by Ajai Shukla
[This paper was written for a seminar organised in New Delhi by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in partnership with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF)]
• The Indian media admires and favourably covers socio-cultural aspects of the US; but is negative in its coverage of US strategy and defence policy.
• The Indian media’s coverage of defence and strategy is strongly influenced by inputs from the Indian government.
• The Indian media tends to portray the US as fickle and unreliable.
• A narrative of continuing technology denial to India by the US generates negative media coverage of the US-India defence partnership.
• Washington’s defence relationship with Pakistan is another key driver of unfavourable media coverage in India
• The US has not evolved a suitable strategy for dealing with India. It tends to treat New Delhi the same way as it deals with traditional allies.
• The media sees CISMOA, BECA and an LSA as instruments for railroading India into a US-led alliance through the back door.
• There is a need for the US embassy in New Delhi to be more pro-active in regularly engaging with defence correspondents in India
• The US embassy needs to make a concerted effort to educate Indian defence correspondents on the regulatory frameworks that govern US defence.
* * * *
It was still dawn in early July 2001, when the new US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, greeted the diplomatic correspondent of the Indian Express . For the next hour, over strong black coffee, the newly arrived ambassador carefully set out for the journalist his expansive new vision of US-India relations. Blackwill, like his boss, Condoleezza Rice, believed deeply in the US-India alliance and carried an explicit mandate to raise the profile of US-India relations. Jaswant Singh’s recent dialogue with Strobe Talbott had already hauled the US-India relationship by its bootstraps out of its post-nuclear test low in 1998. Now Blackwill had the ambitious task of building the patchy relationship into an overt alliance.
Such a transformation would hinge, Blackwill realised, on fundamentally altering the way the Indian media perceived America and reported about it. And so he talked to a string of journalists about decoupling India from Pakistan; common values of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law; America’s vibrant Indian-origin community; and the business opportunities between India and America.
Blackwill’s interview featured prominently in the Indian Express next morning. The media also carried many subsequent interactions with journalists across the English mainstream media. Then US ambassador, along with his media advisor, Gordon Duguid, realised that they also had to address the vernacular press. As Operation Enduring Freedom unfolded, the Blackwill-Duguid team reached out to Indian Muslims, through interactions with the Urdu press. Their successful management of the Indian media holds lessons for today.
Yankee, go home! But take me with you…
As American media managers know, the Indian media, like the United States itself, is a complex, multi-faceted entity. Even in the early 2000s, the Indian media had print, television, radio and fast-expanding web-based components, each with their pressures and peculiarities. These groupings are further divided between the comparatively restrained English language media and the rather more raucous vernacular press. The Urdu press, which both reflects and shapes the views of a sizeable Muslim populace, provides an additional layer of complication; its coverage of American geopolitics has long been coloured by the presumption of an American “crusade” against Islam.
The US is an even more complex subject, consisting as it does of multiple wings of government; a uniquely independent legislature with enormous powers; a massive economy with multiple interest groups; a heterogenous people; a vibrant culture; and a range of lifestyles.
How does the multi-faceted Indian media treat these multiple US subjects? Most media observers agree that the Indian media is largely approving, even admiring, in its coverage of US popular culture and lifestyle, the economy and the increasingly successful Indian diaspora. In covering these subjects even the conservative Urdu media reflects the aspirations of a new Indian generation that eyes the US with longing. But in its coverage of strategy; defence; diplomacy; and geo-politics; the Indian media remains skeptical, even disapproving. This has its roots in the Cold War period, and in Washington’s long-playing engagement of Pakistan. Even post 9/11, Indian audiences --- and the Indian media accurately reflects their view --- remain uncomfortable with the assertiveness and interventionism of American policy and with Washington’s continued reluctance to openly confront Pakistan.
It was here that Blackwill scored heavily. His blunt condemnation of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism; public criticism of the Pakistan Army’s stranglehold over policy; and his skepticism about the “the peaceful rise of China” were guaranteed to resonate with the Indian media. In all his public statements and private interactions Blackwill packaged the Bush-Rice outreach in exactly the phrases that India wanted to hear. Washington was clearly balancing Blackwill’s overtly anti-Pakistan rhetoric with a different, more Pakistan-friendly, tone from the embassy in Islamabad, but the Indian media heard only what it wanted; Blackwill was assured a positive press.
