Tuesday, January 05, 2010




    Two leading media groups of India and Pakistan – the Times of India and the Jang Group – have come together "to energise the process of peace" between the two countries and have launched a "cross-border collaborative peace project" – Aman ki Ashaa. Quite aside the fact that the very names of these two media groups illustrate the trajectory that their countries are following – the 'Times' of India are a story of which everyone in the world wants to be a part, while on the other hand Pakistan is being ripped apart by a 'Jang' (war) within and is being seen as a purveyor of jihadist 'jang' without – calling this initiative an 'Indo-Pak peace project' smacks of a commercial undertaking. Frankly speaking, this is not entirely a bad thing and is perhaps far more sustainable and durable than merely making peace in the pursuit of some higher, philosophical ideal. But a caveat is in order: it is one thing to market a media product like toothpaste or soap, and quite another to sell peace like packaged peanuts. The former can make tons of money, the latter can lose tons of money.

According to the joint statement issued by the two media giants, they are mindful of the obstacles they will face in this endeavour and "recognise that setbacks will occur [an allusion to 26/11?] but these should not derail the process"! The two partners in the 'peace project' have set out an ambitious, even unrealistic agenda. They intend to "reach out and pluck the low hanging fruit in the beginning" – issues of trade and commerce, investments, financial infrastructure, cultural exchanges, religious and medical tourism, free movement of ideas, visa regimes, sporting ties, connectivity, reviving existing routes, market access, separated families and the plight of prisoners! And only after this will they aim higher to create "an enabling environment" for taking "bold initiatives" to resolve the "more intractable and contentious issues – whether relating to Kashmir, water disputes or the issue of cross-border terrorism".

    Laudable as the publicly stated objective of the joint statement is, it is probably a case of naiveté at best, and at worst, megalomania ("leaders must learn to be led and not blindly followed"). A number of joint initiatives between the two countries, far less ambitious and pretentious than 'aman ki ashaa' have been taken in the past, but each of them have had either very limited success or have ended up unsung, unmourned. The maximum that even the most successful peace initiative can claim is that it brought together small groups of people from the two countries who managed to strike individual friendships. Therefore to expect that two media houses can push their governments into a peace deal or completely change the perceptions of the peoples in the two countries about each other to a point where they are ready to set aside their differences and grievances and enter into an era of lasting peace and friendship is nothing but the height of presumptuousness.

    Perhaps this presumptuousness is born out of megalomania which some owners of media houses suffer. In recent years, the media, especially the electronic media, has emerged as an extremely powerful pressure group in India and Pakistan. So far the power and influence of the media has been limited to national and local issues and not so much issues of state. It is one thing for the media to carry a campaign for or against a politician or political party, to investigate and expose corruption or maladministration, to act as judge, jury and executioner on some high profile criminal case, to demand justice for victims of abuse of power by influential tormentors. But the media's ability to influence, much less alter, the policy of the state on issues of national security or the state's ideological orientation is a different ball game altogether. In other words, the ability to make and break governments is very different from setting the agenda for the state.

    But megalomania, by definition, is a psychological disorder that refuses to accept any limits on power and tends to do the undoable. At least as far as the Jang group is concerned, the taste of power felt by the owners in their fight against successive heads governments – Nawaz Sharif in 1999, Musharraf in 2007-08, and Asif Zardari in 2009-10 – has probably convinced them that they are powerful enough to make peace possible between India and Pakistan (something they tried unilaterally in 1999 on the eve of Prime Minister Vajpayee's Lahore visit), even if this means taking on the omnipotent 'establishment' of Pakistan. Frankly, this is a battle worth watching. If successful, the Jang group will have re-written the rules of the game. On the other hand, if this initiative collapses, it will only mean that the state of relations between the two hostile neighbours will follow the predictable path.

    There are a number of other reasons for being sceptical about this 'peace project'. The first is, of course, the huge task of changing the mindsets, not only of the public in the two countries but even more importantly of the staffers of the two media houses who are collaborating to usher in an era of peace and friendliness between India and Pakistan. On the day that this initiative was unveiled, a prime-time news programme Geo TV hosted by a journalist who is firmly embedded with the infamous 'agencies' had two stories. The first was on 'Aman ki Ashaa' and how this was a great initiative. The next story was on Gen. Deepak Kapoor's remarks on the possibility of a limited war under a nuclear overhang and the same news anchor and his guest went ballistic in highlighting Indian militarism! As for the Indian partner, its network was probably the most stridently anti-Pakistan TV network in India following the 26/11 attacks. Indeed, this is a TV channel that has followed the Fox News model of wearing patriotism on its sleeve, not because the anchors or owners of the TV channel are hyper-patriotic but because patriotism and demonization of the 'enemy' sells and sends TRPs soaring.

    The second reason is that it is still not clear as to how these two media houses will be able to succeed when presidents, prime ministers, military dictators, statesmen, and global powers have tried and failed. Every Indian prime minister comes to office thinking he will be the one to break the logjam between India and Pakistan. By the time he demits office, he has nothing to show for his labours. If statesmen are unable to withstand the pressure which comes after an attack on the Indian parliament, or after a 26/11, or even after a Kargil, can a media group, which is only one among a host of other media outfits in the country, go against the well of public opinion and jeopardize its commercial interests by sponsoring 'pappi and jhappi shows' and propagating peace and brotherhood? Quite unlikely.

Unless a media organisation is ideological driven and/or is plugging a fringe line or representing a sectional interest, it cannot afford to alienate its readership or viewership. Therefore the real test, if not efficacy, of this collaboration will come when the next big crisis erupts on the Indo-Pak front. Will these two media giants be able to buck the trend and "cool the temperature and wean away the guardians from fortified frontiers" or will they slip back into catering to the lowest common denominator in their respective readership and viewership?


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