You can't pass the buck, PC
By M J Akbar
Most mistakes begin in the mind. It is hardly a state secret that home minister P Chidambaram is an avid fan of the American security doctrine summed up succinctly in "clear, hold, build". No one saw the fault lines. This was a formula for overseas operations, not domestic soil. America faces both an internal and external security challenge.
It does not use the same doctrine for both. The CRPF, or its offshoots, are not an occupation force. Moreover, the Maoists have not seized territory; they have turned the natural habitat of the poor, with local support, into their strongholds; they are, right or wrong, of the people. Their fighters are not in uniform; their officers do not wear cravat and beret; their foot soldiers do not change into civvies to go home.
America understands the need to 'build' in Iraq or Afghanistan, but this is the third priority, which is why it either does not happen, or gets too diluted. The maximum energy is exhausted by 'clear' and 'hold'. In practice, this means that the security force is largely occupied in providing security for itself. Chidambaram has argued that development is impossible until his personal armies can clear the 'infected' areas of Maoists. The Cobra Force was developed for this purpose. It has been renamed the Special Action Force presumably because someone thought the world's most famous poisonous snake might be inappropriate nomenclature for the striking arm of an 'aam-aadmi' government. You can change the name, but what about the mentality?
Uncertainty has turned the home ministry's advertisement campaign into an exercise in confusion. The copy says: "I was poor and had no job. So, I joined the Maoists. The gun became my identity. I killed, I maimed, I blew up schools and bridges. But, I still have no job. My children can't go to school. My wife can't live with me. I can't till my land." Then follows the message: "Abjure violence, support development." Ignore the fact that Maoists are hardly reading upmarket English newspapers with their morning cuppa; it does rather sound like an invitation to join Maoists, rather than abjure them.
If "I was poor" etc etc, and the state had done little except ensure that the rich were getting richer at a rate of 8%, maybe the gun would seem the only wake-up call left. One can join development if there is development. Dantewada is not quite Marine Drive. The poor are not fools; they do not expect a genie to suddenly offer them a magical palace — but neither will they accept indifference as their destiny.
Poverty is the sustenance of Maoism. If we want to destroy Maoists, we need to end poverty. There is an alternative to "clear, hold, build": empower, educate, eliminate. The gun is a weapon of last resort in a democracy, not the first. Equally, a sensible government must reduce the attraction of the gun among the poor by restoring their faith, not by multiplying cemeteries and graveyards. There is nothing particularly radical in this suggestion. If Pranab Mukherjee or A K Antony had been home minister, they would have understood. Such a strategy has been used successfully in Andhra Pradesh by governments across the party divide, led by N T Rama Rao, Chandrababu Naidu and Y Rajasekhara Reddy. They built police units – called Greyhounds, not Cobras — which spoke the people's language, and earned their trust by behaving as protectors rather than conquerors. Experienced police officers advised the home ministry to base the Cobra Force in Hyderabad so that it could imbibe an operational culture that had proved successful, but Chidambaram disagreed. He made it personal. Delhi remained the headquarters of Cobra-SAF.
The Greyhounds had few intelligence failures because they were intelligent. Simultaneously, positive discrimination became the theme of economic development. It was, inevitably, a slow process; there were no grandiose claims that Naxalites would be finished in two years, or three. More important, no Andhra politician tried to use a crisis to become a pseudo-Napoleon through verbal explosions.
Good politicians know that a single pompous phrase can reverse trajectory and turn a thundering cannonball into an ominous boomerang. Chidambaram loftily informed the mild Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee during a visit to Maoist-hit Bengal that the Naxalite buck stopped at the Bengal chief minister's desk. He could not have imagined that within days the taunt would return to haunt him.
Where does the Dantewada buck stop? Chidambaram has been chasing alibis, claiming this was a joint operation. Not quite correct. The CRPF in Chhattisgarh — whether wearing its Cobra face or Special Action Force hat — took its orders from Delhi. American President Harry Truman made the phrase famous with a "desk gadget" bearing the legend "The Buck Stops Here". (This plaque, incidentally, was a gift from the Federal Reformatory at El Reno.) Another President, Calvin Coolidge, made a more relevant promise: "I won't pass the buck."
To pass the buck is to fail the nation.
Appeared in Times of India - April 11, 2010