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We the elite

The elite constituency has managed to unite a divided polity on at least the issue of economic reform, arguably for the greater good. Can we now do the same for internal security reform? Perhaps, but first one must examine why such reform has never been on our wishlist

It may seem like a controversial thing to say, but the future of internal security reform lies squarely with the constituency of the English speaking, affluent, upper, upper middle, and middle classes in India’s big cities — that is, we the elite: this columnist and his readers among others.

Some may say that the elite are a small minority and in an electoral democracy have little influence on political outcomes. That may indeed be the correct assumption while predicting electoral outcomes. A lot of us don’t even go to vote, judging by lower turnouts in urban areas. However, it isn’t the correct assumption when analysing the policy agenda of incumbent governments. We, the Indian elite, exercise extraordinary power in setting the agenda for governance, something we do not always realise. Some of this has to do with the economics of politics — some in the elite fund all major political parties. This obviously buys influence, some legitimate, some illegitimate. Then there is the sociological interaction between the elite and leading politicians and decision-makers, which lends us ears in government. Also, politicians in India are mostly from the upper middle classes, or if from other strata, aspire to reach there through politics. So there is a certain embededness of politics/governance in the elite. And then there are us in the English-language media, who often voice the opinions, and express the concerns, of our exclusive group.

If you don’t buy this at a hypothetical level, consider the best example of the power we have in shaping the political agenda — economic reform. A relatively small (at least electorally) coalition has pushed and sustained the agenda for economic reform over the last two decades without any obvious majority (of the voting population) backing the process. We have had every possible political formation governing at the Centre — Congress-led, BJP-led, Third Front — and yet economic policy has remained consistently reformist. Even if the process has slowed at times, even if governments have been voted out by a dissatisfied, silent majority, the reform process has never been reversed. It’s particularly ironical and indeed noteworthy that a controversial process like economic reform — more controversial one would think than internal security — has sustained itself through a period of deeply fractured and bitterly partisan politics. The elite constituency — all of us — has managed to unite a divided polity on at least this one issue. And arguably for the greater good. Can we now do the same for internal security reform? Perhaps, but first one must examine why such reform has never been on our wishlist, until perhaps now.

To be brutally frank, internal security issues haven’t particularly bothered us. For one, riots, bomb blasts, murders and other such heinous crimes didn’t physically touch us. They happened to other people — poor people in jhuggi clusters, the lower middle class shopping in crowded markets or to people who couldn’t afford any personal security. At worst, they happened to politicians, who are for the most undesirable — until 26/11 when our physical sense of security was shot to pieces by a handful of terrorists running amock in the Taj and the Oberoi. These places were supposed to be part of the same sanitised bubble, and many of us may have visited these places or places like this in Mumbai and other big cities. Suddenly each one of us feels, “I could have been there.” A lot of us also face the sad reality of having known someone, either personally or by name or by association who lost his or her life in the dastardly attacks on Mumbai. The bursting of the physical cocoon then, one would assume, would propel us into pressing for serious internal security reform, like years of oppressive government regulations propelled us to back economic reform.

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On evidence, thus far, it isn’t going to be simple. While we have been forced out of our physical cocoon, many of us still remain trapped in a mental cocoon, which is misdirecting our response to the terror in Mumbai. Here’s the why and how.

The Mumbai attacks are, of course, a failure of government. And it’s terrible that so many innocent people — rich and poor — lost their lives. We have every right to be furious about this outrage just as we should be about every other terrorist outrage. But this time around, I sense that we the elite are just that bit more furious than before, because for the first time, we have been hit directly. And while this additional outrage can be usefully channelled into positive action, I am afraid that the opportunity may be wasted by anger which is misdirected.

We tend at the best of times not to love our politicians. So it’s no surprising that we can’t stand the sight of them now. True also, a number of them have seemed out of touch, aloof and prone to unnecessary statements. But internal security must be run by the government and the politicians who occupy it. We can’t have vigilante citizens, paranoid to the core and armed to the teeth, trying to battle terror — that’s a sure recipe for more innocent death. We can’t have the policy or army rule us, because quite frankly they are as much part of the systemic rot that the political process is. And to think we’ll have no election to throw them out. Look at any country in the world — intelligence and security cannot be outsourced or privatised like economic functions can.

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Intelligence and security can, however, be reformed. The US shakeup of intelligence after 9/11 is a good example. We the elite are in a unique position to influence politics and policy beyond our numerical strength. And let’s not forget that terrorism will for the foreseeable future be an urban phenomenon. So it is in our interest, and within our power, to press government and politicians for change. We must put pressure across the political spectrum and force politicians into a unity of purpose on internal security reform just like we did with economic reform. It will be for the greater good. Let’s not waste our anger.

dhiraj.nayyar@expressindia.com

First published on: 04-12-2008 at 02:09 IST
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