Clueless, defenceless

In a crisis, people need two things: a plan to effectively counter it (or even better, to prevent it), and strong and resolute leaders. Our real tragedy is that we seem to have neither, writes Namita Bhandare.

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Mumbai is still recovering from the horrific terrorist strikes that began on Wednesday night. But the hand-wringing and the sermonising have begun. Words are tossed about: ‘dastardly act’, ‘spirit of Mumbai’ and so on. But the one question we should be asking is this: what do we learn from these repeated strikes? Even as we prepare to ‘stamp out’ terrorism, are we even prepared for the next strike?

Speaking in New Delhi a few years ago, Rudy Giuliani, the Mayor of New York during the 9/11 attack, said something that was significant. He said there was no way anybody could have anticipated 9/11. But what New York did have in place was a blueprint to deal with other potential crises. A fire in a skyscraper? There was an evacuation plan ready. A large-scale toxin attack? There was a plan to shift and treat large numbers of citizens in hospitals. So, when 9/11 happened, New York was caught unawares. But because it had other contingency plans ready, it was able to kick these in to deal with the crisis with far more efficiency than would have otherwise been possible.

Since the serial blasts of 1993, we have faced a series of major and minor terror strikes: six this year alone. Every time there is a strike, there is a sense of déjà vu as the Prime Minister or Home Minister of the moment makes an ashen-faced appearance on TV, mouthing platitudes that mean nothing. But every time there is a strike, there is also a sense of security forces and rescue operations lurching ahead without a sense of planning. Do we, for instance, have a plan in place in case terrorists attack a hospital or a school? What about chemical warfare? Are we prepared if a group of terrorists poison our water supplies? Are we prepared for anything at all?

We had to fly commandos into Mumbai. Isn’t it time the city has its own crack team? The lack of planning seems to characterise much of our disaster management. Every time there is a stampede at a religious site, we are taken completely by surprise, scrambling to manage as best we can.

After 9/11, it was feared that the US would now be an easy target for future fidayeen attacks. But amazingly, there has not been another terror strike on US soil. As a grim-faced George Bush vowed to wreck vengeance, we smirked at ‘Cowboy’ Bush. But at least this cowboy (or his speech writers) was making a serious effort to restore confidence in his people.

Contrast that with our own leaders. Even as commandos were storming the Taj, Oberoi and Nariman House, a written statement issued in the name of former PM A.B. Vajpayee asked citizens to vote for his BJP in the Delhi election. Narendra Modi, meanwhile, was offering a crore of rupees to officers who just days before were under attack from him for their investigation into the Malegaon blasts and ‘Hindu’ terrorism. There was no sense of urgency as the PM called for an emergency Cabinet meeting only on Thursday. And after initial reports that Leader of the Opposition L.K. Advani and the PM would travel to Mumbai together, nothing happened. They went to Mumbai on separate aeroplanes.

How much that one gesture of being united in the face of a common enemy would have conveyed. Instead, a desperate city in search of heroes clapped and cheered the Army and the National Security Guard commandos as they went about their brave job. They were the true heroes of the moment. In a crisis, people need two things: a plan to effectively counter it (or even better, to prevent it), and strong and resolute leaders. Our real tragedy is that we seem to have neither.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer