The Week After Mumbai

Can we stop the right-wing from exploiting terror?

I spent most of Thanksgiving break glued to my computer, as an increasingly helpless Mumbai Police tried to fight a ruthless squad of militants before making way for the military. I heard gunfire and saw explosions. I saw commandos rappelling from helicopters and heard the horrific stories of survivors. Every now and then I would run into one of the few people still on campus, who would ask me what was going on, as though I knew better than others.

I didn’t, but the pain was more immediate: I live in India, and have been to Mumbai a couple of times, each time wishing I lived in that exciting city. I have visited most of the places targeted. I have pretended to be a National Security Guard commando—or ‘Black Cat’— during childhood Cops-and-Robbers games. And I was aware of the alarming increase in terrorist strikes across India in recent years.

But enough has already been written about what happened. The more pressing question in the wake of this massacre is “what now?”

I find one increasingly likely scenario terrifying: India’s ruling coalition is seen as being weak on terror, and if the current opposition keeps up the pressure the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could find itself in power after the general election next May. Like the Republican Party here in America, and like good right-wing organizations across the globe, the BJP is brilliant at hiding its ulterior motives under the veil of national security. The last time the BJP was in power was by no means tranquil, and the party’s idea of fighting terror was passing a law that made the Patriot Act look like the Declaration of Human Rights, and then using it to specifically target Indian Muslims during an overwhelmingly Hindu-driven riot in 2004.

I realized with horror how likely a BJP comeback was when the BJP leader Narendra Modi showed up outside one of the luxury hotels while there were still terrorists inside. Mr. Modi, the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, used his party’s anti-terror law to single out Muslims while doing nothing to stop their massacre during the 2004 riot in his state. This is a man the State Department refuses to allow into the United States for human rights violations. And here he was in Mumbai, implying to reporters that his party would have done better in this situation. The strange thing was, he sounded convincing.

I find this perplexing: Even though their hate-fed, liberty-crippling policies are no longer novel, right-wing parties everywhere somehow still give off the impression that they are better at keeping us safe. After all, if Republicans were not seen as tougher on terror, is there any chance Americans would have returned them to power in 2004?

The important question now is this: How do we change this perception of right-wing parties, so that we do not elect them on a security mandate in the wake of an attack only to end up with Iraqs and Abu Ghraibs and Patriot Acts and who-knows-what-the-BJP’s-thinking-of-right-now?

I saw the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s address the other day. Singh is an old, mild-mannered academic—a policy wonk in the sort of rough political climate that would normally eat people like him for breakfast. His speech after the attacks was criticized for appearing meek and helpless, and his critics are probably right. What I see though, is a man wary of the same vicious cycle of Pakistan-baiting, worsening cross-border relations, and “tough security measures” that generate the sort of hatred that breeds even more terrorists. He knows his party might lose to the BJP and its allies in a few months, and he knows what that could mean for peace in South Asia.

To get an idea of how he feels, imagine you are President Obama in 2011, and America has been struck by terrorists. The Republicans are likely to return to power, and they are raring to pass a beefed-up Patriot Act and go back to pursuing the hard-line foreign policy you have been working hard to undo. You must warn the American people of the craziness of this approach, without appearing weak on terror or politicizing the issue. What would you do?

If you have any good ideas, the Indian government could do with your help.

Rajarshi Banerjee ’11 lives in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.