Also driving the favourable coverage of the US during that period was a coincidental congruence of American and Indian strategic interests. In late 2001, Operation Enduring Freedom threw the Taliban out of Kabul, allowing India to re-enter that country. Early in 2002, during the Operation Parakram crisis, American diplomats tried to force Pakistan into acting more decisively and visibly against anti-India terrorism. But this inexorably changed when the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and Pakistan began assuming a larger role in Afghanistan. With American policy changing and the uncommunicative David Mulford replacing Blackwill, the Indian media reverted to portraying the US as a fickle, unreliable player.
The media pattern could hardly be clearer: favourable coverage of the US strategic and defence partnership would require a degree of geo-strategic congruence, and Washington to be publicly in sync with New Delhi’s core concerns in South Asia. Even though Washington privately concurs with India about the need to rein in Pakistan’s security establishment, this is not the message that the Indian media, or the public, read. Therefore, when it comes to reporting on the US-India defence relationship, the baggage of history that the Indian media carries is rendered even more burdensome by a new era of American support to Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
Defence relationship: structural flaws
If the Indian media generally approves of America’s soft power; and is selective in covering US hard power; its approach to the US-India defence relationship has been uniformly negative. There are two key reasons for this: firstly, a publicly accepted media narrative (which feeds off an entrenched government viewpoint) of decades of US denial of weapons and technology to India, which was first imposed during the 1965 conflict with Pakistan . While Pakistan was slapped with an equivalent ban, Washington had already militarily equipped its military in the years leading up to 1965. As the Indian media noted, Pakistan fought with US weaponry: its air force flew US-built Sabres and Starfighters; and its army fought in American Patton and Sherman tanks.
After India’s “peaceful nuclear experiment” in 1974, Washington spearheaded an international technology denial regime that severely hamstrung India’s indigenous weapons development programmes. That technology garrotte was tightened after the 1998 nuclear tests, when Indian research & development (R&D) organisations --- including establishments from the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) and the Indian Space Research Organisation --- were placed on the US Entity List. All this is part of the government; the popular; and the media narrative in India.
Though these organisations have now been removed from the US Entity List , the tight American export-licensing regime --- specifically the US State Department’s International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR) legislation --- continues to make the transfer of US high technology contingent on hard-to-obtain licences. US assurances about easing the flow of high technology are undermined by widely reported incidents like Washington’s refusal to permit US aerospace companies to provide the DRDO with consultancy in developing the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft .
The public negativity that such denials generate is exacerbated by agencies like the DRDO; and the public sector production units under the MoD’s Department of Defence Production (DDP); which blame development delays on technology denial regimes. The impression that defence journalists obtain, therefore, from technology-hungry entities like the DRDO, is that of a US government whose delivery falls short of its promises.
The second major reason for negative reporting on US-India defence cooperation is Washington’s simultaneous defence relationship with Islamabad. This has been highlighted starkly during the ongoing contest to sell the Indian Air Force 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). Media reportage on the two fighters offered by US aerospace companies --- Lockheed Martin’s F-16IN Super Viper; and Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet --- was predominantly negative, mainly because the F-16 is even today the frontline fighter of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF); and was regarded for many years as the most likely delivery platform for a Pakistani nuclear strike on India. Although Lockheed Martin regularly pointed out that the PAF’s F-16s are inferior variants of the Super Viper that Lockheed Martin was offering the IAF, this technical argument was unsustainable, given the damning optics of such a proposal. Unsurprisingly, the Indian media viewed the offer as an “unethical attempt to make money off both sides of the India-Pakistan conflict.”
The media’s anti-US stance on defence cooperation, it must be reiterated, accurately reflects Indian public opinion; the government perspective; and a large majority of India’s strategic community. Even the most cursory empirical analysis would indicate that America has failed to convince India’s media and defence watchers about its bona fides in seeking defence cooperation with India.
