July 28, 2001


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Kuldip Nayar

Editors and prime ministers

There used to be a healthy relationship between editors and the government. Prime ministers would take editors into confidence on matters of importance. Seldom did one betray the confidence of the other. Nor did anything untoward from their encounters appear in print.

Even Indira Gandhi had regular sittings with editors. But that relationship was snapped during the Emergency. It has never been revived in the old form since. P V Narasimha Rao had a couple of meetings with editors on the Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, like Rajiv Gandhi, has been selective, but not consistent.

Of all our prime ministers Lal Bahadur Shastri was the most forthcoming. Before he went to Tashkent in January 1966, he talked to editors. Haji Pir and Tithwal, the two posts overlooking parts of Kashmir, had been retrieved from Pakistan during the 1965 war. The question he posed to editors was whether India should vacate the posts if Moscow, which was the interlocutor, put pressure on him to do so. He told them without keeping anything back how Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin had already made it clear to him that no country would be allowed to retain territory it had won during war. India had to return the two posts, much to Shastri's exasperation.

Indira Gandhi, the most reticent of all prime ministers, explained to editors once why she decided to take away the finance portfolio from Morarji Desai, deputy prime minister in her Cabinet. He represented a conservative face, she argued, at a time when her government had taken a progressive measure like nationalising banks. I recall objecting to the treatment meted out to Desai whom I described a Gandhian. "How long have you known him?" she asked me. Before I could say anything, she said, "One word explained him: Humbug."

At the meeting of editors with Narasimha Rao, the Babri Masjid demolition was discussed. He explained how the BJP had let him down, particularly Kalyan Singh, the BJP chief minister in Uttar Pradesh. I asked Rao how a makeshift temple had come up overnight at the very place where the Babri Masjid was razed to the ground. The state was under President's rule. He said he had sent a BSF squad from Delhi, but it could not land at Lucknow because of fog. It was not a convincing reply. He assured me the temple would not be there "for long." That was nearly nine years ago. The editors' meeting was held three days after the demolition on December 6, 1992.

Vajpayee talks to the media, but he selects the editors himself. I know of no meeting of editors as such and he has seldom placed all his cards on the table. After assuming power he has become too secretive even in his off-the-record observations. Still, Vajpayee gets a good press because the media believes he is the most liberal in an otherwise closed, cloistered pro-Hindu party. He should have convened a meeting of editors before the Agra summit to explain why he had invited Pervez Musharraf and what New Delhi wanted to achieve from the meeting.

Again, after the summit, the prime minister should have told the editors about the declaration, which the Pakistan president claims was about to be signed twice. If Vajpayee could talk to the Opposition parties, why not the editors? But then the Vajpayee government's attitude towards the media is archaic, bureaucratic and steeped in suspicion. In fact, it is busy restricting their area of operation and putting shackles even on the Internet, which is free all over the world.

Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh may pontificate and this is not the first time -- that the government does not hold negotiations through the media. But he should know that purveying information is not disclosing secrets, if there were any. He should at least explain why he and his foreign office were so 'unstructured' that they made a mess, something which Vajpayee admitted before the Opposition parties.

On the crucial day, July 16, the government issued one sentence, pompous in tone, after midnight having kept the 300-strong media corps waiting the entire day. I do not think Jaswant Singh and his office even appreciate, much less understand, the requirements of the media. Formulating foreign policy is one thing, putting it across is another. Communication is the most important part of selling it in a democratic society.

I personally think the government should appoint a committee of top mediapersons to find out what went wrong at Agra. Jawaharlal Nehru did so when he discovered that New Delhi had failed to put across its viewpoint during the India-China war in 1962. The conclusions of the report were never implemented because bureaucrats killed the proposal that a secretary-level journalist be appointed to brief the press and that he sit at Cabinet meetings.

The Vajpayee government believes Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan is doing a wonderful job. I wish he was. No doubt, he briefs the media but he seldom goes beyond the surface, never explaining why and how a decision was reached. The media interprets events in its way, depending on a leak here or even a plant there. The government is invariably at fault for incorrect information.

Somehow those who occupy high positions in government labour under the belief that they -- and they alone -- know what the nation should be told and when. They get annoyed if any news, which they don't like appears in print, or on the television screen. Their first attempt is to contradict it and dub it mischievous. Later, when it is realised that a mere denial will not convince even the most gullible, a lame explanation is offered that things have not been put 'in proper perspective.'

Probably at that time, the government gets away with its version of the story. But what is not realised is such methods only reduce the credibility of official assertions. Even the government's honest claims begin to be questioned. In a democracy, where faith stirs the people's response, the government cannot afford to have even an iota of doubt raised about what it does or says. Somehow our rulers are not conscious of this fact.

Islamabad believes it did a better job than New Delhi. Probably, it did. But it did not play fair. When the Pakistan high commission announced at the intellectuals' meeting with Musharraf that 'everything was strictly off the record,' practically nothing emerged about the discussions. It was presumed that the meeting of editors with Musharraf at Agra would also be 'off the record.' But Islamabad televised the encounter without informing the editors.

The summit was an opportunity to span the yawning distance between the two countries after Partition. True, New Delhi mismanaged the media. True, Islamabad did a competent job. But the summit was not about scoring points. It was about the differences, about the danger of hostilities, about restoring normalcy and about the poor left in the cold in both countries.

The two sides should ask themselves whether the summit addressed those problems seriously and whether any forthcoming summit will move towards the solution of the issues which confront India and Pakistan. At present there is very little beyond recrimination and, I am afraid, it will increase.

Kuldip Nayar

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