New Delhi: On the surface, the two issues may have nothing in common. Firstly, the government is upset with the televising of a secret briefing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the under-trail Arihant ballistic nuclear submarine. The second piece of news is the atrocious anti-terror drill by Gujarat Police with show militants dressed in symbols of faith and shouting religious slogans. There may be no perceivable connection between the two incidents but there is.

A democratic state operates at two levels. One is public and the other covert. In emergencies like war, the covert side of government dominates the public and secrecy is pervasive. No one really minds and there is no choice anyway. In normal times, the public side may be more obvious than the covert but its importance by that token is not diminished.

The skill of government lies in balancing the covert and public. Some things simply cannot be made public, like war plans, intelligence operations, stealth weapons, and so forth. Friendly and inimical foreign powers would make attempts to break the secrecy. The media eager for scoops would also be tempted to do the same. The smartness of government lies in maintaining secrecy while putting up a facade of transparency.

This writer has not understood why the government cannot sanitize the media from sensitive ministries and departments. At a minimum, this list should include the prime minister’s office, covert services, the home, defence, foreign, finance and commerce ministries, and the affiliated departments. The Defence Research and Development Organization has a history of opening its facilities to media. The craze for publicity overcomes the necessity for secrecy and security.

The Gujarat episode derives from the lack of security appreciation. Would a terrorist proclaim his religion beforehand? He would go in the opposite direction and shun all faith-based connections to make a successful mission. What were the Taliban who massacred the Peshawar schoolchildren wearing? Standard military uniforms. They were indistinguishable from government forces. Terrorists are hidden enemies. The Gujarat Police would be sitting ducks for the kind of drills performed.

Not everyone in this country may believe in non-sectarian principles of governance as this writer does. But they are the only wise and intelligent ways to administer a multi-religious, multi-cultural state. If the government must keep one step ahead of terrorists, it must seek the cooperation of the community from which inadvertently they get drawn. The causes of one community’s greater disaffection than another are beyond the scope of this piece. But you cannot turn whole communities into enemies and hope to combat terrorism.

It all comes down to sophistication on the covert side. Western governments have wrestled with problems of transparency and secrecy and made fair advances. India must learn. There are home-bred examples too. Arun Shourie faced leaks that compromised the disinvestment programme. He made it impossible for journalists to breach his domain. The media was aghast at the toughness of a former editor but he did not relent.

Secrecy is a philosophy that all democratic governments have to embrace despite being unlikable. A government that cannot keep secrets is doomed. The secret world will also secure you in unimaginable ways. Taking no names, some of the best assets against terrorism were built in these past years with the active alliance of one community. Examples set by the likes of Gujarat Police would weaken these assets. Secrecy requires a culture and an administrative refinement missing here. It makes all the difference between a great power and an also-ran.

Hopefully, the prime minister is listening.

Editor’s Note: The public relations’ directorate of the Ministry of Defence is situated in South Block. Proposals to co-locate it with the Press Information Bureau and the External Publicity Division of the Ministry of External Affairs have been successfully resisted. Its removal from South Block is necessary to plug leaks and prevent general contamination.