India’s nationalist media is hurting India.
Let’s first put aside the question of whether a country’s media organisations should consider themselves extensions of the state. That is, of course, hugely problematic because it suggests our foremost media outlets might choose not to report on problematic government conduct simply because it is not “in the national interest.”
But right or wrong, it has been clear for some time now that India’s major mainstream news organisations already do this. They consider nationalism a key part of their brief – especially when it comes to Pakistan. Our media organisations don’t just think of themselves as the public relations departments of the state and also weapons in the battle against our neighbour, they would like to believe that they are the faces of the Indian republic. Put another way, they like to think of themselves as the Nation.
This great power, however, seems to come with very little responsibility. If the Home Ministry or the Ministry of External Affairs put out information that turned out to be blatantly false, India – or at least the Indian government – would face serious consequences. If TimesNow or Zee News make outrageous assertions, however, they don’t really face much accountability. (Sadly, credibility and accuracy are not the primary factors that determine the success of a news organisation).
But the effects are felt, especially by the wider public.
Consider the question of Pakistani isolation.
In the aftermath of the Uri attacks, when cross-border militants killed 18 Indian soldiers at a military base in Kashmir, the Indian government set out to pinpoint blame on Pakistan. New Delhi added more vigour to its longstanding efforts seeking to label Pakistan as a source of terrorism. The home minister called Pakistan a “terrorist state,” although Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not echo this terminology. Meanwhile, the Ministry of External Affairs attempted to point out how many countries were backing the Indian position.
India’s nationalist media immediately declared this a success. India Today said Pakistan “now stands completely isolated on the international stage.” CNN-News18 said “isolated Pak” is unable to get traction with its Kashmir efforts. But TimesNow’s Arnab Goswami, as you might expect, was most vociferous.
“Pakistan is exposed. Pakistan is diplomatically isolated,” Goswami bellowed. “All major powers, Russia, USA, UK and France, all major powers are slamming Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif is being pushed around, didn’t even get a 30-second appointment with Obama. And frankly, he’s looking like a global pariah on his US trip.”
A couple of days later, Pakistan’s chief military spokesman Lt Gen Asim Bajwa tweeted pictures of Russian troops arriving in Rawalpindi for the first-ever military exercises between the two countries.
There was a little bit of confusion, thanks to information put out by the Russians themselves, over whether these exercises were to be held in Gilgit-Baltistan – disputed territory that India claims. Eventually, the Russians clarified that the exercises would not be held in “so-called Azad Kashmir” (the Pakistani term for parts of Kashmir that India claims), but that they were nevertheless happening.
Remember, this is Russia, not the United States – which India has long accused of funding and enabling Pakistan’s excesses. Russia is an old Indian ally that was a Cold War rival to Pakistan and is heavily dependent on Indian arms purchases. Yet even after the Uri attacks, Moscow nevertheless went ahead with the first-ever military exercise with Pakistan. Clearly Pakistan is, by no means, an international pariah.
This is not to say that India didn’t make some efforts to pull back on the Russian position, with MEA saying it had communicated India’s interests and Moscow eventually stating that the exercises were not happening in Gilgit-Baltistan. But that is nuanced, careful posturing from the Indian government that managed to extract some gains. Not a knock-out victory, as the nationalist media hoped to portray.
Accurate reporting, including the crucial job of questioning how New Delhi failed in allowing Uri to happen (months after the Pathankot attacks) and whether Modi has done enough to marshal international support against Pakistan, might have given the viewer a much more rounded view of things. But that is not the case.
Think of it from the perspective of the viewer. If you were a nationalist Indian citizen who believed that your government had ISOLATED Pakistan and other nations had SLAMMED them, how do you react to news of a close Indian ally actually working closely with Islamabad?
Either you believe India's allies are lying to us. Or that the Indian state is impotent. Or that the nationalist media is spreading falsehood. Which one of those scenarios ends well? This Bharatiya Janata Party should be more attuned than most to the dangers of an Indian public that is disappointed when promises are not met, especially if the media amplifies those promises.
Something similar happened when news reports suggested Indian agencies found arms with Pakistani marks on them, therefore NAILING Pakistan’s involvement in the Uri attacks. The Indian military has itself said these reports are false, yet that correction was not heard much, and so the Indian public may be left asking why New Delhi is unable to prove to the world that the attacks were Pakistan’s fault despite (non-existent) unimpeachable evidence.
To assuage this feeling in the wider public that India needs to have had a firmer response, WhatsApp was used to spread rumours that Indian special forces had covertly crossed the border and killed 20-200 Pakistani terrorists. The Army via its officials denied this too, and to their credit, the nationalist media barring a few examples also maintained some distance from what seemed like a thoroughly improbable story.
But this too traveled so far and wide that it has helped create an image of an aggressive, trigger-happy Indian state that simply isn’t accurate. And the wider this gap gets – between what is actually happening vs what the nationalist media reports – the bigger the danger to the government from a polity that will be disappointed when the penny drops.
Imagine thousands of Indians believing that India has managed to isolate Pakistan internationally, has got unimpeachable proof of Pakistani perfidy and even attacked Pakistan across the border.
What happens when Pakistan sends militants over the border yet again, as it has continued to do after 26/11, Pathankot and now Uri? How are Indians to process this dissonance between what the media tells them and what seems to actually be happening?