Comment

Losing the information war

Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar. File photo.

Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar. File photo.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

The Indian government no longer has viable channels to put across its point of view to the Western media

India is used to a negative international media. After the 1998 nuclear tests, the American media echoed the lines of Jesse Helms, then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that “the Indian government has not shot itself in the foot. Most likely it has shot itself in the head.” As events unfolded, its dire predictions turned out to be completely inaccurate.

The difference between then and now, when the global media has cast doubts about India’s “non-military and preemptive” response to the Pulwama terrorist attack, is that the Indian version of events is hardly getting a credible hearing. This is because the Indian government no longer has viable channels to put across its point of view to the Western media. By acts of commission and omission, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), which should be in the driving seat for such publicity, has, over the last few years, discontinued a practice that might have persuasively argued the Indian position.

For some time now, foreign correspondents based in India have not been attending briefings by MEA spokespersons. They may have concluded that their time might be better spent on other stories as they tend to cover the entire subcontinent and have enough on their plate.

This was not the case earlier. For many decades, following the daily briefing by the MEA spokesperson, Indian and foreign correspondents would gather at 4.30 p.m. for background banter over tea and samosas. It gave an opportunity for the spokesperson, who was sometimes joined by heads of MEA’s territorial divisions, to informally put across what he or she could not say on record about India’s stake in diplomatic jugglery. Inevitably, some of this would be published in reports.

That did not happen with events post-Pulwama. The daily briefing by the MEA spokesperson seems to have faded in importance. Towards the end of Manmohan Singh’s tenure as Prime Minister, the daily briefing was scrapped in favour of weekly briefings. That worked as long as the spokesperson was accessible to foreign correspondents in New Delhi 24x7 or on call. That is no longer the case. In the new millennium, changes were made to the MEA’s outreach using new technology, modelled on the U.S. State Department, making it easier to find information.

Such useful content is no longer available on the MEA’s information outlets. The brief for spin doctors of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diplomacy has been to convince the domestic audience that India is a great power. Earlier, the brief was to convince the world that India is an emerging giant in global affairs. With this change in priorities, the government is unable to disseminate information that could have produced a more sympathetic global media on the current play in India-Pakistan relations.

The writer has been a foreign correspondent for nearly three decades

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 4:23:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/losing-the-information-war/article26488933.ece

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