With Arnab is there hope for Aman Ki Asha?

IN Media Practice | 21/05/2012
You begin to doubt the mission of Aman Ki Asha and wonder about the sincerity of its two media partners as you watch Arnab Goswami conduct TV debates on issues over which India and Pakistan regularly squabble,

Reprinted from Daily Times, May 18, 2012

Aman Ki Asha is an incredible joint media initiative of The Times of India and the Jang Group to foster peace between India and Pakistan. Yet you begin to doubt the mission of Aman Ki Asha and wonder about the sincerity of its two media partners as you watch Arnab Goswami conduct TV debates on issues over which India and Pakistan regularly squabble. Arnab is no ordinary anchor – he is the editor-in-chief of Times Now, the TV channel which belongs to the formidable stable of The Times of India (TOI), arguably India’s most influential and biggest media group.

Arnab’s style of anchoring is inimitable as well as grating. He snaps, snarls, and growls, mocking those who don’t subscribe to his views on Pakistan, and extremely encouraging of those who do. Stung by his abrasive style, Pakistani lawyer Anees Jillani wrote in an Indian magazine last year, “I have learnt over a period of time that the best course of action is, simply, to not go to Times Now.”

I began to obsess about Arnab as I read the TOI’s extensive, over-the-top coverage of the 2nd Pakistan-India Economic Conference that was held in Lahore on May 7-8, under the banner of Aman Ki Asha. I downloaded from the TOI website, as also YouTube, many of the video recordings of the past debates Arnab had moderated on issues pertaining to India-Pakistan relations. Let me not prejudice you. You should read the text of one such debate and judge whether or not Arnab’s style – and beliefs – is antithetical to the spirit of Aman Ki Asha.

I click the start icon on my computer to listen and transcribe the debate Arnab hosted the day after President Asif Ali Zardari visited India, where he had lunch in Delhi with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and paid obeisance at the mausoleum of Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti. Because of the space constraint, I will have to edit the transcript severely. Should you doubt the veracity of the transcript below, please google – Arnab Goswami+debate+Zardari – to doublecheck my version.

Arnab introduces the topic of the debate: Any gains for India from Zardari’s visit? The participants in the debate are journalist Swapan Dasgupta, former Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar and Fauzia Kasuri, president of the women’s wing of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf. He asks Swapan Dasgupta what he thinks of the expectations Zardari’s visit to India has generated. Position to the right on the Indian ideological spectrum, Swapan blames India for turning Zardari’s spiritual pilgrimage into a diplomatic one. He finds the bonhomie displayed on the visit has stoked expectations. Further, Swapan argues, to placate the domestic sentiments, the Indian foreign secretary issued a statement saying the prime minister had raised the issue of Hafiz Saeed with Zardari, which prompted the media to claim that India had taken a tough, robust stance on terrorism.

The mood is now set for Arnab to indulge in his customary verbal jousting. He asks, “Who gained what, Mr Bhadrakumar? It is zero, a zero-sum game. Had lunch, gained nothing.”

Bhadrakumar begins to explain the finer aspects of diplomacy to Arnab: “First of all, diplomacy is about engagement. I can’t understand why when we are in such a strong position? Why we are afraid of engagement...There is slowly, steadily a critical mass which is accruing and it is unfair... for any logical person to be oblivious of that, unless you are congenitally negative toward the whole process...”

Arnab is sarcastic: “O.” (He actually means: O, really?)

Not willing to engage in a duel, Bhadrakumar lists the gains of Indo-Pak relations over the last three years, and adds, “... several steps have been taken also in the most recent period by Pakistan actually, ironically, which are indicative of...”

Arnab butts in: “Like what?”

Bhadrakumar: “For example, the MFN status, now you take the MFN status...”

Arnab repeats in a mocking tone: “MFN status, MFN status...”

Bhadrakumar retorts: “What do we say, we don’t want the MFN status...”

There’s no holding back Arnab, who speaks as he gesticulates agitatedly, “MFN status. How much are we going on the symbolism, Mr Bhadrakumar? My question is, why is South Block(which houses the Indian Foreign Office) emphasising that we have drawn this tremendous thing out of this visit. This beautiful relationship has now been struck, we have struck the right atmosphere, now we are about to do something tremendous. The fact is... you are talking to somebody who has no mandate. Mr Zardari has no political clout in the country. Why is the hype being created?”

