Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mumbai terror - Leadership failure

Mumbai was in the limelight last few weeks on the audacious terror attacks at multiple sites, that left close to 200 people dead. Ironically, Mumbai was also in the news in 1993, for terror attacks at multiple sites, and around 250 people died. At that time, I remember my roommate who was from Mumbai feeling sad that these are happening in cosmopolitan Mumbai. Fifteen years later, nothing has visibly changed, and people have been sitting ducks all along.

First, I am not sure why some call this 9-11 of India. The 9-11 death toll was around 3000, which is more than a 10x impact. I am not convinced Taj hotel is equivalent to the World Trade Center, nor are the damages in dollars or rupees comparable. I also saw some call it 26-11, using the Indian way of writing the date - but I think this got so much attention due to Americans and Jewish casualties, and the slow response really hurt the Indian pride . But, anything helps to prod sitting ducks to call for action.

We see a lot of public outrage blaming politicians. The home minister Shivraj Patil resigned, followed by the Deputy Chief Minister and the Chief Minister of Maharashtra state. However, in a democracy, the people are to blame for their choice. One can argue Mr.Patil was actually defeated in elections, but Sonia Gandhi and the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh found him a Upper-house seat which was a way to make him the home minister. Thus, both of them are accountable and should feel remorse for putting the wrong person in charge of something of national importance. Why was he a wrong choice? Mr. Patil is said to be an honest politician, patriot, and has been elected before by the Indian people several times. Unfortunately, none of these qualify to bypass the process of appointing from currently elected leaders, unless he was a distinguished national security expert, which wasn't the case. Drawing a parallel, Manmohan Singh himself was appointed Finance Minister in 1990s without being elected, using this upper-house method, but then he was a distinguished economics expert worth bypassing the process during a moment of crisis. This was purely a political appointment that proved costly, for no fault of the people (other than the fact they trusted Ms. Gandhi and Mr. Singh to put right people on the job). Though task of keeping the nation secure was complex, and we really can't blame one person for failure, the last straw was
having to send commandos from Delhi to Mumbai to fight the terrorists. With prior attacks all over, and prior intelligence sites where there are lot of foreigners will be attacked (which would trigger 5-star hotels in any sensible mind), there isn't an excuse for not being prepared with standby commandos in major cities.

People can be directly blamed for electing the Chief Minister, Vilas Rao Deshmukh, and the Deputy Chief Minister R.R. Patil. Mr. Patil apparently commented small incidents like this happens in a big city like Mumbai, and that the terrorists had planned to kill nearly 5000 people, which would have made it major incident. He needs to be told terrorists do not give thanksgiving deep discounts. Instead of focusing on spending his time on improving security, he has been spending his time and energy on improving so-called morals in a cosmopolitan city, by banning bar girls from dancing, depriving them of the little livelihood, and wasting police time, money and energy that could have been used to put in a decent response system. The CM of Maharashtra has held up well with the situation, and apparently said he came from a humble background, and was proud to have served the state. While someone from a humble background accomplishing this far is nice to hear, it hasn't translated into strong leadership.
We hope people make a choice next time based on those who can deliver and perform, rather than humble, honest, moral and so forth.

The railway minister Laloo Prasad Yadav also should take some blame. The attack was Chhatrapathi Shivaji Terminus - Maharashtrians pride themselves with the legendary hero that fought Muslim rule bravely. People were essentially sitting ducks in a station named after such a hero. On top of this, Mr. Yadav is credited for making the railways profitable - which means he could have made the investment to put in a decent security system in place.

The top brass in the police force should also feel remorse. Some of them may be working hard. given the resources and talent at their disposal, and given the politics they have to deal with, and
some of their peers have actually laid down their lives. But these folks are paid the best by the government, and given the authority to make things happen, and they must think through all possibilities and influence those in charge to do the right thing. They are very reactive with the investigation and prosecution after events like this, but haven't done well on the prevention in the first place. Perhaps, prevention is not as rewarding as later investigation and prosecution. I noticed one police officer that had resigned in disgust over corruption back in year 2000, mentioned the bullet-proof vests worn by the senior officers killed may have been low-quality and not fit for this job. That's a shame.

Hotels such as the Taj or Oberoi charge anywhere from $200-$600 a night, and there shouldn't have been a dearth for money to put in a decent security. Executives like Ratan Tata should have had more foresight and paranoia to invest in the safety of their guests, as well as their employees, rather than trusting a government that is not known to have the best resources or system. Hopefully they will do more introspection. Now. it's not just the hotels, other establishments such as hospitals, marriage halls, malls where lot of people assemble should be wary as well.

My heart goes out to those impacted, but things will change only over time, and some events such as these only contribute to waking up to the problem, and feeling the need for change.

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