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
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
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
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.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org