Bhadrakumar says they are not here to discuss Zardari’s political status. Claiming to have repeatedly read the transcript of the briefing of Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, the former diplomat says he found nothing in it that should have anyone agitated.

Arnab: “It is over-interpretation. Isn’t it over-interpretation?”

But Swapan has raised his hand, and Arnab promptly turns to him. Swapan may want India to pursue a hard-line against Pakistan, but he is also a columnist who isn’t going to risk his reputation on falsehoods. He agrees with Bhadrakumar that Mathai’s briefing was marked by a certain degree of restraint, but points out that this sentiment was not echoed in the media. He cautions against undue raising of expectations, fearing it could lead India to compromise more than it is necessary. His prescription: Delhi should wait until such time as Pakistan is comfortable with its domestic situation.

Arnab asks the Pakistani guest, “I want to get a sense from Fauzia how the visit was covered in Pakistan. If it was a personal visit, he could have flown straight to Ajmer and back. He didn’t need to have lunch in Delhi.”

Fauzia says her piece, the gist of which is that Zardari has become extremely unpopular in the country, and he could have cut a better picture staying behind at the time soldiers and civilians had been buried under the avalanche in Siachen Mountains.

It is just the opening Arnab needed to fire his next volley: “I worry, Mr Bhadrakumar, that maybe Mr Zardari in his last few months and weeks at the helm of affairs in Pakistan, is desperately trying to somehow go down into history to have done something. And… somebody has put a carrot in front of him, that something is moving an inch forward with India, without realising that neither people of India will accept such carrots nor will the people of Pakistan be swayed by it.” Arnab follows it with a jab that he possibly mistakes for a knockout punch, “Mr Bhadrakumar, you talked of MFN status. How can you compare MFN status with terrorism, terror-related issues, Hafiz Saeed?”

Bhadrakumar sniggers as he replies: “Of course, I never compared terrorism with MFN issue... Having dealt with Pakistan as a diplomat... I have never seen this attitude on the part of Pakistan to have a genuine economic cooperation with India. Now this is actually a litmus test…“

But Arnab isn’t willing to allow the former diplomat to stray away from the issue of terrorism. He keeps repeating: “Ansar Burney, Ansar Burney...” The reader is best advised to read aloud Bhadrakumar’s reply given below and holler, Ansar Burney, at every three-four words.

Picking up from where he was interjected, you catch up with Bhadrakumar saying, “... the litmus test of a certain willingness on the part of Pakistan to move forward. This is exactly the approach to Indo-Pak relations Delhi has been historically advocating. When Pakistan adopts... why are we afraid? ... And now Pakistan is agreeing with what we have been advocating ever since the Simla Accord, why are we chickening out... Take them at their face value...”

I count Arnab take Burney’s name six times. Finally, Arnab asks the Burney question: “... There are two cases. There is the case of Dr (Khaleel) Chishti, the Pakistani microbiologist. I think, since 1992, the case has been hanging on in Ajmer and he has been in jail. Ansar Burney has also put in a mercy petition for Sarabjit Singh to Asif Ali Zardari many years back, and he repeatedly keeps writing to Zardari. Why would we not pick up the Sarabjit issue? ... You don’t want to act on Hafiz Saeed, release Sarabjit, let the spirit of reciprocity hold... Chishti was discussed, why was Sarabjit not discussed?”

The point Arnab is making through the question needs explaining. Hafiz Saeed is viewed in India to have masterminded the massacre in Mumbai, and despite New Delhi’s demands, he has not been imprisoned or handed over to India. Sarabjit, by contrast, is an Indian who was given the death sentence for killing 14 people in bomb blasts he allegedly engineered in Multan and Lahore. Indians believe he is innocent, largely because the principal witness in the case retracted his statement, saying it was given under police pressure. Presumably, Arnab is making the point that Pakistan can compensate for its inaction against Saeed through the release of Sarabjit. Chishti’s case is decidedly different from Sarabjit’s – the former became embroiled a bloody family feud on his visit more than 20 years ago and was jailed (released and sent to Pakistan this week) for killing a person.

Back to the debate, you can see Bhadrakumar losing patience with Arnab. He remarks caustically, “I don’t know whether you were an insider and you know something that I don’t know. I don’t know whether they discussed at all, or whether they did not discuss at all...It is wrong on our part to jump to any conclusion...”

But you lose track of Bhadrakumar as Arnab interjects, “The government of Pakistan has been openly lobbying for Chishti’s release.”

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