Friday, March 07, 2008

On media coverage of the India-U.S. nuclear deal and the Nandigram violence

Before I come to the specific questions on these themes, which were put to me by a student doing a college dissertation, let me try to sketch out the broader context. Nuclear energy is at the current time, a contributor to the extent of less than 5 percent to India’s total electricity needs. Nuclear weapons are likely to remain forever, an inert part of the Indian arsenal, since no government is ever going to use them.

In the mid-1980s, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) forecast that it would have 10,000 megawatts of operational electricity generation capacity in place by the year 2000. Its achievement so far has been a mere 4,120 megawatts.

In the 1950s, the DAE drew up a three-stage plan for nuclear energy production in India: from a first stage of natural uranium fuelled reactors, to a second stage using plutonium as primary fuel, and then a third stage of thorium fuelled generation. It was implicitly argued that India had sufficient natural uranium resources to start and sustain this entire cycle of nuclear energy. It was only when the mid-term appraisal of the Tenth Five-Year Plan was published in 2005 that the DAE went public with an admission that India faced a critical shortage of natural uranium.

The DAE has been less than candid and transparent with the Indian public about the prospects for nuclear energy in the country and about its own performance. There are sufficient grounds to be sceptical about the new-found enthusiasm for nuclear energy as a viable alternative to the problems, such as global warming, posed by the carbon fuel-cycle. We have yet no credible and reliable long-term methods of dealing with the various problems posed by the nuclear fuel cycle: such as radioactive waste disposal and the decommissioning of defunct nuclear reactors.

So to set the context for my answers to the specific queries on the India-USA nuclear deal: we are essentially talking here about a deal that involves weapons that will never be used and an energy source that may not amount to much, in even the best of circumstances. Why then was so much energy expended in the coverage of the nuclear issue? I think the answer is in two parts:

First, we have not yet got out of the habits of thinking of the 1950s, which saw a country’s nuclear sector as emblematic of its national pride and technological prowess.

Second, the nuclear deal became a symbol of a new relationship between India and the “sole superpower”. After decades of mutual estrangement, this was a measure of a new cordiality and a new intent to work together for common interests and shared values. More than the tangible benefits that the deal promised, what was perhaps more important were the intangible gains expected to accrue from the official recognition by the U.S. that India merited a special status in the world.

Now to the specific questions

1. What do you think of the way in which the Left has been covered with respect to the Indo-US nuclear deal? Has the coverage been well-balanced? Did it both answer and raise questions?

I think the media created a phoney crisis in the expectation that the Left parties would either buckle under the pressure or quit the United Progressive Alliance. This would have in the estimation of the media pundits, opened the way for a mid-term election in which the Left strength would have been thoroughly marginalised. Alternatively, there was also an expectation that a “coalition of the willing” would emerge out of the wreckage of the UPA, which would be more favourably disposed towards the new strategic relationship with the U.S.

The whole procedure seemed to bear all the hallmarks of a carefully stage-managed affair. First, with the Left parties yet to take a formal position on the nuclear deal, the Prime Minister gave an interview to a journalist known to have close links with the Left, in which he spelt out his ultimatum: the Left could either like it or lump it. The following day (August 12, 2007), the Indian Express, which is among the most breathless propagandists for the new strategic relationship with the U.S., ran a front page story by its editor-in-chief, which was a virtual declaration of war against the Left, with a headline that read: “Will the bully now do what bullies usually do when their bluff is called?”

The coverage was anything but well-balanced. An editorial in the Economic Times on August 16 had this to say about the Left parties: they “inhabit a fantasy world in which India should line up alongside Venezuela, Iran’s Holocaust denying President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hamas and Hizbollah, as part of a world-wide global ‘resistance’ to ‘imperialism’.”

The strident tone of this editorial and its vocabulary make it virtually indistinguishable from the media organs of the U.S. neo-conservative lobbies, such as Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, National Review and the Weekly Standard. And it must be remembered here that these are precisely those media organisations that lied and misled the U.S. into the continuing catastrophe of the invasion of Iraq. There is indeed, a growing popular backlash against these media organisations in the U.S. today.

