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June 9, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Is ours not to reason why?

How should the media react when the country is faced, if not with a war, then with a warlike situation? Should the press pull its punches in the name of patriotism? Or should it do its job without fear or favour? In the old days, the answer was clear enough: you swallowed whatever rubbish the defence ministry came up with and waved the flag. But now, journalists have begun asking embarrassing questions. Television has followed the example of the print media.

Each time a government spokesman or a minister appears on television, he is asked the same sort of thing: was there an intelligence failure? How difficult can it be for the entire Indian army and the entire Indian air force to throw out 2,000 Afghans without risking World War III?

For most of us in the media this is how it should be. Our job is to ask the questions. Politicians are supposed to provide the answers. Even so, there are those who disagree. At least one television critic has criticised Star News for not being patriotic enough and many politicians claim that the public is getting increasingly agitated by the media's failure to fly the flag. I know of one instance where the government tried to intervene to prevent television channels from featuring the funerals and widows of those killed in the "war-like situation" on the grounds that this was bad for morale.

If we in the media find that we are expected to eschew the truth for the sake of morale, imagine how difficult Opposition parties must find their task. In 1965, in 1971 and even during Operation Blue Star in 1984 there was an all party consensus on how to handle the war: When the 1965 war ended in a stalemate, the Opposition refused to explode the government's claim that India had won and went along with the victory charade. In 1971, there was a genuine victory so the Opposition had no difficulty in praising the government. But in 1984, when Operation Blue Star was self-evidently a disastrous fiasco, the Opposition still bought the government line that it had been a major victory in the face of insurmountable odds (the entire Indian army versus 500 sardarjis with hand held weapons.)

Part of the problem is that all of us are required to subscribe to the increasingly farfetched fiction that India has one of the best armies in the world. Despite such fiascos as Blue Star and the Indian Peacekeeping Force operation (both brainchildren of the highly regarded General K Sundarji who also nearly got us into a war with Pakistan over Operation Brass Tacks in 1987) we have to pretend that our boys in khaki are supermen who comprise the world's finest fighting force.

A corollary is that any politician who wins the respect of the armed forces is regarded by the middle classes as being a wonderful chap. Arun Singh benefited (perhaps undeservedly, given his role in Brass Tracks) from this syndrome and so did George Fernandes for the first part of his tenure. But the way the rule works is this: no matter how wonderful a chap you may be, if the army changes its mind about you, then so will the middle class. Poor George discovered this to his cost. Buoyed by the pats on the back that he received in cantonments throughout the country, he took on Vishnu Bhagwat only to discover that as far as the urban elite was concerned, a uniform beat a kurta-pyjama anytime.

All this brings us, inevitably, to two crisis, one historical and one current. The historical crisis concerns the humiliation of 1962. That was one time when the Opposition broke ranks and forced the resignation of the defence minister, V K Krishna Menon.

We've heard a lot about 1962 recently. We first heard the Krishna Menon parallels when George was fighting Bhagwat. And now, the arguments have been dusted off again to support the claim that Fernandes is to the Nineties what Menon was to the Sixties. Supporters of this view argue that we must treat George as Menon was treated. There must be attacks in Parliament (hard to do when the Lok Sabha is dissolved and the Rajya Sabha is not in session but perhaps these are technicalities), people must go on hunger strike outside his house and the prime minister should be told that he will forfeit the trust of the country if he does not sack George forthwith.

I have many problems with the 1962 parallels. We forget that the attack on Menon only took off once it was clear that we had been humiliatingly defeated. Yes, he was a controversial figure but even when the Government of India launched the suicidal forward policy (and when Jawaharlal Nehru declared that he had given orders to throw the Chinese out), the Opposition waved the flag and cheered our troops on, all the way into the valley of death. The attacks on Menon, and the demand for his resignation, were a response to a national humiliation. We suffered a defeat that we did not expect. (Why didn't we expect it? Well, because the media flew the flag and told lies about our military capabilities.) We needed a sacrifice to recover our national pride and Menon and General P N Thapar (the chief of staff) were made the goats for slaughter.

It is foolish to claim that the Kargil situation is in any way analogous to the 1962 war. Instant historians who argue that there is a precedent for attacking a sitting defence minister in the middle of a "war like situation" are making a major mistake. Of course it is shocking that 2,000 Afghans smuggled themselves into Kargil while George was busy planning a new national alternative with Mulayam Singh Yadav, but it is not a national humiliation. For a 1962 like situation to recur, the Pakistanis would have to march into Kashmir and be stopped a few miles short of Srinagar. In the absence of this kind of military reverse, George (at least in his capacity as defence minister) is still the symbol of our armed forces. And so, to attack him viciously would be to misread both history and the mood of our people.

The current crisis is the crisis of the Congress: How should it handle its opposition to the government's conduct of the "war-like situation"?

There are two broad views within the Congress. The first is what we might call the Mani Shankar Aiyar view. Though it is not as extreme as the George-is-no-better-than-Menon view (and anyhow I am not sure that Mani thinks that Menon was such a bad fellow after all), it states that the country is fed up of Fernandes, appalled by his handling of the Kargil affair, and would respond favourably to an all out attack on the defence minister.

The second is the Manmohan Singh view (yes, I know I am caricaturing their positions but treat the labels as short-hand). This concedes that the government has made a mess of Kargil but argues that one, this is a national crisis, not a political crisis and so should not be used for party political ends. And two, that there is no evidence that the people of India would respond favourably to an attack on the government at a time when our jawans are risking their lives on the front.

You could argue that Manmohan Singh is going with the traditional Opposition view (used in 1965, Blue Star and so on) that the government should be supported in times of war while Mani argues that one, this is not a war and two, that it is the Opposition's job to tell the truth and not go in for needless flag waving.

Most Congressmen subscribe to one of these two positions. Some have their own angles. A few reckon that if Sonia Gandhi were to accuse George of risking the lives of our jawans, this would help prove her Indianness. Others argue that on the contrary, the Bharatiya Janata Party would retort that she had no hesitation in demoralising our troops because she is, after all, a foreigner.

As of now, the Congress has not made up its mind what approach to follow though the Manmohan Singh School appears to have the upper hand. The consensus is that the party should wait for a week. There is some hope that A B Vajpayee has managed to persuade Nawaz Sharief to scale back the operation. If this happens just as the Congress has gone on the offensive, the BJP would have the advantage. But if soldiers keep dying and George keeps putting his foot in his mouth then there is a case for launching an attack. Ideally, the panzer division (Mani Shankar Aiyar and friends) would start the battle while the artillery (Manmohan Singh and company) would be kept in reserve for a second strike.

You could argue that the Congress is being sensible; or you could say that it has missed a great opportunity to recapture the political initiative. Either way, what is indisputable is this: we still have no national consensus on how to disagree with the government of the day over the conduct of a war. The traditions of 1965 and 1971 no longer seem valid and the parallels with 1962 are farfetched. What we need is a Nineties view of how to disagree and still seem patriotic.

In the United States, the media and the political system made this jump in the second half of the Vietnam war: I guess that it is too much to expect Kargil to lead to a similar reassessment of our attitudes: we would need a full-scale war, not a "war-like situation" for that to happen. But equally, it is hard to deny that Kargil has shown up the extent of confusion in the minds of India's politicians - and of course, in the minds of the media.

Vir Sanghvi

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