Sanjaya Baru | East-West psy-war: India in the battle of narratives
The battle of narratives is very much a part of modern warfare, with real time coverage of news
Even as the Russians wage war on the battlefields of Ukraine, the old Cold War-type “psy-war” is being waged across the global as well as the Indian media. The battle of narratives is very much a part of modern warfare, with real time coverage of news. Winning this propaganda war is often as important as scoring victories on the battlefield. So, it should come as no surprise that in this era of real-time mass media coverage, through television and the social media, the actors on all sides have been busy putting out narratives to shape public opinion in their favour.
Quite understandably, the Western media, especially the American and the British, have been in the forefront of this psychological warfare. Given the negligible investment that the Indian media makes in posting foreign correspondents who can offer an Indian perspective on world affairs, most of the international news available in India is sourced from Western, predominantly English language, media. Even the few Indian correspondents stationed overseas are in English-speaking countries. Neither in Moscow nor in Kyiv nor in most of Europe are there any well-informed Indian journalists reporting to Indian audiences.
The bias in reporting on an important geopolitical development that has implications for India, like the ongoing East-West conflict is, therefore, obvious. It is now clear that much of what is coming out of the Western media and think tanks is carefully orchestrated opinion dissemination. The Russians, too, have been active, as one would expect, and so too have other actors in Europe and Asia, but the overwhelming influence of Western opinion on Indian thinking is palpable.
From viewing and reading the Indian media, it would appear that the Indian government has by and large stayed away from shaping the narrative on the larger dimensions of the current conflict, not even trying too hard to justify its vote at the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly. The entire attention of the Narendra Modi government and its media warriors and ministers has been on showing off the efforts under way to bring the stranded Indian students back home, with a focus on the ongoing elections in Uttar Pradesh.
While senior Cabinet ministers have been personally engaged in putting out propaganda on the rescue efforts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi went so far as to claim that the government’s ability to bring Indians stranded in Ukraine back home was testimony to India’s new global standing as a rising power! He had to be reminded that a “weak” India with a minority government in office, caught in the midst of an economic crisis at home and with few friends worldwide, had managed to stage a much bigger rescue operation in Kuwait way back in 1990. Mr Modi’s favourite film actor, Akshay Kumar, even starred in a movie on that heroic operation.
Contemporary Indian audiences who are only too familiar with the overt biases and antics of the domestic political and media circus may not be familiar with the manner in which the Big Powers of the old Cold War era waged their “psy-war” in India. It was commonplace in the 1960s and 1970s for political leaders to identify opinions in the media as being “inspired”, if not “funded”, by various foreign powers.
The late Pranab Mukherjee, who ended his political career as President of India, told Parliament in November 1978 that the government had in its possession a list of names of senior Indian journalists in the pay of the CIA, the US intelligence agency. He named names that were dutifully reported by the media. Ironically, years later, the CIA managed to get hold of documents from the KGB, the Soviet Union’s Cold War era intelligence agency, that named Congress Party leaders as being in the pay of Moscow. The Mitrokhin Archives, a collection of documents that were allegedly smuggled out of Russia by a KGB defector, Vasili Mitrokhin, even named Indira Gandhi as a beneficiary of Soviet funding. Both the CIA and KGB have played their games around the world and Hollywood has made a killing producing entertaining movies about their tactics and antics.
Thanks to India’s decision so far to remain neutral in this new East-West conflict, the old Cold War ghosts are back in play. From pure racist abuse to sophisticated “think tank” theories various psy-war armaments are being deployed seeking to shape Indian public opinion. It’s not just the CIA and the KGB’s new external intelligence avatar, the SVR, that would be active in India. One must expect the other players too to be involved in this battle of narratives. Britain’s MI6 has been around for ages, but so too have been the Chinese, European, West Asian and Pakistani spy agencies. This is only to be expected.
I had first-hand experience in handling this problem during the heated political debate in India on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s effort to get the India-US civil nuclear energy agreement approved by Parliament. Given its strategic significance, many countries around the world were keenly following this political debate and some made their own attempts to try and shape it to secure an outcome that would suit them. While the United States would have been expected to shape that debate in one direction, the Chinese would quite understandably have wanted to shape it in another. But they were not the only players. On being informed that a certain foreign diplomat was influencing Indian journalists critical of the nuclear deal, I took the Prime Minister’s permission to confront him and halt him in his tracks. To imagine today that there would not be others doing the same would be foolhardy.
The rising activism in India of foreign policy “think tanks” funded by foreign organisations or Indians with overseas interests, and the proliferation of people of Indian origin in foreign institutions has made the task of separating “Indian” opinion from foreign opinion that much more difficult. Many pretend to speak for India when they are, in fact, speaking for someone else. No democratic government can prevent the airing of such opinions, but it does owe a responsibility to the nation to ensure that the public is kept informed about what constitutes the country’s national interest in the current situation and why India says and does what it does.