The Revenge of the Near

Article excerpt

The 11/26 attack on India was no 9/11--and India's reaction must also be different from America's.

Urban Indians love the idea of a global, borderless world, where flows of trade and services trace virtual geographies. Who can blame them? Colonial mapmaking left India broken and flanked by two unviable, antagonistic states: Pakistan and Bangladesh. Also in the neighborhood are despotic Burma, precarious Afghanistan and war-torn Sri Lanka. It's enough to make anyone search for an escape.

Before the Mumbai attacks, that escape seemed possible. India's elites believed that free-market economics and an international outlook would let them transcend location, poverty and intractable politics. In recent years, India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, had made this approach the core of his policies. The Singh doctrine, as it might be called, was one of nonconfrontational economic diplomacy, seeking to expand India's global connections in order to spur growth and personal affluence, which in turn would defuse internal and external conflicts.

The effort seemed to work, at least for a time. After charting around 8 percent annual growth for the last five years, last fall India became the first postcolonial state to successfully complete a moon mission. And in October, after signing an agreement with Washington, New Delhi gained admission into the world's most powerful club: that of legitimate nuclear powers.

Then came the terrorist attack that began in Mumbai on the night of Nov. 26, literally and metaphorically targeting the five-star oases where the rich network and relax. The men who arrived in India's most global city from Pakistan aboard rubber boats represented, among other things, a revenge of the near. Within hours, they revealed that India's dream of escape might be a delusion. Actual location, it turns out, still matters more than the virtual one. There are limits to economic diplomacy--and India's security will depend on recognizing them.

Halfway through the siege of the Taj and Oberoi hotels and of the Jewish Centre at Nariman House, one major TV station began headlining its reports with the phrase "India's 9/11." But the analogy didn't hold. There were some similarities--the targets were iconic buildings and the attacks captivated world attention--but the comparison oversimplified a situation whose implications are potentially much more threatening for India than those faced by the United States. September 11 was an attack by men from afar, whose message had little resonance with Americans. The Mumbai attackers came from next door, the world's largest Islamic republic and the chief global exporter of radical Islam, and they arrived in a country with just as many Muslims of its own.

The Mumbai attacks were less like 9/11 than like a man-made Katrina: a calamity preceded by many warnings (among them bombings last year in several cities) and followed by government bungling. At the time of the attacks, many Mumbai police were armed only with bamboo sticks. Of those who had guns, many didn't know how to fire them. Commandos had to be called in from the north, since none were stationed in India's financial capital.

The failure of so many public-sector agencies provoked little surprise in Mumbai's poorer quarters, where residents are well acquainted with government shortcomings. But urban elites sputtered with outrage. Though some of this was directed toward Pakistan, most of it was aimed inward. Imagine if after 9/11, New Yorkers had taken to the streets to protest against firefighters and Rudy Giuliani, and you get a sense of what this felt like. Suddenly a class that preferred to pursue its interests through connections and money, that relied on private security and electrical generators, was reminded of the need for government and the role of the state.

These protesting elites have shaken India's leaders. Singh has finally rid himself of his inane home minister and replaced him with the respected P. …