Will India have its own world media on Modi’s watch?

By Saeed Naqvi,

Outside SAARC, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was the first world leader to call Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This was followed up by Beijing sending Foreign Minister Wang Yi to New Delhi on Sunday.

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South Block grasped the signals. But when I opened the newspapers, I could have sworn that a chill was about to descend between the two countries.

There were no analyses of a new promise in Sino-Indian relations, possible investment in Indian infrastructure (the Chinese have $3.5 trillion parked precariously in US banks and treasury bonds), an interesting China, Japan, US triangle is emerging. Instead, all newspapers carried extensive coverage of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square. All the pieces were passionate indictments of human rights in China, ironically on a day when the Badaun rape tragedy was shaming us in the United Nations.

Narendra Modi has been to China on four occasions as chief minister of Gujarat, twice as State guest, feted at the Great Hall of the People. What, then, was the source of this new found zeal for human rights in China? Even Prime Time TV had set aside a slot to focus on grim looking Chinese, marching with candles.

You would have thought the channels had flown out special teams to Tiananmen Square to cover the event. But this is not the way the World Information Order functions. In fact nothing was happening in Beijing. Channels like CNN, combining with the social media, had whipped up frenzy in Hong Kong which a battery of cameras captured. The footage created the illusion of a nation commemorating Tiananmen Square.

It was this footage which was made available to channels across the globe hooked habitually to a grid controlled in New York and London. The media’s critical faculty has been so numbed over a century of colonial experience that it cannot, on occasion, separate news from propaganda.

The hot-and-cold relationship the US has with China results in wild fluctuations of mood between the two countries. China’s trade surplus of $200 billion annually represent one facet of the relationship. And yet the Chinese are viciously needled by Americans too. Reacting to one such provocation, a Chinese leader became unusually lucid. He described America as “first class rascal”.

Consider this against another evolving story. Briefing the media in St. Petersburg, President Vladimir Putin expanded on the “extraordinarily” new substance in Sino-Russian equation of which $400 billion gas contract is an important part.

Putin also spoke at length on Russian-India relations, on India’s helpful stand on Ukraine, and the telephonic conversation he had with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

This is a sensitive phase for a major realignment of global forces. Indian stakes are high with the West as well as with China and Russia with both of which US lobbies are developing adversarial relations. Hillary Clinton has already given notice (more or less) that she intends to raise the pitch on Ukraine should she be in sight of the Democratic nomination for the 2016 elections.

In the world’s eyes, India today is a vibrant, exciting destination. Public opinion in the country is supportive of the lines that are opening up with all important capitals. But an aggravation of West’s confrontation with, say, Russia (even China) will affect Indian public opinion too. Why? Because the West’s demonization of Russian and possibly Chinese leaders will also expose Indian public opinion to these diatribes because we are still locked into the colonial information grid.

The point I am making is this: not having our own means of covering world affairs, our media ends up using stuff which is part of someone else’s agenda. It is sometimes inimical to our interests. Public opinion in India gets manipulated whenever the US throws a tantrum with, say Bashar al Assad. On Egyptian or Syrian elections we have only western versions. We do not have a single news bureau in SAARC countries, China, Japan, anywhere. For the world’s largest democracy, this is something of a shame.

If we had a news bureau in Kabul, we would have been much better informed about the attack on the Indian consulate in Herat or the circumstances in which Alexis Prem Kumar was kidnapped. Must we depend on Western journalists to inform us about Kabul, Jaffna or Kathmandu?

Must the world’s largest democracy be a passive recipient of images beamed from news centres controlled by CNN, BBC, Reuters and Associated Press? This is a disgraceful state of affairs. We must proceed along with these networks but only as part of a concert of democracies.

What is required is a Public Service Media not tied to existing systems like Doordarshan or Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha TV. It is much easier to start something new rather than reform existing systems which have developed deep seated habits.

New Delhi gives away billions in assistance to SAARC neighbours. It must take a leap of faith and concurrently invest a billion dollars in its own media which must also cover world affairs as comprehensively as CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera. The returns in power, prestige, influence and business will be astronomical.

Create a Board of Trustees with someone with national prestige and credibility as chairman. The Board will insulate your editorial team from the market as well as the government.

If information is power, it follows that a control on sources of information is essential to wield that power. It is also not possible to conduct an independent foreign policy if the sources of information are controlled by London or Atlanta. Those stations will continue to cast a shadow on our public opinion unless we have a global media of our own.

(07.06.2014 – Saeed Naqvi is a senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on [email protected].)