The unfortunate superpower habit
In their domestic functioning American leaders and officials are accustomed to treading with extraordinary sensitivity. In foreign relations, however, even in interacting with its closest allies, the US tends to behave like a brash superpower. Washington mostly gets away with this. Its traditional allies --- the UK; Japan; Australia; and South Korea to name a few --- have long been used to a relationship of apparent subservience. Most of them were compelled by their diminished post-World War II circumstances to follow the US lead; and they have experienced the benefits of US leadership, which allows them to punch above their weight in the international arena. Washington’s more recent allies, particularly eastern European countries like Poland and the Czech Republic that aspire to shake off Russia’s overbearing influence, also have no choice but to accept inequality.
In engaging India, however, the US encounters an unprecedented paradigm: a multi-aligned country with growing international stature; in which neither government, nor intelligentsia, nor media, are convinced of the benefits of partnering Washington. There is near consensus within the Indian media that the US needs India more than India needs the US; and that the US is an opportunistic and fickle ally.
Washington, however, apparently oblivious of its dubious currency, demands that New Delhi structures the defence relationship according to American rulebooks. Sustained pressure from the US State Department and the Pentagon for New Delhi to sign three defence cooperation agreements --- the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA); the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA); and a Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) --- has evoked uniformly negative coverage from the Indian media, which sees these as instruments for railroading India into an alliance through the back door.
Only now is Washington internalizing that Indian domestic politics; and New Delhi’s strategic antipathy to anything resembling an alliance, preclude the signing of these “foundation agreements” . The removal of this demand from the public agenda during US-India interactions has paid immediate dividends in terms of more positive Indian media reportage. With these obstacles having been bypassed in the recent sales of American aircraft to the IAF (viz. the C-130J Super Hercules and the C-17 Globemaster III) the Indian media has reported on these acquisitions in far more friendly terms than the earlier reportage about the MMRCAs.
Media management: feeding the beast
Even given the US embassy’s sophisticated, highly structured approach to “media management”; and its effective mechanisms for information dissemination, there are simple measures that might make some headway in positively influencing media reportage of the US-India defence relationship.
Currently, America is losing the battle of perceptions by default. While multiple wings of the MoD put out information from the Indian side; the US embassy in New Delhi --- and particularly the defence section --- remains highly constrained in interacting with the media. Given the technological superiority of American military equipment; given the enormous traffic in military-to-military exchanges; and given the number of training exercises that the US and Indian militaries cooperate in, there is a great deal to talk about. But off-the-record media briefings, or discussions on background --- the meat and drink of reportage anywhere --- are simply not conducted by the US embassy. Increasing the interaction between embassy and the relatively small community of Indian defence reporters should be an urgent priority for the US.
Media interaction in the US embassy is more biased towards engaging senior editors, not the defence beat journalists who actually write the stories. Talking to the editors might well generate favourable opinion columns; but it is sustained interaction with the beat journalists that is more likely to generate favourable news reports. Even a relatively junior defence beat reporter must be able to call the defence section and obtain a response to any story that is going out.
Another proposal that might reduce the negative friction from complex US government processes would be to acquaint Indian defence journalists (and indeed diplomatic correspondents) with the legislative and decision-making structures of the US Congress; the State Department and the Pentagon. Even with the best of intentions, it is near impossible for Indian journalists to comprehend the complexities of the US regulatory framework whilst operating from India. The US embassy could consider sponsoring specialist courses in American institutions that deal with licensing; procurement; budgeting; and defence planning processes.
Unfavourable media coverage of the US-India defence relationship stems from a popular perception, shared by the media, that America is a fickle and opportunistic ally that continues to prop up Pakistan, while simultaneously pulling India into a potentially embarrassing alliance. Given this fundamental distrust, clever media policy or the effective dissemination of information will achieve only limited success in generating more positive media reportage.
Instead, Washington will have to review the fundamentals of its engagement with New Delhi. It will have to learn to deal with a more equal partner than its traditional allies, and to be more watchful of Indian core interests in South Asia. This would require structural changes to US foreign policy in South Asia. Events other than the relationship with India are already driving such a change; and a significant hardening of America’s approach to Pakistan might well catalyse a major improvement in the US’s media profile in India.
Meanwhile, the US could benefit from acquainting the Indian media with the complexities of the American political, legislative and budgeting processes so that reportage in India can be more understanding of the imperatives and constraints that make Washington sometimes appear a more difficult partner than it actually is.