Last week your reporter had the chance to participate in a seminar on India-Pakistan relations. Held at Delhi University’s fast rising institution Maharaja Agrasen College, the discussions veered from Indus Waters Treaty to the Role of Media in the ongoing crisis in the relation between the two nations.
The audience, which largely constituted of undergraduate students of the political science department of the college and their teachers, sounded more perplexed at the ongoing war within the media than the escalating conflict between the two neighbouring countries. In his very scholarly delineation on the finer points of water treaties, Uttam Kumar Sinha, who is a long-time fellow at the prestigious IDSA and also edits their journal Strategic Analysis, showed that diplomacy over rivers was not as easy as opening or closing water taps.
His advice to the young crowd was to not get carried away by media reports but do their own research and draw conclusions accordingly. In the course of the discussion, a piercing question was shot at your reporter, on the media’s propagandist role and when media had the freedom to act “waywardly” why not the politicians especially with the reference to episodes involving Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.
Now the question which arises is, did the media acted waywardly ever since the surgical strikes were carried out. The answer is that the television media did, whereas print has largely showed restraint in reporting the operation and its diplomatic, strategic, and political fallouts.
In my interactions with journalism students, I always insist that the Indian television news stood differently from their western counterparts, as in India discussions dominated news dissemination. This is largely due to the lack of wherewithal on the part of the India media houses to carry out “independent” reporting of events like the surgical strikes. In such situations, they find it best to play to the imagination of the “argumentative Indians” and run amok with all kinds of blether.
What has come in handy for the television is the great ability shown by starched, moustached retired Indian Army officers showing extraordinary capacity to out-shout and other histrionic abilities. I am very sure the operations like the surgical strike are much more professionally handled than the way they are painted by the some from the olive-green ilk.
Some of these people are projected as the one’s having the ear of the establishment. The truth is that the role assigned to them by the establishment is to act as propagandist as they possess extraordinary skills to put the television screens on fire. But how does it serve the nation? I do not think many come out any wiser from watching these shows. Thus, the need for print to uphold its legacy of objective reporting as far as possible is more today than ever before.
Unlike the television, the format of the newspapers is such that the opinion pages will always have to follow the news pages. Any newspaper which fiddles with the idea of unabashedly promoting a political line or cause does it to its own peril. Promotion of a political line on the news pages is a challenging task, which has to be done with a surgical finesse lest it smears the fair name of the brand.
In this context, there is this reference to Mahatma Gandhi visiting a British-owned paper in Allahabad and requesting them for some space. The editor told Mahatma firmly that his newspaper’s editorial line did not permit him to endorse his movement for freedom, but he assured some space to articles promoting the nationalist cause. Mahatma came out a happy man from the meeting, especially the editor’s “honest and fair” approach.
Thus, it’s important that the Indian print media publish such articles which are well-argued, backed by research and not mere rhetoric. The print media is regulated and covered by libel laws. Thus if an article hurts the nation’s security, there are mechanisms in place which would take care of the same. But it’s important that varied thoughts get space. If we do not allow that, we would lose on the strength of our democracy.
This takes us to the next part of the question that if media has the freedom to criticise the government moves in strategic matters like the surgical strike and counter-terror attacks, why not the opposition politicians. The basic difference is that a media person is expected to act within the Constitution, whereas a politician takes the oath to uphold the Constitution.
A media person in the course of discharge of his professional duties doesn’t work towards being part of the Indian State, whereas a politician espouses his ideological cause and contests elections to be not only the part of the Indian State but also to provide leadership to it. There is another aspect to be understood – what is Indian State?
But before that it is important we know how foreign policy of a sovereign nation is formulated. In 1923, then US Secretary of State Charles Evans while countering President Woodrow Wilson had said, “Foreign policies are not built upon abstractions. They are the result of practical conceptions of national interest arising from some immediate exigency or standing out vividly in historical perspective.” This holds true even today.
Now what is the Indian State – it is the Indian Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary and not just the Central government. The forums for discussion of state policies are floors of the legislative houses, deliberation in the committees of the houses or the all-party meetings convened by the government. An elected representative of the people, whether s/he is from the ruling party at the Centre or its rival, cannot take an adversarial public position vis-a-vis the Centre in the matters of foreign policy.
Therefore, when the Chief Minister of a state endorses an article in public domain, which is critical of the government’s foreign policy, he invites appreciation from the foreign nation with whom relations stand strained. And when the top leader of the principal opposition party decides to use cheap language to discredit the Centre on the issue of military strike, it calls for admonition.
(Sidharth Mishra is President, Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice and Consulting Editor,
Millennium Post. The views expressed are strictly personal.)