In the aftermath of any ghastly event like the Mumbai terror attacks, there are always a number of lessons to learn, but it is important to identify the critical ones. Is it the need for a central security agency, or passing tough laws (as the Union Government is already doing) or is it something else? I believe the real lesson for us lies in the need to radically alter the functioning of our legal and democratic institutions, the way in which we implement the law and render justice - legal, political and social.

The Mumbai terrorist attacks were, for me, unfortunately yet another instance of our abysmal failure to govern ourselves. While it is true that the incident itself was caused by fanatics bent on causing destruction, it is our inability to respond in a timely and orderly fashion that causes worry. True, we are correctly celebrating the heroic performance of a few men, but in that celebration we should not forget the serious problems with our institutions. The muddled response is a reflection of the state of lawlessness that India is heading towards. Not the sort of lawlessness caused by terror attacks aided and abetted by foreign powers, but a lawlessness of our own making.

Found wanting in normal times

Those amongst us who are unfortunate enough to deal with any government agency (legislature, bureaucracy or judiciary) are aware that governance, including the enforcement of law rarely happens as a matter of course. Instead, it is the lack of fair and uniform governance that characterises our society. Every facet of governance is dependent on whether you know somebody in the government or whether you have sufficient money power to substitute for not knowing anyone. As a matter of course, public officials look at the law and administration as instruments for them to benefit from those citizens who have no choice but to yield to their illegal demands, usually for money.

As a result, law - the only legitimate tool of governance - has been slowly but surely reduced to a commodity, which can either be bartered or purchased by using influence or money. Indeed, in many areas this system is now so entrenched that there is no room for any legitimate transactions. Anybody who has purchased land anywhere in the country recently can testify to this: revenue officials will refuse to register property even if all the papers are in order, unless you pay them a 'fee'. The same is true in many other areas - registering a complaint with the police; obtaining a driving licence; registering a birth, death or marriage; etc. Even seemingly mechanical and routine acts are portrayed as a favour being granted by the government or the officer concerned.

Against this background, what sort of security or safety can we expect?

If our governing institutions are not used to, or know how to carry out their duties properly on a day-to-day basis in times of calm and peace, is it surprising that they are found wanting in times of crisis? How can any police officer who needs an incentive to record a complaint or investigate a simple burglary be motivated to act when there is a crisis? How can a bureaucrat who refuses to do his job unless he is given a bribe be expected to approve procurement orders of essential weaponry for the police force? How can the governance machinery that fails to control local goons harassing citizens regularly, identify and resist the goons who come from across the border?

Law enforcement cannot make a distinction between 'our' goons and 'their' goons. It has to make a distinction between goons and law abiding citizens. And when it fails to do so, it is failing the very reason for its existence. I am actually amazed that somehow in all this chaos that a semblance of governance and law survives. And that is despite our governing institutions, and not because of them.

Personal too

We need to take steps to bring a basic integrity into our institutions, an integrity that recognises the purpose of the institutions rather than the current approach of treating them as instruments to achieve narrow goals. This integrity will not be achieved merely by replacing politicians and bureaucrats - it is of course critical that they imbibe the integrity - but by an understanding and internalisation of the integrity in society as a whole.

We need to start respecting the law and internalise the integrity needed for the governance for this country. Even 'small' things like breaking traffic rules matter to our internalisation of the law. As citizens, we cannot keep quiet about the shortcomings and malpractices of our institutions when it suits us and cry hoarse when it does not. We need to demand that our institutions govern without fear or favour and comply with the law while doing so. Only then can integrity of the institutions be achieved. It is the basis for any serious revival of our governance institutions.

And all of this can happen only if each of us internalise this integrity. Only if we internalise such integrity, can we demand that society and institutions also display such integrity. I know this is easier said than done, but an effort needs to be made. As a start, we need to ensure that the cost of compliance with the law, both at a personal level and an institutional level, is less than the cost of breaching the law. By cost, I do not mean just substantive provisions or monetary costs, but also the process of complying with the law and the time taken for such compliance. Currently, our institutions are characterised by complex processes that actually frustrate the purposes for which they are set up. If our institutions are made to focus on their goals rather than processes, that will go a long way in generating integrity and sustaining it.

That is the lesson for us in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks - the need for individual, societal and institutional integrity. Only by doing so can we strengthen ourselves to an extent where we are able to face threats in a more organised and confident manner. Only then can our institutions get out of the Orwellian world within which they currently function and recognise the real world they need to govern.