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The Rediff Special/ Chindu Sreedharan

How India's losing the PR war

E-Mail this feature to a friend I wish to god that there wasn't a war on.

Having wished that, and receiving no reply from the Almighty, I wish the wise gentlemen in New Delhi were a bit more sensible. I am not talking about how they are handling the war at the border. No, I'd be the first to admit that I'm least qualified to do that.

But I do believe, as part of the media crowd jostling for news in Srinagar and all the way to Batalik, that someone needs to tell these gentlemen about the existence of public relations and media management. And how to go about it.

That exercise, I agree, may not win the military war outright. But it sure would take India ahead in the PR battle. Moreover, it would prevent defence officials from swallowing their feet at one gulp.

Let me present my case.

Since the trouble started on May 6 or thereabouts -- sorry, folks, no one here seems to know when exactly it all started -- the Indian army, not exactly generous with information even at the best of times, found a thick blanket of secrecy, air-lifted from Delhi, dropping down on it. The media blackout continued till May 25, the day when, owing to pressure from all over, the army had to let the press into the affected area.

Yes, there were a few press briefings in the many days between May 8 and 25, full of reassurance but sans information. No cause to worry, we were told, there were some infiltrators supported by a few Pakistani soldiers, but the situation was well under control.

Sure. The situation was so well under control that India had to call in fighter aircraft within a few days.

"It is a huge ****up, a major intelligence failure," I remember an army officer saying just before the air-strikes started, "What you see now is the covering-up operations."

And hence the secrecy. Hence the cock-and-bull stories of "We detected the intrusion very early and responded effectively."

The result? Not only was the defence forces caught on the wrong foot at the border, they also found themselves completely off-balance in the PR war too. The information-starved media and public started using its imagination (the latest I hear around here is that a Sukhoi aircraft has been shot down!), the media, which should have been won over, had its feathers ruffled a bit, and the nation was given the impression of small trouble when there was big, very big trouble.

When will the wise men in Delhi understand that a war is not fought just militarily but through the media as well? That it is the media that presents to the world the picture of right and wrong, good and evil?

Consider, for instance, the question of media briefings. Once things got out of hand, and a cover-up was impossible, the defence officials decided to keep the press posted. They chose Delhi as the venue, arguing that as the air force was also now involved, it was better if the briefing occurred from one place. Reasonable, one would say. But what about Srinagar, the base of action, the place which was being thronged by journalists of many hues, many nationalities?

No information available here. The media here, the journos out on the field, are blacked out while the ones in Delhi trot home with carefully-prepared releases under their arms and are expected to punch in stuff like "In a brave and daring move, India today...."

Okay, I will even accept that. But are they doing a good job of this 'centralised briefing'. Are they achieving their objective of avoiding confusion?

No, no, NO! In fact, just the opposite. Between the infinitely wise gods in Delhi and their lesser representatives here in Srinagar, you find, there is as much communication as between Prime Minister Vajpayee and his Pakistani counterpart.

Thus, we have the number one of the defence forces, choppering it to the affected area and returning to claim that in Batalik the Indian army has pushed the intruders "right up to the LoC", while army sources here admit Indian troops there are having a hard time.

Thus, it is not surprising that a turbaned gentleman in Delhi claims that the body of Major Saravanan, killed in action in Batalik region, is on the way to Srinagar when army officials in Srinagar swear it has yet to be recovered.

Thus, we have the same gentleman claiming that the identity card of a Pak soldier, recovered from the battle zone, will be produced before the media, while the poor chaps here have no clue about when or if it is arriving.

This is like pushing a soldier into the frontline without arming him.

As for the "information" that Delhi feeds the media, well, let's say most of it is an insult to any thinking individual and leave it there.

Here I must mention Nawaz Sharief. That gentleman is infinitely better at PR than our prime minister. Sharief is like a sprinter off the starting block, No sooner had India started air strikes that he came up with a gem -- an offer to send his foreign minister over to sort matters out. And did that move pay dividends?

Of course, it did. It made Pakistan look nice. It painted Sharief as a man of peace. One who would do much to avoid a war.

Even better, it made Vajpayee look bad. As a man of war -- who else would order air strikes against poor, unarmed 'militants' carrying only pea-shooters and a couple of Stingers, huh?

Sharief didn't stop at that. He followed it up with another good move. Namely, releasing Flight Lieutenant Nachiketa to show his willingness to go that "extra mile!"

And Vajpayee? Well, he came out with a "safe passage" statement days after Pakistan scored over him!

Media management, this?

Thus, to conclude, in their excitement at managing the war, Delhi has clean forgotten the dangers of mismanaging public relations. It has forgotten that downplaying big trouble will lead to greater trouble. The more India tries to do that, the more dangerous the situation becomes. Then the expectations of the nation shoot up, creating a World Cup-like situation.

People want to see India emerging victorious in the shortest time possible -- after all, it is a question of just '600 to 700' intruders, right? And as time goes by, and they see the mounting casualties, they will start losing patience, losing confidence in the Indian army, which will turn -- is turning -- into anger/frustration at what they see as 'incompetence".

A week ago, the comments from the general public ranged from red-blooded, adrenaline-filled "We will bang them this time!" and "This time they will get what they have been asking for."

Now, after losing dozens of men and three aircraft, people ask: "What the heck is happening? What's the Indian army doing!??"

I am not asking the Indian forces to share operational secrets with the media. I don't want them to come running to us every time they lose or kill a man. All I suggest is that they share information that can be shared. That they capitalise on stories that would sell the Indian operations to the world -- and, believe me, there are plenty of 'em! By dropping this tiresome blanket of secrecy on all its actions, the Indian defence forces are losing out on the credit they deserve for their work.

I wish to god somebody would tell them gentlemen that a little transparency never hurt anyone.

This report could be filed from the war front, courtesy Iridium Telecom. Iridium owns and operates a constellation of 66 satellites, which enable subscribers to receive and make calls from anywhere in the world using a hand-held telephone.

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