‘Big Time’: Indo-Pak magazine coverage of Indo-US relations

IN Media Monitoring | 23/09/2005
Farooq reiterates the Pakistani media argument that the deal will lead to nuclear proliferation, but diligently contextualizes the development.

Subarno Chattarji


In this section I look at Indian and Pakistani newsmagazine coverage of the Indo-US defence pact, the nuclear deal, and India¿s bid for a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) seat.

India Today:

Among the Indian newsmagazines as well as broadsheets under survey Praful Bidwai¿s piece in Frontline seemed to offer the most analytical piece. One may disagree with the analysis but at least the column was neither bland nor triumphalist. 

India Today¿s coverage of all four stories was cursory at best. Anil Padmanabhan¿s ¿Seizing the Moment¿ (India Today, July 25,) laid out the basic parameters of Indo-US relations and India¿s expectations vis-à-vis the UNSC bid and nuclear energy issue. ¿Indian officials have told US interlocutors that India has invested too much political capital in its UNSC bid and that it was a now-or-never attempt for it, and that the US should support it.¿ Padmanabhan¿s officials seem to have ignored or forgotten the clear dismissal of India¿s ambitions reported in the Times of India on July 14. Padmanabhan does not, of course, venture into territory staked out by Bidwai. It is a low-key, tepid two-page article partly because the cover story was on ¿Al Qaida: Matrix of Terror¿ with a lurid green rogues gallery of photos and a linking of the attack on Ayodhya with global Islamic terror.

Outlook and the Indo-US deals:

Outlook was the most enthusiastic about the Prime Minister¿s visit as well as the nuclear pact. In fact it even had a little box item on the almost forgotten prequel. Seema Sirohi¿s ¿It¿s Really Special When It¿s Special¿ (Outlook, 4 July) pointed to the welcome that Donald Rumsfeld laid out for Pranab Mukherjee and its implications: ¿Rumsfeld is the other big advocate of a strategic partnership with India, apart from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "There¿s nothing that DIVides them on this," said one insider. US officials told Outlook that there is "frenzy" on both sides, a lot of expectations and hopes to raise the defence relationship into higher gear.¿ Despite this ¿frenzy¿ ¿What can be achieved is still unclear days before the visit¿ just as what was achieved remains unclear after the visit. 

Ashley Tellis report and Indo-US relations:

The following week Seema Sirohi¿s cover story ¿Big Time¿ (Outlook, 11 July) looked forward to Dr. Singh¿s impending visit: ¿At issue: how should the world¿s lone superpower engage an India in full flight to join the big league?¿ Notice that it was the US engaging India and not the other way round. She cited in detail a report, India as a new Global Power: An Action Agenda for the United States, by one Ashley J. Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Tellis, formerly adviser to Robert Blackwill, former US ambassador to India, was also cited by The Hindu¿s Varadarajan to highlight his sense of dubious quid pro quos. 

The report seems to be a neo-con¿s dream come true and repeats earlier ideas of India as a counterpoint to China and India¿s strategic importance in terms of preserving order in South Asia. ¿Look at the map and it becomes clear [to Tellis and his ilk] that India "is an island of democratic values and political stability in a region convulsed by religious fanaticism, illiberal governments, state sponsors of terrorism and economic stasis." Every state on India¿s periphery has "a need to cope with state failure."¿ There is no mention here of the repeated failures of state within India, the Gujarat riots being the most recent example. For a newsmagazine that covered the horrors of Gujarat with some distinction it is surprising that Tellis¿s compliments are lapped up so eagerly. ¿The report,¿ Sirohi writes, ¿is a thunderbolt of ideas, a shockwave of innovative solutions. It is backed by meticulous research so those married to the status quo can¿t yawn or dismiss it.¿ The only input the report seems to lack is the contexts and analyses provided by Praful Bidwai.

The UNSC race:

Sirohi then gets onto the UNSC race: ¿The support [for India¿s bid to be on the UNSC] will ring in India as nothing else can and help clean the slate on which ugly words from the likes of Nixon and Kissinger still faintly show.¿ The attempt to cleanse history is also an attempt to erase contexts within which those ¿ugly words¿ were uttered: India¿s help for the Bangladesh freedom movement. What Outlook calls a ¿paradigm shift¿ seems more emblematic of the way in which Indian foreign policy has moved from one extreme to the other: from blanket anti-Americanism to obsequiousness, without sufficient debate and analysis. 

Indo-US nuclear pact:

Post-Dr. Singh¿s visit Seema Sirohi had another upbeat cover story, ¿To the Power of N¿ (Outlook, 1 August): ¿The world of the Nuclear Five had suddenly evolved into a world of the de facto Nuclear Six, with India¿s unique position being clearly recognized.¿ The article is almost entirely triumphant about this recognition and critical analysis is precluded in such pieces as they claim to deal with realpolitik where neither criticism nor morality obtains. She highlights domestic opposition to the new agreement in the US, but belittles them as ¿nagging nannies¿ (Blackwill¿s phrase). In contrast Condoleezza Rice is seen as a ¿steely and task-oriented¿ ¿heroine¿. 

