Isn’t it a shame that champions of “atma nirbharta” (self-sufficiency) still depend on the old imperial information order for all foreign news, including from our immediate neighbourhood?
Here’s a story that underscores my lament.
Among my many Sri Lanka memories is 2004’s Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. For the Indian Navy, great keepers of traditions, it was what they call a “family holiday”. Ships with officers and families on board go far out into the open seas, sipping gin and tonic.
Like other ports, Kochi too was emptied of ships. One of them received an urgent message from Naval Headquarters: send families home on passenger boats and proceed urgently to Sri Lanka, which is in the eye of the biggest tsunami in history.
I flew into Bandaranaike airport via Mumbai and drove straight to Trincomalee. One of the world’s finest natural harbours was the site of unspeakable devastation. The wonder was the diligent application of the sailors. They were unfazed and made no fuss about the tsunami’s fury.
The scene at Galle was worse as it is a smaller harbour. It was cluttered with slate, roofs, trunks, cars twisted by sheer badgering, buffeting, badly broken; in the midst of floating tyres were mattresses, household gadgets, shattered TVs, twisted metal, beds made from wood and more floating wood, piling up at the harbour mouth in a giant, abstract form. Magically, in three days, the harbour was cleared.
Unless one sees the unimaginable scale of the disaster, the relief and rehabilitation work in Sri Lanka by the Indian Navy can never be appreciated. I kicked myself that I hadn’t come with my cameraman. The shame was that there was no cameraman from India, none from the Navy either, a fact relevant to the narrative later.
This effusive praise of the Navy is for a reason. In the debris were items like refrigerators, washing machines, mixi-grinders, radio sets, floating furniture, and a hundred other things, all painstakingly repaired by the Navy’s engineers, sailors and seamen. Our very Indian “jugaad” (make-do) came in handy.
What would the US Navy have done? Demonstrate its power and amplify its presence in the global media, dwarfing anything the Indians had done? This, alas, is exactly what happened.
After what I thought was the end of the assignment, I waited at Galle airport. Larger than anything on show so far, the USS Wisconsin swam into my ken. It had anchored out at sea. Smaller boats emerged. Clambering onto these boats were a bevy of cameramen. Only when they had steadied their cameras on their shoulders did the ship disgorge its sailors. All this after the Indian Navy had repaired the eastern coast and Galle harbour.
As I reached Mumbai, I picked up the day’s newspaper. My heart sank. On top of Page 1, four columns wide, was a photograph of US Marines marching into Sri Lanka. Naturally, not a word about the Indian Navy. All that I had seen in Sri Lanka was an illusion? It hadn’t happened? As Bobby Talyarkhan used to end his columns: “Do you get me, Steve?”
Ukraine is the inflection point in world affairs as a new multipolar world is taking shape. Towards this evolution, New Delhi has positioned itself brilliantly. The trajectory could well lead to permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Until then, we walk on eggshells everywhere. In Sri Lanka too. All of this demands consistent optics of being equidistant. This requires a vigorous an independent media focused on foreign policy and which is not on a Western dole.
What has hit the Russians where it hurts is the relentless barrage by the Western media, sometimes undiluted propaganda, meant to demoralise Vladimir Putin, mobilise global opinion and to cause the chanceries of the world into decisions that give more respite to a world order whose best days are past. Mark my words: the Kremlin is deep in thought on this global media war.
Our news channels are so insulated from foreign affairs that on critical occasions they fall back on the BBC, CNN, Reuters, Associated Press, the New York Times, and so on -- all representing interests at variance from the new direction of our foreign policy. Whither “atma nirbharta”?
The Western media is part of a bloc opposed to another. India, however, is engaged with all. It won’t be easy, of course, to unhinge the foreign policy elite from old ways of thinking because of its inability to accept the disappearance of the unipolar world. This pro-American tilt in the elite’s intellectual makeup doesn’t have its origins only in the Soviet Union’s collapse, but has a longer history. When Jawaharlal Nehru was leading the nonaligned movement, his handpicked secretary-general of the Foreign Office, Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, was more inclined towards the US where he had served as the Agent-General of British India.
Take another example. At a time when India’s ambassador in Moscow could speak to key members of the Central Committee on the phone, the Birlas and the Jains posted no correspondents to Moscow.
In fact, the culture of dependence on the former colonial masters to fill our foreign pages is all-pervasive. Our new foreign policy will need a new culture of covering foreign affairs. Not having bureaus in Kabul, Tehran, Dhaka, Beijing, Moscow, London, Islamabad, Washington and other key stations in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa will leave us gasping for breath, not quite becoming a rising Asian power. Our effectiveness in Colombo would have been multiplied if we had competing news bureaus in the island nation during the current crisis.