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After the carnage, the political jostling begins

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2008-12-07

With an election coming up, India's political parties are vying to turn Mumbai's tragedy into political gain. So far it's the Hindu nationalists leading the charge.

Read Leela Jacinto's notebook from terror-stricken Mumbai.

Also read her previous reports: "Heroes bow, politicians take the rap in terror's aftermath"



and "After attacks, India-Pakistan tensions mount in serial déjà vu"


The fires in Mumbai’s landmark Taj Mahal hotel were still raging, Indian commandos were still battling gunmen inside the city’s two leading hotels and a Jewish centre, when Mumbai received a surprise political guest who set many residents’ teeth on edge.

Narendra Modi, a controversial hard-line Hindu politician from the opposition BJP party, arrived from the neighbouring state of Gujarat to stage an impromptu appearance for the TV cameras posted outside the besieged sites.

During his visit, the incendiary politician - who was denied a US visa for violating religious rights - offered compensation to the city’s fallen policemen and expressed his disappointment over the government’s anti-terror track record.

His reception in a city still reeling from the November 26 attacks was far from warm. The widow of a top city cop refused to meet him and turned down his compensation offer. The ruling Congress party blasted Modi for flouting security directives and, days later, Mumbaikars could still be found holding street signs expressing their rage over a perceived political manipulation of one of the city’s darkest moments.

Politics in the world’s largest democracy is a raucous, messy affair where the players rarely lose an opportunity to seize on events for political ends. With a critical general election coming up next year, the Mumbai attacks, which killed 188 people, have turned terrorism into a major campaign issue with numerous national and local parties rushing to embellish their anti-terror spin for the campaign trail.

The government takes the rap

For the Congress, the largest party in the ruling coalition, the pressure is on to toughen their national security image following serious intelligence failures in the run-up to the 26/11 attacks.

“The Congress has been caught not only on the back foot, but is several steps back,” said Kumar Ketkar, chief editor of the Lok Satta, a leading Marathi-language daily and one of Mumbai’s most trusted political commentators. “With fresh reports of intelligence failures pouring in, Congressmen and women simply do not understand how to face the electorate.”

A rash of political resignations — including that of Home Minister Shivraj Patil — in the wake of the attacks is a band-aid measure, analysts say, that is necessary in the short term but of little consequence in the larger political landscape.

"Fight Terror. Vote BJP"

The apparent paralysis within the Congress is in start contrast to the BJP’s post-attack strategy. A nationalist party designed to cater to the majority Hindu community, with strong ties to a network of extremist Hindu groups, the BJP is traditionally tough on India’s Muslim minority and is widely expected to ratchet up its campaign rhetoric following growing evidence of a Pakistan-based militant link in the Mumbai attacks.

With six states holding local elections over the past two weeks, the BJP has wasted no time executing its plan. On Nov. 28, several newspapers in the capital of New Delhi and the western Indian state of Rajasthan ran ads showing blood splattered against a black backdrop with the text, “Fight Terror. Vote BJP.”

The party’s response sparked sharp criticism from the Congress as well as leading political analysts. “The BJP appears to be jubilant in an extremely cynical way,” said Ketkar.

But in an interview with FRANCE 24, Vinod Tawde, BJP secretary general for Maharashtra - the state of which Mumbai is the capital - played down the criticisms.

“Those ads were not run in Mumbai or Maharashtra,” he stressed. “They only ran in Rajasthan and Delhi, where we are fighting elections. In these states, terrorism is an issue, and we have to get the message out that we would all like to fight terrorism.”

The first test of whether the BJP message is meeting its mark will arrive December 8, when the results of the six state elections will be declared. Analysts say the results could be an early indicator of how the Mumbai attacks will affect next year’s general elections.

When terror strikes the people — and the ballot

In the past, incumbent parties have tended to suffer at the ballot box following major terrorist attacks — regardless of their ideological leanings.

In the 2004 general elections, the then-ruling BJP lost to the Congress following a spate of high-profile terrorist attacks, including a daring 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament building and a 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Afghanistan.

And it was not long after Mumbai endured a deadly series of bomb blasts in March 1993 that the ruling Congress party lost the state of Maharashtra to Shiv Sena, a regional right-wing Hindu-nationalist party that has allied itself with the BJP. Shortly after coming to power in 1995, the Shiv Sena changed the name of Maharashtra’s capital from “Bombay” to “Mumbai” in an attempt to strengthen the Maharashtrian identity of India’s cosmopolitan commercial capital.

But it’s hard to judge the importance of terrorism as a campaign issue in India. In a country of grinding rural poverty, where a majority of voters live in villages untouched by terrorism, the economy remains a major election issue. And with the economic crisis spreading across the globe, even urban Indian voters — who are more likely to put terrorism high on their agendas — might put it second only to the economy.

Date created : 2008-12-03