The Israeli Embassy Vehicle Attack in New Delhi – Reactions in India

In this article, the author explores the reaction among the media, the government and the people over the attack that took place on the Israeli Embassy vehicle on the 13th of February, 2012. 

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By Siddharth Singh, 15th Feb, 2012

In the aftermath of the bomb blast targeting an Israeli embassy car in central Delhi, the reaction of the people and the press has largely revolved around three themes: one, outrage that yet another attack has taken place in India and the condemnation of the current government over its inability to stop such attacks. This perception is strengthened by the “weak” verbal responses by the concerned Indian ministers. Two, pointed criticism that the government couldn’t prevent an attack which is a stone’s throw away from the Prime Minister’s residence. Three, surprise – by people mostly – that Iran is in any way related to this attack. Bomb blasts in India have so far been popularly and officially blamed on home grown terrorist groups and those supported by or originating from Pakistan.

The First Theme: Outrage over the attack and ridicule of the official response

The near-universal condemnation of the United Progressive Alliance government under Dr. Manmohan Singh is a recurrent theme that follows every bomb blast in a big city in the country. While it is true that India is a rather large country with multitudes in a politically and socially unstable neighbourhood, it is equally true that the government can do a lot more to improve the security situation in the country without resorting to the controversial measures such as the U.S. government has. Indeed, the government has failed to put in place effective counter-terror and law-and-order mechanisms.

For instance, the Ministry of Home Affairs is overburdened with non-security related tasks such as “implementation of the official language” – Hindi – and welfare of freedom fighters from the pre-Independence era. The long proposed Internal Affairs Ministry has not been set up yet, even though it is an idea accepted by officials on Raisina Hill. Comprehensive police reforms too haven’t seen the light of the day in spite of being on paper for several years.

Additionally, the establishment of an Internal Security University – which would provide long term research and analysis on the internal security scenario in India, apart from providing better trained policemen and administrators – has not been established yet, in spite of being passed by the Cabinet years ago. Currently the officials in the ministry are over burdened with day-to-day crisis management and do not have time to research and plan for the longer run.

The image of the government as an ineffective unit, however, largely comes from the lack of effective communication from the government, in particular its ministers. While the government response is typically greeted with disdain, this time around, it was met with ridicule. One of the reasons is that unlike previous attacks, this one did not result in deaths, making mockery acceptable. The people and media resorted to ridiculing the government over what they referred to as a “cliched, disinterested and monotonous” official statement. This time around, they got to see on their favourite prime time news shows on TV – in the form of Israeli ministers, including Prime Minister Netanyahu – give decisive statements on how such attacks cannot be tolerated and the perpetrators will be hunted down. The Israeli administration was also hasty in blaming Iran for the attack, at a time when the Indian officials were sticking to the story of an “incident” caused due to “unknown circumstances.” The reaction to the blame on Iran will be addressed later in this article.

While this author does not believe that hawkish statements are constructive in the aftermath of such bomb blasts, it is true that the government’s reaction is often trite, and are often replays of every official reaction after every major attack the country has seen in the past many years. This fits into the popular narrative of the government, which lacks effective communicators at the top of the administrative setup. The leader of the political coalition – Sonia Gandhi, the Prime Minister, Defence Minister and External Affairs Minister, among others, are not exactly known for their oratory skills. In a hyperactive news TV era, this has become a burden on the political establishment. The media and people in India yearn for effective communicators who can sell governance as much as they can effectively govern in the first place. Even though transparency has been legislated via the Right to Information Act and other instruments, there seems to be opacity in the verbal communication at the top of the administration.

This narrative is popular and cannot be easily undone by the government without a major cabinet reshuffle. It is an issue the government will have to accept and work around.

The Second Theme: Outrage over the location of the attack

The second theme of the reaction has been specific to this incident: the bomb blast took place on one end of Aurangzeb Road, which is a posh neighbourhood in the Lutyens Bungalow Zone (where all the ministers, officials, parliamentarians and chiefs of military reside) in New Delhi. The location of the attack was a stones throw away from the Prime Minister’s official residence at 7, Race Course Road.

Unsurprisingly, this became a talking point, and many commentators and the general public have lamented about the lack of security even in such a high profile area. One news TV host in partcular was at his hyperbolic best when he commented that even the Prime Minister could hear the bomb blast (adding later that it would have been possible only if the Prime Minister was home. The police eventually revealed that the blast wasn’t a loud one).

The Prime Minister’s residence is on the Race Course Road, which is open to the general public. Pedestrians freely walk along the sidewalks on the road, and motorists are free to use this road for their daily commute. This fact once brought praise by a friend from a subcontinental neighbour who lamented that common people in his country couldn’t even step in the neighbourhood of the most important ministers.

The entire Lutyens Bungalow Zone is fully accessible to the public, as it rightly must be. However, this also means that it is easy for a motorist to – say – bring explosives in close proximity of the Prime Minister’s home. The PM, of course, is safe in his multi layered security setup. In fact, he uses a different road (which is fully secured) from the other side of his home for his daily commute.

Lutyens Delhi cannot be made exclusive to the residents of the area. Not only does this area house the representatives of the people, it has the headquarters of the political parties, and several markets where the poor find employment. There is no practical way to fully secure this area. Commentary on this theme of the location of the attack is hence misplaced. The location is immaterial here: that it happened at all is the issue at hand.

The Third Theme: Surprise and confusion over Iran’s involvement

What has been more interesting, however, is the sense of confusion among people and a few reporters about Iran’s alleged involvement in the attack. The only foreign nation Indians are used to hearing get linked to attacks has been Pakistan. (To a much lesser extent, Bangladesh was once on this list too, but now makes headlines for partnering India in its fight against militancy).

Natanyahu’s assertion that Iran had a role in the attack even before the Indian authorities could confirm that it was an “attack” rather than an “incident” came as a surprise to many. Many in the media termed this as a hasty reaction without credible evidence to back the claim. A few in the public commended such naming tactics, recommending India do the same with Pakistan.

Importantly, however, this holds important implications on India’s foreign policy. In case Iran’s role is directly or indirectly established, it would mean that India will have to re-draft its policy in the region, which has so far been fairly neutral so far (barring for a few strategic decisions against Iran on the nuclear issue and the Iran-Pakistan-India Natural Gas Pipeline).

Historically, Iran has an image of a cultural “ally” in India. In recent years, the Ahmedinejad administration has brought criticism of official Indo-Iranian relations among those who advocate a more realist foreign policy. However, there is a general acceptance of Iran as an energy supplier nation which can help India meet its growing energy demand.

Indians are in general unaware of the growing tension between Iran and Israel. Reports on the stand off between Iran and the United States are often buried deep inside new papers and have nearly no mention on TV. For these reasons, the very mention of Iran has caught many by surprise. People still don’t fully grasp why India has emerged as a battlefield in the Iran-Israel stand off. The set of challenges for policymakers are profound, and it will be interesting to observe how the foreign policy and security discourse evolves from here.

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