The cover spread includes a boxed story also by Sirohi, ¿Still a Guest at the Party¿, which bemoans the fact that ¿India¿s Security Council bid is stuck¿ and that ¿G-4 commitments and a reluctant US aren¿t helping¿. Apart from this dampener the article lives up to its opening line: ¿There are moments in history when hyperbole is not enough.¿ India¿s ambassador to the US, Ronen Sen, contributes to some of that hyperbole when he is cited as saying that ¿the ultimate aim [of the Indo-US nuclear and other deals] is to generate employment, uplift people from rural poverty and distribute the fruits of development¿. Although there is one passing reference in the piece to an agricultural agreement ushering in a second green revolution, it is not entirely clear nor spelt out how a nuclear pact (or a seat at the UNSC) will achieve Sen¿s stated goals. However, apart from Bidwai¿s article this is the only reference to lack of employment opportunities, rural poverty, and under-development as problems that bedevil India.

India¿s ¿ethical code¿:

Prem Shankar Jha¿s opinion piece, ¿Coming of a Nuclear Age¿, highlights positives in the nuclear pact. He makes a contrast between China, which is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but a blatant proliferator, and India which is not a signatory to the NPT, is not a proliferator, but slapped with sanctions. There is the familiar echo of India as victim of unfair international regimes and now receiving its due. India is projected as a ¿responsible¿ nuclear power unlike Iran or North Korea. Jha uses the phrase ¿ethical code¿ with reference to India¿s nuclear policy which seems like an oxymoron. Jha makes no mention of India¿s initial and ethical objection to nuclear weapons and attempts to unite the worlds of realpolitik and morality through the use of that phrase. 

In the same issue V. Sudarshan analyses the impact of the Indo-US nuclear pact from a scientific point of view (¿It Can Lead to a lot of Fission.¿). He repeats arguments available in the broadsheets: that the scientific fraternity in India ought to have been consulted, that demarcating civilian and military facilities may be difficult and unwise (from a security point of view). 

Newsline and the Indo-US nuclear pact:

As mentioned earlier the media in Pakistan perceived the Indo-US pact as a setback against the context of the London bombings and the subsequent battering of its national image in the western media. Umer Farooq¿s ¿Joining the Club¿ (Newsline, August 2005) made this connection explicit. 

Farooq begins by stating that the Bush-Singh joint statement ¿bestowed virtual nuclear weapons status on India¿. He then goes over familiar territory about the growing co-operation between the two countries post-Pokhran. He mentions the ¿Jaswant Singh-Ian Talbot¿ (sic) dialogues and how they have culminated in the US policy to ¿"help India become a major world power in the twenty-first century"¿. 

Proliferation and Pakistani anxieties:

Farooq reiterates a familiar argument in Pakistani media: that the deal will lead to nuclear proliferation. However, Farooq then cites Talbott¿s characterization of Pakistan as the ¿"Walmart (sic) of illicit commerce in dangerous technology"¿ and says that in this context India¿s pact with the US is ¿no mean achievement¿. 

Farooq contextualizes the deal in a manner not seen in the broadsheets and newsmagazines under survey: ¿For people in Islamabad, all this [the Indo-US defence and nuclear deals] was taking place at a time of increasing pressure with regard to the trends of extremism in Pakistani society, which has been applied with renewed vigour after the suicide bombings in London and surfacing of alleged links of the bombers with madrassahs in Pakistan.¿ He perceives the fact that Pakistan lacks credibility in the spheres of non-proliferation and in its stated support for the war against terror. In turn, these two factors impact adversely in its relations with the US and India. 

As an article on the Indo-US nuclear pact the piece is factual and even-handed. It concludes inevitably with a comparative framework and there is an element of envy in the way in which India¿s foreign policy triumphs are contrasted with Pakistan¿s contemporary troubles and lack of credibility. As with analysis in some broadsheet articles, the Newsline piece is as much about Pakistan as it is about foreign policy advances made by its neighbour. 


A significant amount of newsprint and analytical effort was spent by broadsheets and newsmagazines in covering the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the US, the subsequent Indo-US nuclear pact, and India¿s bid for a UNSC seat. In India, they reveal a broad consensus on the issues under discussion. Where there are differences - as in the largely critical and skeptical tone of The Hindu and the largely supportive articles in the Indian Express and Times of India - they reflect DIVisions within the Indian polity as well as a vestigial and visceral suspicion of the US. 

In Pakistan there was extensive coverage of these events, almost as if they were of national import. In a literal sense they were not. However, Pakistani media surveyed reveals the extent to which Indo-US relations impact on Pakistan. The increasing bonhomie between the two countries and the seeming de-hyphenation of India and Pakistan in the US foreign policy mindset was cause for further anxiety in Pakistan. 

One commonality between media surveyed across borders was that there were a few articles that went beyond their respective national obsessions and/or political DIVisions. A small minority of articles attempted to analyze issues that went beyond the surface news. While that was a welcome break, by-and-large there seemed to be a media consensus that concentrated on obsessive repetition of detail (particularly in coverage of the UNSC bid) rather than in-depth analysis. That lack of consistent analysis is a loss both for the media and its readers.  

Contact: Chattarji_s@yahoo.com   

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