Tuesday, November 09, 2010

After the hysteria

The Hoot
Second Take

By Kalpana Sharma

Namaste Obama, So Long Obama.  And now, for the rest of the news. 

For three days, news died in India.  There was only one story, the first visit of President Barack Obama to India.  For three days, that is all you saw.  Obama landing, Obama walking down the steps of Air Force One, Maharashtra CM Ashok Chavan greeting him (with TV channels immediately speculating whether he broke protocol) and the President’s helicopter, Marine One, making its way through the Mumbai smog toward the Taj Mahal Hotel. 

Did Indian news television channels need to give the US President’s visit such “blanket” coverage and a “ball-by-ball” commentary?

It is evident that it is the nature of this coverage, and the compulsion to keep up the chatter and micro-analyze everything, that led to the extraordinary turn of events within an hour of Obama’s arrival.  His 10-minute speech at the Taj Mahal Hotel at a function to commemorate the victims of 26/11 sprouted the most amazing instant analysis. Usually, you comment on what a person says.  But the media took off on what Obama did not say, that he did not take the “P” word, did not name Pakistan specifically as being responsible for the 26/11 terror attack.  Given that the journalists anchoring the shows were experienced, should have been aware of diplomacy, geopolitics and the fact that it was highly unlikely that a domestically beleaguered American President was going to launch an attack on Pakistan within minutes of landing in India, it was an entertaining spectacle to watch practically every channel taking off on this issue.

And of course, the over-the-top and instant response by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Rudi Pratap Singh that was later retracted was probably partly as a result of this concerted harangue by the television channels.

By the end of the third day, NDTV virtually acknowledged that the media might have been a little too obsessive on the Pakistan question and demanding that the US President name Pakistan.  Other channels were not so honest.  In fact, Times Now just stopped short of patting itself on the back when Obama finally uttered the “P” word!

Arnab Goswami of Times Now was, of course, his predictable and entertaining self.  On the first day, the channel kept flashing how the US President was “soft on terror”.  True to style, for the first two days, the channel kept up its tirade about why Obama was not naming Pakistan despite the sentiments of “the people of India”. By day three, and after President Obama’s address to the joint Houses of Parliament, the channel did an about turn.  Suddenly, Goswami decided that this was indeed a “historic” visit and went to the extent of saying that he believed that Obama was a “hawk”!  All this because the American President finally obliged by using the “P” word!

The other issue that media focused on to the exclusion of almost everything else was whether the US would back India’s attempt to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.  If you listened to some of the discussions on this, and were uninformed about the complexities of the UN system, you would be led to believe that all it needed was a nod from the United States for this to happen.  As a result, when the US President did say in his speech to Parliament that the US would welcome India’s entry into the Security Council, people would have thought that this was the end of the story.  The fact that even this endorsement by the US President is only part of a long and complex process that does not guarantee India a seat barely came across. 

If the Indian media obsessed about the fact that the US President did not use the “P” word, it completely missed the fact that he did not use the “C” word, or China.  As far as the region is concerned, and the economies of both India and the US, China looms large and extremely important on the horizon and simply cannot be ignored in any discussion on the future of the world economy.  The Indian media’s focus on Pakistan detracts completely from an important and informed debate that is needed on China.
While there was routine reporting of the $10 billion in business deals that were struck on the very first day between Indian and American businesses, there was no time to analyze what they actually mean for India because the chatter on the television channels – barring the business channels -- was almost exclusively on the Pakistan factor.  President Obama used the business deals to speak to his constituency at home by emphasizing the 50,000 jobs these deals would create.  But how many jobs will they create in India?  No one asked that question.

It is interesting that at least some American newspapers reported the demonstrations by the Bhopal victims about the failure of the US to help in the extradition of Warren Anderson of Union Carbide.  Again, an important issue like this that actually speaks to the absence of adequate regulation in the early years when American companies did set up shop in India was not addressed in the media discussion at all.

Against the background of the agrarian crisis in India, Obama’s promise of another green revolution – an “evergreen” revolution – with the help of American agro-technology was acknowledged by just one channel that thought this important enough.  NewsX invited Devinder Sharma, a specialist in this area, to comment on the issue of American technology and the Indian economy.

And although President Obama did mention climate change in his speech to Parliament, there was practically no discussion on it on the news channels.  Yet, anyone who has followed this issue knows how crucial is the role of the US.  With a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, there could be more problems pushing through legislation in the US to cut down greenhouse gases.  Climate change affects our agriculture, our climate patterns, and the livelihood of millions of people dependent on natural resources.  Yet, it featured nowhere in the television discussions.

But coming back to the first question: was such blanket coverage really necessary? The US President has announced that India has “arrived” as a “global power”.  TV pundits kept emphasizing that the equation between India and the US has now changed and we are now on a more equal footing.  Yet, if you look at the media coverage of the Obama visit, you would wonder.

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