Flying with Singh, batting for Sharif
by Sandhya Jain on 08 Oct 2013 14 Comments

On the morning of July 16, 2001, NDTV telecast a breakfast meeting between some senior editors with then Pakistan president Mr Pervez Musharraf, at Agra. In this sunrise era of the electronic medium, when television genuinely broke the news (as opposed to screeched the views), one learnt that the visiting dignitary informed his guests that most of the dialogue with his hosts the previous day centred round Kashmir: “the most part of the meeting was spent on discussing Kashmir”.


With this, the General overruled the briefing given to media persons the previous evening by then Information & Broadcasting Minister Ms Sushma Swaraj, wherein she said India had informed the Pakistani side that Islamabad must end cross-border terrorism, account for Indian prisoners of war (POWs), and initiate meaningful discussions on reducing nuclear risks in the subcontinent. Ms Swaraj was forced to admit that Kashmir had indeed figured in the talks, clarify that she had not tried to scuttle the dialogue (“I am not a saboteur”), and that she was only trying to emphasise Indian priorities. As is well known, the summit collapsed.


General public opinion about the telecast was that some journalists had failed to bat for India. When Gen Musharraf said, “Let’s not remain in any illusion that the main issue confronting us is Kashmir”, a pro-Congress journalist responded, “We concede that Kashmir is the main issue between us. Nobody is questioning that”. The General quipped, “I hope the [Indian] government agrees with your statement”.


A notable feature of the Vajpayee regime was its excessive accommodation of the hostility of the fourth estate. Now, twelve years later, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate has questioned the nationalism of a journalist of the same news channel who continued to breakfast with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after he mocked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a “dehati aurat” (literally a village woman, but really a sexist and derogatory remark and inexcusable when aimed at a man) for complaining about Pakistani jihadis to US President Barack Obama. Mr Sharif reputedly felt Dr Singh should have come to him directly with his (Singh’s) complaints.


As the hullabaloo grew, Mr Hamid Mir, the Pakistani journalist who broke the news in real time on a television programme anchored by Mr Najam Sethi (still available on YouTube), tried to back track. But his spontaneous account of the meeting – from Sharif looking mockingly at Barkha Dutt, to Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi publicly trashing a controversial Ordinance to protect convicted lawmakers while the Prime Minister was abroad and thus making the latter’s position invidious – was too emphatic and reasoned to be disowned as a misunderstanding.


More pertinently, the impugned journalist changed her story too often. Using the Twitter platform, she first claimed that Mir’s version was “a distortion entirely” and that Sharif had said “nothing of this kind”. Then she claimed there were “bits” in the interaction that were off the record and that such bits did not include any pejorative word about Manmohan Singh. She clarified in a series of tweets that Mr Sharif had told “an allegorical tale” about a dispute between two villagers, one a woman, which was essentially about settling disputes without involving third parties (which means she was present).


The matter might have fizzled out, had not Narendra Modi set the cat among the pigeons with a thundering denunciation just hours before Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, “How dare you (Sharif) address my nation’s Prime Minister as a village woman? There cannot be a bigger insult of the Indian Prime Minister”. The BJP’s prime ministerial aspirant made things worse for the ruling party by accusing Rahul Gandhi of humiliating the Prime Minister (pagdi uchaal di) with his antics at the Press Club of India, and left zero wiggle room for the sole Indian journalist at the breakfast.


The Broadcast Editors’ Association, an apex body of editors of news channels, took umbrage at this and rushed to defend its own, lambasting Narendra Modi for suggesting that the journalist(s) should have walked out: “This tone and tenor is not acceptable and highly objectionable… The media team was doing their duty.”


But were they? Hamid Mir gave a cogent account of what transpired at the breakfast meeting, including an analysis of the political dynamics in Delhi which had rendered Manmohan Singh ineffective: “Unka ye khayal hai ki Manmohan Singh kamzor hai aur Rahul Gandhi ne unke saath kal jo kiya hai, uske baad Manmohan Singh sa’ab ki credibility India may kaafi kharab ho gayi hai. Wo ab position mein nahin hai ki Pakistan ke saath koi bada breakthrough kare” (He is of the view that Manmohan Singh is weak and after what Rahul Gandhi did yesterday his credibility in India has been hurt. He is not in a position to make a big breakthrough with Pakistan).


When the balloon burst, someone (possibly to save the summit) nudged Mr Mir to state that Mr Sharif did not say anything derogatory about the Indian Prime Minister. He obliged, but contradicted himself saying the “dehati aurat” comment was a joke and that the Indian journalist was not there all the time. Since Mr Mir had clearly reported that Mr Sharif had looked at Ms Dutt before making the impugned remark, he left enough scope for readers to understand that his initial report was true. “PM Nawaz never said anything derogatory against Manmohan,” he tweeted. “PM Nawaz Sharif shared a joke with us on breakfast table about Manmohan ji it’s very long I cannot mention”.


That left Barkha Dutt holding the can. She finally said Mr Sharif merely expressed unhappiness that Pakistan had been so central to the meeting between Mr Singh and Mr Obama. The village allegory “was an illustrative example of dispute resolutions between India, Pakistan and the United States”. She claimed satisfaction from Hamid Mir’s retraction, but that, like the subsequent retraction by Nawaz Sharif, was a mere diplomatic nicety.


The controversy, and the media handling of it, raises fundamental questions about the Indian media’s perception of itself and its role in national affairs. Is the media the traditional fourth estate, a pillar of the establishment (Nation, not Government), or is it a free radical, floating in the biosphere, ready to travel with the Prime Minister as part of the official Indian contingent but ethically free to bat with the other side? As the nation undergoes intense political and ideological churning in coming days, these and related questions will demand an answer.

The Pioneer, 8 October 2013 

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