The India leaks

BY MAYA RANGANATHAN| IN Media Practice | 27/03/2011
It follows then that barring a few cases which are supported by accounts of events that can be corroborated by other sources, Wikileaks is all about an American hegemonic view of the world.
Most of them seem to reaffirm knowledge rather than expose anything new, says MAYA RANGANATHAN Image credit:
The Hindu has managed to rock our ‘placid’ world yet again years after it laid bare the Bofors scandal. And it has patted itself on the back for being the only Indian paper worthy in Julian Assange’s eyes to share the confidential cables that US diplomats sent about the wheelings and dealings of Indian politicians. But this piece is not about The Hindu, whose  mysterious ways of working has already been exposed by one of its former journalists in this space. This is not even about Julian Assange or his judgments. This is about the response to ‘The India leaks’ and by extension the Wikileaks and what they imply in the realm of journalist credibility and objectivity.
The expose´ begun by The Hindu with no less than an introduction by editor N Ramon March 15 is without doubt fascinating, allowing as it does a peek into the murky world of Indian politics and politicians in a mediascape where scandal is dished out for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks too. But a fortnight hence, one is left wondering if indeed the Wikileaks that is based on US diplomats’ perceptions of the country and their confabulations with their Indian counterparts must be taken as gospel truth. Of course, this is a broad generalisation and some matters may have far more grains of truth than others.
It could be argued much as Ram did in his introduction, “These American diplomats have been trained to listen, probe and prod, massage egos, milk sources, report, and write (supplying accessible and, at times, witty and elegant headings and sub-headings) to inform, analyse, and amuse - as though they were full-time journalists. Many of them work like wire service beavers: long lunches, yes, but very often, same day reports of important meetings. Few things escape their notice. Most of the time, they see Indian men, women, and matters through the reflected mirror of U.S. strategic interests and policy.”
However, the contentious claims in the above argument are two. First is that the American diplomats prod, probe and pass information “as though they were full-time journalists.” This sounds ominous in a country that has just witnessed the Radiagate scandal that exposed how full-time journalists work and with what aims. Secondly, these ‘efficient American diplomats’ “see Indian men, women, and matters through the reflected mirror of U.S. strategic interests and policy.”
It follows then that barring a few cases which are supported by accounts of events that can be corroborated by other sources that Wikileaks is all about an American hegemonic view of the world. In a world of ‘intensified globalised interconnectedness’ of movements of people and services, of linkages, is the Wikileaks by default the new voice of the US? It could again be argued that the cables do not always show the US in a favourable light. But unfortunately, this fact, as also the cultural dispositions that few journalists bring to the analysis of the information in the cables is often drowned in the cacophony that follows the release of the tapes in different countries.
Not to undermine the long hours put in by the experienced team of The Hindu to pick out the most relevant stories from the mammoth India cables, much like ‘Radiagate,’ the stories that have generated a “political firestorm,” seem to reaffirm knowledge rather than expose anything new. The ‘cash-for-votes’ that has rocked the Parliament is something every voter has been a witness to and India’s role in Sri Lanka and its engagement with the LTTE has been too widely documented to come as a revelation. These stories like some others merely add details.
Some of the leaks like the Kalam-Sonia animosity based on ‘conjecture’ and inputs from ‘unnamed party sources’; US dismay over M K Narayanan’s departure as NSA; and BJP’s assurance that its double-speak is not to be taken seriously; speak more about the US’ (sometimes limited) understanding of the Indian politico-cultural environment rather than offer any significant insight into it. After all, by granting TNCC chief K V Thangkabalu’s wife a ticket to contest in the April 13th Tamil Nadu Assembly elections, Rahul Gandhi has now made it clear that he meant nothing of what he told Mr Burleigh on not allowing family ties to dictate politics. In such a scenario, is the furore over P Chidambaram’s and Arun Jaitley’s remarks really called for?  
This is no attempt to defend the murky dealings of any of the parties concerned. Indeed that would be well nigh impossible given the state of politics in the country.  This piece merely argues for an understanding that ‘the image,’ ‘the imagined’ and ‘the imaginary’ (Appadurai, 2008: 50) that Wikileaks projects is still very much an American construction of the world we live in. When Siddharth Varadarajan laments: “The fact that Congress politicians could speak so freely to American diplomats about their bribing spree during the run up to the confidence vote — and that the latter could be so blasé about the subversion of democracy — underlines the all-encompassing but ultimately corrosive nature of the “strategic partnership” the two governments were trying to build,” one cannot help wonder if much like the Government of India, journalists have not taken the US’ self-professed role of policing the world a little too seriously.   
The ‘India Leaks’ stories make for very interesting reading. But they also point to the awkward and uneven process of globalization. They indicate that in a scenario when no other view is available or generates as much interest, the US continues to be ‘the puppeteer of a world system of images’ (Appadurai, 2008: 50). This pole-vaults the discussion to the realm of academic debates on communication flows and mediascapes. To get back to our own ‘The India leaks,’ they may at best change the political narrative in the country. But will they contribute to anything more substantial? The hapless reader is left wondering as always, “who is lying?”
Appadurai, Arjun, 2008, Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy, in Anthropology of Globalization: a reader (ed.s) Inda, Jonathan Xavier and Renato Rosaldo, Blackwell Publishing: USA, pp. 47-64.
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