It was the hysterical campaign by the electronic media that led the Prime Minister to change course on the India-Pakistan dialogue after the LoC hostilities
“We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.” Macaulay’s words aptly describe the fits of chauvinism that seize Indians. But this time it has exacted a toll of consequence, the result of a pathetic surrender by a man of vision.
On January 6, a Pakistani soldier was killed and another critically injured, across the Line of Control in Kashmir. Two days later, two Indian soldiers were killed across the LoC; one was beheaded, the other’s body was mutilated. On January 9, “a senior intelligence official” told DNA, “we believe that this was a local action purely in retaliation of (sic) what the raid out troops carried out in the Uri Sector.” The next day came Praveen Swami’s revealing exposé in this paper, followed by disclosures of beheadings by Indian troops in the past.
The 12 days
By its very nature, that crime is a product of local rage. It should have been settled at the level of brigadiers. As Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said on January 16: “It’s something that is within the domain of the armed forces of both sides … If it is contained at their own level, then it doesn’t create a larger political issue at the higher level.” The Directors-General of Military Operations were not asked to contain the crisis when they met on January 9. Each said his piece. On January 18, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “We want [a] good relationship with Pakistan but not at the cost of our national honour and our national interest.”
Whatever happened during those 12 days to prompt this astounding assertion by a level-headed PM? On January 9, Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar made a fair proposal. Both countries should investigate the incidents and assist each other, if necessary. This implied parity in sin and parity is anathema to us. Her suggestion of a probe by U.N. observers was a non-starter. But unilateral probes by each side, followed by a joint discussion, would have eased the tension. In Paris, as late as January 12, Salman Khurshid told The Hindu “We think this will pass.” But New Delhi had other ideas. The IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne said the same day “we may have to look at some other options for compliance.” Two days later, Army Chief General Bikram Singh declared that India “reserves the right to retaliate at the time and place of its choice” and “I expect all my commanders to be aggressive and offensive to any situation” — bad advice in a tense situation. Such threats are proper only if the killing was deliberate and was ordered at a governmental level. This was the gloss India chose to put on a local incident to which both sides surely contributed.
The decision to up the ante was taken on January 14 at a hurriedly called meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security. The BJP made the most of it. Sushma Swaraj asked for 10 heads against one. Yashwant Sinha said “you cannot have peace with Pakistan.”
The Prime Minister fell in line on January 15. “After this barbaric act, there cannot be business as usual [with Pakistan].” The same day, the visa-on-arrival facility was put on hold and Pakistan’s hockey stars were sent home.
The BJP was not appeased. To Ms Swaraj, the PM’s remarks were an “echo of the tough measures we have demanded.” Arun Jaitley said on January 15: “The fact that it has taken so long for the PM to react makes me wonder if today’s reaction is out of conviction or out of compulsion. I hope this marks the burial of the Sharm-el-Shaikh line” — that the peace process should not be held hostage to the issue of terrorism.
Having drawn blood, the BJP will move for the final kill of the peace process. From 2004, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani kept attacking Dr. Singh for every conciliatory move while asking Pakistan privately not to settle with the UPA. The BJP had better offers. India now offered surrender terms: end the “brazen denial” and “bring the perpetrators to book.” This renders retreat very difficult, though its signs have appeared. The BJP will surely call it a surrender.
Ms Khar’s offer of talks, on January 16, would, as Mr. Khurshid had envisaged, raise the dialogue to the political level in view of the impasse in the DGMO talks — “discuss all concerns related to LoC with a view to reinforcing respect for the ceasefire.” The offer was not accepted.
It is sad that the Prime Minister should have allowed himself to be blown off course in these last few months. He had a noble vision. The four-point formula on Kashmir he had crafted with Pervez Musharraf satisfied the interests of all sides — no secession, no permanence to the LoC and self-rule to Kashmiris without any violation of territorial integrity. All this has been foiled; not least by his own hesitations and failure to talk to the people and explain his vision. He abandoned a course that might have brought peace to this sub-continent by a settlement of Kashmir. Now it is a tragic legacy of failure, caused wantonly by self-inflicted wounds that this man of vision will bequeath in 2014.
No leader should permit incidents to deflect him from his course. At 2.45 a.m. on October 12, 1984, a bomb went off which wrecked most of Brighton’s Grand Hotel where Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was staying for the Conservative Party Conference. Dozens, including a Minister, were injured. An MP and four others were killed. The IRA warned her, “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once.” She did not stop the MI5 from continuing the talks with the IRA.
However, it was not to the BJP that the Prime Minister surrendered. He did so to the clamour whipped up by the electronic media. The BJP wrode piggy-back on that clamour. The resume of events from January 6 to 18 should be read in the light of the venom poured by television news anchors night after night. This raises in an acute form the issue of media influence on diplomacy. A former British Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, noted: “Like it or not, television images are what force foreign policymakers to give one of the current 25 crises in the world greater priority.” William Pfaff, a thoughtful commentator, agrees: “Foreign policy now is made chiefly in terms of its reception by television and the press.” But “the only useful debates are those that start out with a clear agreement on what the argument is about” — the precise issues — “and in which the opponent’s arguments and persons are paid respect.” This is altogether absent in “the debates” on our channels.
The anchors themselves enter the fray, ridicule those with whom they disagree, show deference to retirees from the IB, RAW and the army, and treat Pakistanis with scant courtesy. They themselves are none too competent. An anchor of a leading channel said in Ladakh, “behind me lies the McMahon Line.” Another goes to the university in Srinagar and polls students on camera. When almost all said they were for azadi, he replied: “That is a subjective view”. His ignorance of the feelings there exposed.
Eric Louw remarks in his book The Media and Political Press that “most journalists are ill-equipped to read foreign contexts and so can be easily led by both overseas spin-doctors and domestic foreign policy bureaucrats and experts” — and TRPs.
Public opinion can veto policy, fanned by TV it can ruin it. Lippmann remarked, mass opinion “has shown itself to be a dangerous master of decisions when the stakes are life and death.” He lamented that “the work of reporters has become confused with the work of preachers, revivalists, prophets and agitators … jingoism became a criterion for [the] presentation of news.” He touched the core of the problem when he wrote “in an exact sense the present crisis of western democracy is a crisis of journalism”.
The task of the leader is to educate people about the facts of political life. He cannot shirk his duty. Abba Eban struck a fair balance. “It is unrealistic to expect political leaders to ignore public opinion. But a statesman who keeps his ear permanently glued to the ground will have neither elegance of posture nor flexibility of moment.”
(A.G. Noorani is a lawyer, author and commentator. His latest book, Article 370: A Constitutional History of Jammu and Kashmir, was published by Oxford University Press in 2011.)