Home Minister P Chidambaram
Home Minister P Chidambaram
New Delhi: Considering that P. Chidambaram, according to Wikileaks, told FBI director Robert Mueller that the National Investigation Agency (NIA) could supersede the states in its probes and trials and that the full use of its powers would entail violation of the constitution, the home minister should have held more purposeful consultations with the states before notifying the date for setting up the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC). Had he done so, the present controversy could have been avoided.

However, a penchant for secrecy and an innate arrogance seem to be responsible for the centre springing a surprise on the states with its decision to push ahead with the NCTC. Hence the gang-up of non-Congress chief ministers against the centre, forcing it to backtrack by keeping on hold its ill-advised move. But what its clumsiness has done is to breathe new life into the so-called Third Front which had died an unlamented death in 2009.

There are, however, a number of differences between the earlier gathering of anti-Congress parties and the present one. For one, the Left has decided to play a low-key role because, as Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), acknowledged, his party is too “weak” to be energetically involved in the enterprise as on the last occasion. For another, the Third Front idea has undergone a major change.

Earlier, it was envisaged as a group of non-Congress and non-BJP parties. But the BJP is a member this time which makes the front replicate the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) of the late 1990s since it includes “secular” leaders like Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee, J. Jayalalitha and N. Chandrababu Naidu.

Since all these leaders have been the BJP’s allies in the past, the saffron outfit is likely to nurture the front with care with 2014 in mind. This tactic can have two effects. One is to make the Left continue to keep its distance from the front and the other is to compel the BJP to downplay its Hindutva plank, such as the Karnataka education minister’s recent advice to those who do not want the Bhagavad Gita to be taught in schools to leave the country.

However, such political calculations may be overshadowed by the issue which has brought these parties together. Since NCTC involves national security, the parties will have to tread carefully lest they give the impression that they are hampering the anti-terrorist drive. This will be a particularly touchy point for the BJP since it has always given the impression that it follows a hardline on terror while the Congress is supposedly soft. For the BJP now to face the accusation that it is playing political games on the plea of protecting federalism will be disconcerting.

Such allegations may not be without basis for, as former union home secretary G.K. Pillai said during a TV debate, the fear of the states that the centre will undermine their constitutional mandate to be in charge of law and order is “exaggerated”. The consensus which emerged, therefore, during the discussion was that the main problem was the lack of trust in the centre’s bona fides.

The distrust is not unwarranted. From the curtailment of civil liberties during the Emergency to the prolonged delay in setting up the Lokpal to the presumed erosion of the Central Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI) autonomy, the centre’s record is not exactly lily-white. Few can, therefore, guarantee that the enormous powers of the NIA and the NCTC will not be misused.

But, at the same time, it has to be remembered that India today is not what it was in 1975. Nor is the Congress as pushy as it was mainly because it has never been so weak. Instead, it is the regional parties which have developed considerable clout while the media has become a force to reckon with. So, as L.K. Advani said, it is now unlikely to “crawl when asked to bend” as in 1975. In addition, the judiciary is expected to act vigorously as a shield against arbitrariness in contrast to its conduct during the Emergency for which the Supreme Court recently apologised.

Arguably, therefore, the states can appear to be overstating their case, especially when terrorism remains an omnipresent threat. They seem to have seized the NCTC stick to beat the centre with while buttressing their own position just as the Left, the BJP and others tried to exploit anti-American sentiments to scuttle the nuclear deal in 2008.

In their anti-Congress zeal, they chose at the time to ignore the fact that the deal would legitimise India’s nuclear status. Moreover, killing the deal would have pleased two of India’s inveterate enemies, Pakistan and China. There is a need for circumspection, therefore, when dealing with issues like terrorism which have cross-border ramifications.

If the central government is more accommodative in addressing the misgivings of the states, a modified form of the NCTC can come into being at a time when a nodal agency is required to coordinate the various intelligence inputs on terrorism.

By Amulya Ganguli (Source: IANS)