I think we should call it the 'commentator's curse'? Have you observed the phenomenon of a television expert commentator speaking in moving terms of how well settled a batsman looks at the crease, or of what a tight line and length a bowler has been able to maintain, or of how much a fielder reminds him of Jonty Rhodes with his agility in the field? And how often have the poor batsman's stumps fallen, the bowler hit for a six, or the fielder dropped an easy catch scant seconds later!
A disease on the same line appears to have caught the American media. Take a look at what two magazines said, and at what transpired immediately after. In its February 28 issue, Newsweek carried a cover-story on Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. Titled 'Team Players: How India's Odd Couple Have Made Power Sharing Work', it made several laudatory references to how both Congress politics and the machinery of governance were humming along nicely. The debacle of Jharkhand -- exposing the limitations of both the United Progressive Alliance chairperson and of her nominated prime minister -- was in full swing before the next issue hit the stands.
Jharkhand: Drama without heroes
Not having learned a lesson from its competitor, Time had two stories concerning India in its March 28 issue. One was 'Investing: Investors Are Increasingly Giddy With The Indian Stock Market'. The BSE Index lost about 120 points even as the issue hit the stands. The second story was titled 'A Welcome Guest', and spoke on how US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had charmed her Asian hosts. This was immediately followed, of course, by the news that the United States had taken back Narendra Modi's visa...
The Condoleezza Rice interview
Am I the only person who feels that the 'issue' of the United States denying Narendra Modi a visa is something of a 'non-issue'? When you think about it, much of the sound and fury seems a wee bit contrived. Who, after all, has not made some political gain out of it? Narendra Modi has been able to don the martyr's robes. The Left Front and the Congress have gleefully gone back to the old game of America-bashing. (Who would have imagined that we would see the day when Jyoti Basu issued a statement backing the chief minister of Gujarat?) Even the Christian conservatives and the leftist 'human rights' lobby in the United States -- rather an unlikely coalition -- have reason to cheer. If you exclude the anti-Modi faction in the BJP itself, it has been a win-win situation for everyone, false indignation be damned!
Callous US, guilty Bush
Religiously against Modi
There is only niggling worry at the back of my mind. Did the United States make a calculated move, or did it just act without on some whimsy? If the latter, I would be a bit concerned since the United States and India need each other. Not, I hasten to add, from any sentimental rubbish about the world's two largest democracies needing to be friends but out of purely strategic reasons. It is a shame that the two countries know so little about each other. Henry Kissinger once said India and the United States were like a married couple who simply could not get along yet were afraid of getting a divorce. Has anything changed in thirty years?
Part of the problem lies with us in the media. We simply do not devote the kind of resources required to cover India and the United States, two nations that in area and in population are actually mini-continents in themselves. And when we do try to cover each other -- which is inevitably either during elections or in the aftermath of some disaster -- neither side looks beyond the great cities.
This results in a peculiarly slanted view. I remember reading scores of reports that George Bush was going to be flushed away in the November 2004 elections. This, believe it or not, was accurate reporting! Why? Because most foreign journalists simply didn't have the time, money, and energy to get out beyond the cities. And New York, Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the rest happened to vote overwhelmingly against Bush.
This was, in fact, a mirror image of American reporting in India. Their reporters spoke, on the whole, to educated, English-speaking Indians in the larger cities -- a class which happened to be pro-BJP on the whole. (That is according to post-poll surveys, not my own subjective views!) Small wonder if foreign observers were taken aback at the fall of the Vajpayee ministry.
Journalistic errors are not fatal. Diplomats and other servants of the state do not have the luxury of a forgiving public. India and the United States have too many security concerns and economic interests in common to enjoy the bliss of ignorance. We need to break out of the mindset of America being a bunch of "greedy capitalists and imperialists". They need to get rid of a few fantasies of their own. Or it won't be long before Time decides to run an article on George W Bush's visit to India that is titled 'Unwelcome Guest'. Which, given the 'commentator's curse' may not be such a bad thing after all!