Gone are the multiple changes of ministerial clothing, the delay in mobilising investigators and the information vacuum which led the media into speculative frenzy. Granted the scale of the Pune bomb attack pales in comparison to the full frontal assault that heavily armed terrorists launched on Mumbai in November 2008, but Saturday’s terror strike saw a more self-assured government step forward to pick up the pieces and instill a sense of confidence in ordinary citizens.
Within three hours of the blast, Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai met the press for a no-nonsense, factual briefing. Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan also met the press while Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram struck a calm and measured tone both on Saturday night and at his press conference on Sunday morning. All of them refused to say any more than what they knew about who might be responsible, which wasn’t much, and asked the media not to whistle in the dark.
Behind the scenes, the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office also showed signs of having learnt how to work the information system, with senior officials offering the media perspective rather than leaving them to drum up sound bites and wild theories from ‘sources’ lower down the administrative food chain. The intention was primarily to tamp down unhelpful speculation on television about whether India would withdraw its offer of talks to Pakistan now that terrorists had struck again.
During Mumbai, television narratives very quickly took on a life of their own. In November 2008, one leading channel claimed, wrongly, that India had begun to move its troops, prompting the Pakistani side to whip up fears of an imminent conflict. This time, officials appear keen for everyone to stay on message.
Conscious of the fact that this was the first major terrorist incident to happen on his watch in North Block, Mr. Chidambaram made it a point to arrive in Pune at the earliest opportunity, visit the wounded, take stock of the investigation and field questions from reporters. All told, his open style of functioning couldn’t have been more different from that of his two predecessors in the Ministry, Shivraj Patil and L.K. Advani.
When the dust settles, of course, the usual questions will surface again about intelligence failure. Why, for example, did the February 5 threat against Pune, Delhi and Kanpur by a Jamaat-ud-Dawa leader not trigger a higher level of alert in those cities? Is the government complacent about having busted the Indian Mujahideen? Has enough attention been paid to the network of Hindu extremists in Maharashtra who have planted bombs in the past? For the moment, however, the government can take some satisfaction from the orderly manner in which it has responded to the latest terrorist incident.