Mumbai blasts raise terrorism concerns, but not calls for political change

Indian voters often don't see terrorism as a political issue, so despite dissatisfaction with the government's response to Wednesday's attack in Mumbai, there may not be political fallout.

Aijaz Rahi/AP
People read newspapers at Zaveri bazar, one of the three sites of Wednesday's bomb blasts in Mumbai, India, Friday, July 15.

Facing a dearth of evidence from Wednesday’s terrorist attack on Mumbai, the Indian government has avoided speculating on culprits and announced planned talks with Pakistan would continue as scheduled.

American officials have worried in the past about India’s ability to avoid escalating tensions with Pakistan in the face of another major attack after the Nov. 26, 2008 raid on Mumbai. So far, India’s government has played it very cool.

Part of the early muted response has to do with the uncertainty over who perpetrated the attack and its smaller scale as compared to the 2008 attack. But there’s another major factor that could give policymakers here leeway as more facts emerge: National security does not play a large role in Indian elections.

“Terrorism has never been an electoral issue,” says Yashwant Deshmukh, a pollster with Team CVoter in Noida. “If you talk about the biggest issue in front of the country, then terrorism will shoot up as an issue that concerns them. But if you talk about what is the biggest issue when you go to vote, then terrorism as an electoral issue isn’t there.”

He argues that many voters do not see terrorism as under the control of politicians in the same way as inflation or corruption – two issues that are currently upsetting Indians.

The main opposition party is trying to make an issue out of the government’s response to terrorism, however.

“It’s not a failure of intelligence, it’s a failure of policy,” said L.K. Advani, senior leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “The last attack [in 2008] on Mumbai is proved to have been engineered by the ISI,” he said, referring to Pakistan’s premier spy agency, which he argues should be “declared as a terrorist organization.”

Talks still on

Instead, the current government agreed to resume dialogue with Pakistan in February after freezing talks for more than two years in response to the 2008 attacks.

Rather than wade into Pakistan policy, the ruling Congress Party’s rising star Rahul Gandhi addressed concerns expressed by ordinary Mumbaikars that the government hasn’t proven capable of stopping terror attacks.

“You will not have heard of all the attacks that have been stopped. It is something that we will fight … but it is very, very difficult to stop every single terrorist attack,” said Mr. Gandhi.

Investigators are currently looking through hours of surveillance video from the three blast sites to look for clues. However, the rainy weather has not helped. Umbrellas blocked some of the view in the videos and rains washed away evidence from the sites.

The bombs appeared to be improvised explosive devices made with ammonium nitrate. The Ministry of Home Affairs described them as having “some
level of sophistication.” The perpetrators placed one bomb in Dadar on top of a bus shelter, another at the Opera House under some garbage, and the third at Zaveri Bazaar under an umbrella. The death toll stands at 17.

While the latest Mumbai attack has received a lot of international attention, India has quietly faced a string of bomb attacks across the country in recent years, including in New Delhi, Ahmedabad, Varanasi, Pune, Jaipur, and Bangalore.

Keeping calm

Some of these attacks occurred before elections and they factored not at all in voting behavior, says Mr. Deshmukh.

“Look at the geographic spread [of attacks], and then you realize that it can happen to any state, anywhere and it doesn’t matter which party is governing,” says Deshmukh. While the opposition BJP has tried to sell itself to voters as being tougher on national security, several high profile terror attacks struck during their tenure as well, he adds.

While the country is rapidly urbanizing and has a growing middle class, most of India remains rural and poor. These voters care primarily about pocketbook issues, such as the cost of food and how politicians will reward them tangibly for their votes. Much voting still takes place not over policy issues but identity in the hopes that politicians will reward their own communities.

As they fire their latest salvos over national security, some opposition politicians appear to acknowledge the limited political impact of the issue.

“It is the process of vote bank politics that is weakening the war against terrorism. But at least there should be system of action against the system of terror itself,” said opposition leader Arun Jaitley.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.