WHY WE NEED A LINDBERGH MOMENT

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There is a poignant scene in Clint Eastwood’s ‘J Edgar’, where Leonardo di Caprio, playing the young FBI Director J Edgar Hoover, turns up at the aviator Charles Lindbergh’s house to investigate the kidnapping of his baby son, only to be told by a clearly inept but resentful sheriff that the local cops are more than capable and that his federal agents are unwanted. But modern crime does not know state boundaries and the tragic Lindbergh kidnapping was so sensational in 1930s-America that it eventually led to the passage of the Lindbergh Act that made kidnapping a national crime and gave federal agents automatic jurisdiction in such cases.

Replace kidnapping with terrorism and change the setting to the chaotic political divides of India and the essential dilemma is the same in the unfortunate shouting match over the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC). The states have rights and police is a state subject, but in an age where terror knows no political boundaries, the unwieldy spectacle of overlapping jurisdictions and priorities is by design not suited for an effective counter-terrorism response.

Just look at the criticism of Mr Chidambaram’s proposal. Six BJP chief ministers (Narendra Modi, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Raman Singh, DV Sadanand Gowda, BC Khanduri and PK Dhumal) have joined a stage-managed chorus of state rights being trampled in concert with Naveen Patnaik’s BJD and J. Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK. Add the embarrassing opposition by the government’s own allies, Trinamool Congress and National Conference, with the loud noises from the CPI, and it seems like yet another case of bad political management by the Congress.

Whether it is the fight against terrorists or the military battle with the Naxals, plain common sense would tell you that solid state level intelligence and policing must always be complimented by a centralised command and control structure. It is a no-brainer and in the states most affected by insurgencies, from Kashmir to Assam, counter-insurgency operations have always been coordinated by a unified command headquarters. This is a bare minimum for collating the inputs of multiple agencies and for the basic practicalities of day-to-day work.

The original idea itself draws from the experience of the United States which revamped its intelligence gathering after 9/11 and set up its own National Counter Terrorism Centre under the Director of National Intelligence who directly reports to the President. The US setup was a response to the serious problem of poor coordination of intelligence between agencies that 9/11 exposed and Mr Chidambaram’s proposal is the ultimate outcome of similar problems that were obvious in our own ramshackle response to the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai.

No one in their right minds can argue that our state police forces work so well and that our national counter-terrorism response is so well coordinated that we don’t need to change a thing. You only have to compare the recent response of the Thai police to the anti-Israeli blasts with our own disjointed response in Delhi with problems of coordination between the NSG, the NIA and the Delhi Police.

The bitter politics now enveloping the proposed revamp of our national security structures is the result of two impulses: first, no bureaucracy or power system likes giving up control. Indeed Mr Chidambaram’s initial idea to create a separate Ministry of Internal Security which would control the proposed NCTC made much more sense but ran into entrenched opposition long ago.

The second more obvious reason, as some experts have pointed out, is that the proposed NCTC would report to the Intelligence Bureau and the fear is of unmitigated power being misused by shadowy agencies with political motives. This is a valid enough objection but it can be fixed easily if there is a genuine discussion on administrative rules and reporting lines. Why throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Just as India needs a truly autonomous CBI to deal with corruption, it also needs a professional anti-terror mechanism. We live in too dangerous a neighbourhood to let this issue be sidetracked by petty politics, either with arrogance of the Congress kind or the smokescreen of state-versus-Centre rights that has obscured the real issues that need to be debated and resolved.

Mr Chidamabaram may have erred in not taking states and opposition parties into confidence but he was surely right when he told a conference of Chief Ministers in early 2011 that we cannot go on believing that ‘God is in heaven and all is well with the world.’ We cannot continue with ‘business as usual’.