic union. India was puzzled by these warm gestures. President Zardari’s own army and his country’s Islamic fundamentalist groups were outraged.
If the Mumbai attack was indeed organised by non-Indians, it is therefore possible that one motive is to try to provoke India into rejecting President Zardari’s approaches or to undermine his position altogether. Another possible motive is that India will be holding a general election during the next few months, the likeliest victor in which is the Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party); terrorism might well encourage it to take a more extreme, anti-Muslim stance.
There are two conclusions that the outside world, both in Europe and America, should draw from this tragedy. One is the simple realisation that the supposed “emerging giants” of Asia are both a lot more fragile and unstable than their recent economic growth and all the excitement and fear about globalisation might suggest. China’s economy is slowing dramatically, and it might well suffer social unrest as its unemployment rate rises. India is slowing too, but the country’s most important weakness is the frailty of its state institutions, especially its police, law courts and security services. The inability of the police to prevent this attack, and more particularly to catch and prosecute the perpetrators of dozens of previous attacks, is a real sign of national weakness.
The other conclusion returns to Pakistan and this dangerous region. Our focus, these days, tends to be on Afghanistan and on the role played there by NATO troops. This attack, with its potential again to divide India from Pakistan but also its echoes of Islamic terrorism all over the world, demands a broader response and broader attention. The problem does not just lie in the Taliban and al-Qaeda, in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s wild border areas. It is shared, across the whole of central and south Asia. A long-term solution will require the involvement of all the countries concerned: Europe, America, Pakistan, India and China (because of its long-time support for Pakistan).