The coverage did not raise the crucial questions of what is the real benefit in tangible terms, to India from the nuclear deal. The key question of whether India needed a nuclear arsenal also was evaded. The patriotism and the sense of nationalist commitment of the Left parties was repeatedly impugned, which is the lowest kind of editorial strategy that any media organisation can adopt.

2. What do you think is the reason behind the unanimous support of the Indo-US nuclear deal by almost all sections of the media?

There is a numbing consensus within the Indian media today, that strategic engagement with the U.S. holds the key to India’s emergence on the world stage as a major power. This is a reading that is completely at variance with reality. The U.S. economy today is highly vulnerable. It is deeply in debt and there is no sector within it that is not suffering some degree of debt-induced distress: whether the government sector (federal, state and local tiers); the corporate sector or the household sector. Militarily, the U.S. is stuck irredeemably in the quagmire of Iraq, which is despite all the illusory gains of recent months, a no-win situation and is only likely ultimately, to work to the long-term strategic advantage of Iran. The Indian media seems oblivious to the fact that the country’s fastest growing partners in international trade today are in the east – notably China and its neighbours. And in terms of strategic questions, the best tack for India to take would be to engage with its neighbours in a spirit of realistic give-and-take, without becoming the proxy for a fading superpower’s imperial games.

3. Why is it that most of the newspapers ran a campaign in favour of the nuclear deal rather than a debate on it?

For reasons dealt with above. I think the CPI(M) General Secretary, in his first piece on the subject in the mainstream media, said in so many words that he was opposed to the nuclear deal because it involved accepting U.S. tutelage on issues of serious strategic consequence for India. It was not so much the specifics of the deal that was the issue. Yet the media chose to not engage with this question, but to bury the central questions under a barrage of invective. There probably is a consensus among English-speaking Indians and the relatively more affluent sections that this sector of the media caters to, over the advisability of a strategic engagement with the U.S. These are the same sections of the media that floated the beguiling slogan of a “shining India” in 2003-04 and simply refused to learn the lessons from the drubbing that the BJP received in the 2004 general elections.

4. The Hindu claimed to endorse the Indo-US nuclear deal. However, unlike The Times of India or the Indian Express, it did not have any editorials, articles and Op-Eds which were fiercely in support of the deal. Neither did it cover the Left in a negative manner for opposing the deal. Is it because of the so-called “leftist” tilt that The Hindu is known for?

The Hindu has always prided itself on its superior understanding of the technical issues involved in the nuclear domain. It has also been traditionally, less inclined to the kind of extremist rhetoric that other sections of the media adopted. Having said that, I think The Hindu has often been all too uncritical of the DAE’s performance in vital respects.

5. On 6 Aug 2007, The Hindu published an editorial saying that it endorses the deal. Later, another editorial was published on 20 Aug 2007 which said that the deal should be put on hold. On 22 Aug 2007, Editor-in-Chief N. Ram wrote a piece on the Op-Ed page saying that the two positions are not contradictory. Why did The Hindu change its editorial stance after the CPM became vocal in its opposition of the deal? Also, the absence of editorials on the n-deal issue from then on, is it indicative of some kind of dilemma?

I have not followed the finer print in these editorials or articles. But my impression is that there is no necessary contradiction between these positions. Firstly, the August 6 editorial dealt with the nuclear deal alone and its implications for India’s energy and strategic programs. It was very much a “narrow scope” exercise which purported to see in the deal, significant benefits to the energy program and no significant damage to the strategic component. Once the Left made its objections clear, it became evident that there was no political consensus over the issue. So the democratic course in such circumstances would have been to open a dialogue on the various ramifications of the deal with all elected representatives and try to dispel whatever misgivings they may have had. So The Hindu’s second editorial, arguing that the deal be put on hold and be thoroughly reviewed so that a consensus could be built up on its utility, was, I think, respectful of the course that a democratic polity should adopt in a matter of serious national importance.

