In December 2009, soon after completing his first year as Home Minister, P Chidambaram gave an important speech to Intelligence Bureau officials where he proposed radical changes to India’s internal security structures and identified the key weaknesses as he saw them.
As he put it, the first big problem was that “the police stations in the country are, today, virtually unconnected islands…There is no system of data storage, data-sharing and accessing data. There is no system under which one police station can talk to another directly. There is no record of crimes or criminals that can be accessed by a Station House Officer, except the manual records relating to that police station.”
In other words, we are a twenty-first century economy with a nineteenth-century policing system and unless we rectify this fundamental dichotomy, embarrassing comedy shows of the kind we are seeing with the botched-up most-wanted list to Pakistan are bound to keep recurring. The cost this time is a few red faces, a couple of transfers and some inter-agency name-calling, but this kind of dissonance in our policing can be deadly.
It is ironic that the minister who so aptly put his finger on the crux of the issue has now been so embarrassed by its natural consequence. To tell the Pakistanis to take action against 50 terrorists, one of whom now runs a zari business in Thane and another who is in Arthur Road jail is a plot that even the makers of ‘Office Office’ would have struggled to come up with.
Had he been a wisecracking hack, Mr Chidambaram could have turned around and told the establishment, ‘I told you so’. The problem is that he himself is the establishment and the minister in charge. So he did the honourable thing by admitting the error, explained how it occurred and did not succumb to the temptation of a cover-up or a pointless denial.
Since then, the Home Minister has sought to downplay the issue, questioning the very relevance of giving such lists to Pakistan. Of course, Pakistan has never acted on such lists in the past but no one ever expected it to.
The whole point of publicising such lists is to claim the moral high ground, to walk the high road of victimhood, to add teeth to our daily rhetoric on Pakistan. It is political theatre, plain and simple. That is why the list has 50 names, not 49 or 53. It is all about the acoustics and by erring so stupidly on the detail, we have nothing but egg on our faces.
If Pakistan had not been so preoccupied, if it had not been so badly exposed on Osama, its diplomats would have been crowing gleefully from every rooftop, feigning injured innocence and using this goof-up to dismiss the entire Indian charge of cross-border terrorism itself.
The silver lining for Mr Chidamabaram is that this affair of the outdated list must now give him momentum against the naysayers in the system who have been doubtful about the two major Home Ministry e-initiatives that are imperative for effective policing.
The first is the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network System (CCTNS) that is supposed to link all 16,000 police stations in the country for real-time information sharing and easier access to records.
The second is NATGRID, a centralised data system that will inter-link 21 separate databases – such as bank account numbers, financial transactions, passport details, credit cards and so on – to feed into counter-terrorism efforts.
NATGRID is one of the primary ideas Mr Chidambram outlined in that December 2009 speech to the Intelligence Bureau officials and it is supposed to provide an investigating agency current data on any person at the flick of a button.
Only law enforcement agencies will have access to NATGRID and privacy concerns notwithstanding, it is obvious that any serious counter-terrorism effort needs this kind of a centralised information system as its eyes and ears.
Yet, the idea of NATGRID was opposed by other ministries when it was first mooted. Apart from the issue of privacy, many of the other concerns smacked of turf warfare.
In that same 2009 speech where he called for a “thorough and radical departure” from our present internal security structure, Chidamabaram also identified the root causes of resistance to change: the repose of routine and complacency.
Now he must seize the moment to break the routine and tell us where the government stands in the implementation of the radical changes he has been propounding.