Each time they face a terrorist strike, Indians instinctively ask: why doesn’t the West take such violence against us seriously? The answer is clear as daylight — actually, two sets of daylight: July 5 and July 7. More than blame the rest of the world, consider how quickly we rush to trivialise matters ourselves.
Compare the jihadi attack on Ayodhya and the bomb blasts in London two days later. Set against each other the reaction of the political class in India and in Britain, the response of the media, the focus of interest in one society and in the other.
Once it became clear the British capital had been targeted, the emergency services and the government calmly got down to business. There was no wild speculation about fatalities, no ministers running about and saying thousands could be dead. Nobody offered to bomb Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, whoever. There was no George Fernandes waiting to announce a possible death toll of 100,000, as he had helpfully done on the day of the Gujarat earthquake in 2001.
The leader of the Conservative Party did not immediately call a press conference and demand Tony Blair, his home secretary, the directors of MI-5 and MI-6 and, if nothing else, the London police chief resign. The government’s ideological opponents did not criticise the Iraq war and say, ‘‘We told you so.’’
When interviewed on BBC, the shadow home secretary was sobriety personified. Asked if there had been a security lapse, he said, ‘‘This is too dangerous a time...to make sweeping judgments.’’ Yes, he had questions of the government but would reserve them for ‘‘Monday’’ (July 11). He didn’t want to ‘‘give our enemies the satisfaction of a split between us’’.
In contrast, by the afternoon of July 5, Jaswant Singh wanted the home ministers of India and of Uttar Pradesh sacked. Like his party president — who seemed more keen on conveying a message to Surat, rather than articulating national resolve — Jaswant spoke of ‘‘intelligence and security lapse’’, ‘‘negligence’’, the government’s ‘‘mindset’’. The Congress responded by reminding Jaswant of the Kandahar chaperone expedition. It charged Advani with ‘‘cheap politics’’. Life was back to normal, the terrorists be damned.
Get back to London and July 7. The press conference addressed by police and emergency services brass was exemplary. When the officials didn’t know something, they said so. They refused to venture a guess as to the number who may have died in the double-decker bus blown up at Tavistock Square. There was no smug bureaucrat pretending he knew everything but couldn’t say anything ‘‘because investigations are on’’.
The police spokesman was not harangued by hysterical reporters ghoulishly demanding a death count. These questions were not heard: ‘‘How many have died? Why don’t you know? How dare you not know?’’ The violation of London was not reduced to statistics. There was no barrage of questions on whether there had been — to borrow that all-purpose Indian _expression — an ‘‘intelligence failure’’.
It may be worth recalling the afternoon of December 26, 2004. Hours after the tsunami, an Indian news channel anchor interviewed Science Minister Kapil Sibal. Why were no tsunami warning systems set up, she asked him, even after the Chinese war of 1962? Sibal was completely confused by the question; six months on, he cannot be any wiser.
Institutional stoicism percolates downwards. When put before television cameras, London’s victims were gritty and composed. One memorable interview was of a man with his right eye under a patch. He described his injury, initial fears, anger, emotions, and even managed a smile. There was no shrieking, no insistence on government compensation, no belligerence.
What the cameras caught in London on July 7 was the saga of the little man: the commuter, the office-goer, the police constable, the doctor, the ambulance driver, the fireman. What the cameras caught in India on July 5 was BJP screaming, VHP screeching, Congress shouting. The story of the CRPF jawans, the heroes of the day, was as relevant as background noise.
July 7 told us why Britain — a depleted economy and a lost empire notwithstanding — still has the collective memory of a great power. July 5 told us why India — a growing economy and a global ambition notwithstanding — still doesn’t fit the cloak of a great power. Bulldog Breed versus Cackling Crows? Choose your leaders.