Media, patriotism and foreign policy

BY SUHASINI HAIDAR| IN Media Practice | 05/05/2010
Most of those arguments, surprisingly, are with fellow journalists, who are supposed to be more liberal than most, and with diplomats, whose livelihood by definition should employ the softer line.
SUHASINI HAIDAR on the perils of supporting engagement in Indian foreign policy.

                        Reprinted from 

Eat your heart out, I am wearing it on my sleeve


Suhasini Haidar

There are several reasons I wear the tricolor around my wrist. It's a rubber band with the national flag, even the blue Ashoka Chakra on it. First- I really do like national symbols- the anthem, the flag; even watching the President or Prime Minister's convoy drive past with the outriders bearing the national colors makes my heart swell.

The latest reason: I've found it makes for a great show-stopper line in arguments on India's Foreign policy. For instance, when discussing talks with Pakistan, I am often asked questions like- how can you trust the Pakistanis after all they have done? Have you forgotten 26/11? Which side are you on? At that point I show them the band and say- ok, I am wearing the tricolor, now that we've got my patriotism out of the way, can we have a real debate please?

Most of those arguments, surprisingly, are with fellow journalists, who are supposed to be more liberal than most, and with diplomats, whose livelihood by definition should employ the softer line. But instead, increasingly, the space for India to engage other countries is shrinking and hardening- primarily, because post Sharm El Sheikh, we have a leadership that worries about public backlash all the time, and because the two communities who should be tasked with preparing the ground for engagement- the Ministry of External Affairs, and the Media are instead drawing red lines.

Nowhere has that been more evident than in the past week at Thimphu, Bhutan, with all the speculation over whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Gilani would meet.  SAARC is a very tight grouping of countries- the eight South Asian leaders that meet are either direct neighbors, or neighbors of neighbors. It is extremely difficult for leaders to avoid meeting each other here, and all countries have bilateral meetings planned with all countries around this event. India and Pakistan's Prime Ministers doing the same would be the norm, rather than the exception. And yet until less than 24 hours before it, officials refused to confirm a meeting would happen at all.

Even in 2002, when both countries had armies staring at each other after the Parliament attack, and they had practically shut down their missions in Delhi and Islamabad- the two foreign ministers of India and Pakistan found a way to meet and talk at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu. While the world watched that intensely awkward handshake between General Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee, behind the scenes Jaswant Singh and Sartaj Aziz were trying to discuss a way out of the impasse the two nations had reached. And yet, predictably, nobody would admit to it officially. When we reported the Foreign Minister's secret meeting, a furious diplomat called me, and others who did, a 'Pakistani plant'. (A curious botanical specie, I felt, akin to the Pakistani omelette, which when examined closely isn't that different from an Indian masala omelette.)

But that way of doing things hasn't really been finessed over the years. At Sharm El Sheikh last year, we were told there would be a meeting, but nothing substantive was expected. In Thimphu, official briefings a week before the summit seemed to indicate there was little chance of a meeting. Each time, the underwhelming expectation leads to a cry of protest later. Each time, precious time for preparation and setting the domestic stage is wasted in denials and a dread of recrimination.

That's true across the border too. As I write, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi is facing heat over the issue of water, for making the perfectly rational argument that Pakistan's problem is one of wastage, and if India violates the Indus treaty, there is a mechanism to address that. Already, editorials are castigating him- "It is both shocking and strange Pakistan's Foreign Minister is pleading the case of India", says The Nation. Sell-out, national outrage, public mood: all words that haunt anyone trying to make a reasoned case.

On the Indian side, though, the malaise is spreading beyond our relations with Pakistan. Last month I was baffled by the fierce opposition I faced when suggesting at a talk that the time had come for a turn in relations with China. I was one of 5 speakers who had just returned from Beijing. All of us were members of different delegations who had come to a similar conclusion- that for several reasons, China is looking to engage India- and that could translate into opportunities for India. ( copenhagen.html  )"It seems you were all taken in by the Chinese," railed a former diplomat, "Have you forgotten 1962? Why did none of you ask them tough questions on the stapled visas," he demanded. As per my new operating procedure, I wanted to politely proffer my tricolor band, but desisted out of cowardice and a lack of desire to have my arm bitten off along with my head.

The truth is we can keep boxing ourselves, reducing our issues to ones that may yield us tiny victories in the short run, but will close the bigger windows of opportunity in the long run. We could reduce our ties with China to visa issues, our relations with the US to access to David Headley, those with Afghanistan and Nepal to the security of Indian companies and personnel, to Australia with the safety of students, and our relations with Pakistan to the arrest of Hafeez Saeed.

All these demands are valid, and our diplomats must work on them, but they cannot be the lynchpins of Indian foreign policy. Time and again, we are told that our relations with each of these countries are belied by the 'ground realities', i.e. that there is no point in talking, if their actions on the ground don't match. Well, AG Noorani reminds us this week ( of the former Israeli Foreign minister Ebba Aban, who was often accused of "selling out" at Middle East negotiations, especially when he advocated giving away some territories after the Six-Day war. "A statesman who keeps his ear permanently glued to the ground," Aban said," Will have neither elegance of posture nor flexibility of movement."

 Suhasini Haidar is deputy foreign editor, CNN IBN. 


Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More