6. What is your opinion of the coverage of the Left in the various newspapers with respect to Nandigram? Was it objective?

Without in anyway condoning what the CPI(M) cadres did in Nandigram, let me remind you that this was one among many instances of so-called “development” being imposed at gunpoint. For instance in December 2000, the police opened fire in Maikanch village in Rayagada district of Orissa, inflicting 12 deaths and several more injuries, in a corporate effort to take over mineral-rich land that happened inconveniently, to be occupied by tribal communities that insisted on retaining ownership. And then, the Kalinganagar firing in Jajpur district in January 2006, in which an equal number, if not more, were killed, again involved the reluctance of tribal communities to cede control over their land at the derisory rates of compensation decreed by the Orissa state government. Then there was the Kahalgaon firing a few weeks back in Bhagalpur district of Bihar, in which five people were killed. Kahalgaon happens to be the location of one of the country’s largest thermal power plants, and the people of that town hardly get any electricity! So this was a police firing against citizens of the town who were protesting against this patent inequity.

Ranked on a scale with all these other atrocities, Nandigram was no greater or lesser. So it is a little difficult to understand why the media was so obsessed with Nandigram and so little bothered with Maikanch or Kalinganagar or Kahalgaon. Look up the newspaper files from the relevant periods and check out how much of a moral fervour the media managed to work itself into over these incidents.

The unstated agenda was clearly to cause maximum embarrassment to the CPI(M). And in this the media succeeded.

7. While the Indian Express, The Times of India and The Hindustan Times blamed the CPI(M) for the November violence in Nandigram . The Hindu, on the other hand refrained from putting direct blame on the CPI(M). In such a case, how would the reader know what the reality is?

It is an open secret that some of the individuals who man the top editorial management positions in The Hindu have had close links with the CPI(M), both formally and informally. This applies especially, to the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper who was at college with the incumbent general secretary of the CPI(M) and has maintained a close friendship with him since.

The reader of course would have ample reason to be dissatisfied with the coverage he is getting, from both sections of the media – both the over-the-top hysteria of the Indian Express and the over-protective approach of The Hindu. What remedies does he or she have? I think the Readers’ Editor in The Hindu confronted a spate of complaints about the quality of the coverage of Nandigram in the paper and wrote an entire column on it. His final conclusions, published in the issue of the paper dated December 19, 2007 are as follows:

There was balance in the coverage to the extent that protesting voices against what was “happening” in Nandigram got adequate representation. But what was really happening? The reader was left to guess. The Home Secretary said it was a “war zone”; Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya described what had happened in Nandigram as legal and justified and added, “we have paid back in their own coin.” These widely reported (but not in The Hindu) remarks indicated something serious had happened and it needed to be justified. Obviously it was not Maoists and Trinamool alone, who were responsible for the situation and the published reports did not make things clear.

The reporting in The Hindu was selective. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s comment on the situation (while on his way to Kuala Lumpur) did not find a place and this had to be inferred from the Chief Minister’s reaction to it. Similarly, the Chief Minister’s “paid back” remark found mention only when there were reactions to it.

The unprecedented public protest in Kolkata was well covered, but one was left wondering what was the “situation” in Nandigram against which the intellectuals and artists were protesting. As a newsman, my first priority would have been spot coverage. That media persons were denied
access to the “war zone” was unknown to The Hindu readers. The first Nandigram-datelined report, from Antara Das, appeared much after things had quietened down in the area. Nandigram did not get the detailed analysis that an explosion in tiny faraway Maldives got at the same time.

8. Also, The Hindu did try to downplay CPI(M)’s role in the Nandigram violence. Why?

For reasons dealt with above. I think the answer to the last question addresses this issue adequately.

In the interests of full disclosure, I would like to state that I was an employee of The Hindu group between December 1991 and August 2004.

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