With Arnab, is there hope for Aman Ki Asha?
By Ajaz Ashraf
Aman Ki Asha is an incredible joint media initiative of The Times of India and the Jang Group to foster peace between India and Pakistan. Yet you begin to doubt the mission of Aman Ki Asha and wonder about the sincerity of its two media partners as you watch Arnab Goswami conduct TV debates on issues over which India and Pakistan regularly squabble. Arnab is no ordinary anchor – he is the editor-in-chief of Times Now, the TV channel which belongs to the formidable stable of The Times of India (TOI), arguably India’s most influential and biggest media group.
Arnab’s style of anchoring is inimitable as well as grating. He snaps, snarls, and growls, mocking those who don’t subscribe to his views on Pakistan, and extremely encouraging of those who do. Stung by his abrasive style, Pakistani lawyer Anees Jillani wrote in an Indian magazine last year, “I have learnt over a period of time that the best course of action is, simply, to not go to Times Now.”
I began to obsess about Arnab as I read the TOI’s extensive, over-the-top coverage of the 2nd Pakistan-India Economic Conference that was held in Lahore on May 7-8, under the banner of Aman Ki Asha. I downloaded from the TOI website, as also YouTube, many of the video recordings of the past debates Arnab had moderated on issues pertaining to India-Pakistan relations. Let me not prejudice you. You should read the text of one such debate and judge whether or not Arnab’s style – and beliefs – is antithetical to the spirit of Aman Ki Asha.
I click the start icon on my computer to listen and transcribe the debate Arnab hosted the day after President Asif Ali Zardari visited India, where he had lunch in Delhi with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and paid obeisance at the mausoleum of Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti. Because of the space constraint, I will have to edit the transcript severely. Should you doubt the veracity of the transcript below, please google – Arnab Goswami+debate+Zardari – to doublecheck my version.
Arnab introduces the topic of the debate: Any gains for India from Zardari’s visit? The participants in the debate are journalist Swapan Dasgupta, former Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar and Fauzia Kasuri, president of the women’s wing of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf. He asks Swapan Dasgupta what he thinks of the expectations Zardari’s visit to India has generated. Position to the right on the Indian ideological spectrum, Swapan blames India for turning Zardari’s spiritual pilgrimage into a diplomatic one. He finds the bonhomie displayed on the visit has stoked expectations. Further, Swapan argues, to placate the domestic sentiments, the Indian foreign secretary issued a statement saying the prime minister had raised the issue of Hafiz Saeed with Zardari, which prompted the media to claim that India had taken a tough, robust stance on terrorism.
The mood is now set for Arnab to indulge in his customary verbal jousting. He asks, “Who gained what, Mr Bhadrakumar? It is zero, a zero-sum game. Had lunch, gained nothing.”
Bhadrakumar begins to explain the finer aspects of diplomacy to Arnab: “First of all, diplomacy is about engagement. I can’t understand why when we are in such a strong position? Why we are afraid of engagement...There is slowly, steadily a critical mass which is accruing and it is unfair... for any logical person to be oblivious of that, unless you are congenitally negative toward the whole process...”
Arnab is sarcastic: “O.” (He actually means: O, really?)
Not willing to engage in a duel, Bhadrakumar lists the gains of Indo-Pak relations over the last three years, and adds, “... several steps have been taken also in the most recent period by Pakistan actually, ironically, which are indicative of...”
Arnab butts in: “Like what?”
Bhadrakumar: “For example, the MFN status, now you take the MFN status...”
Arnab repeats in a mocking tone: “MFN status, MFN status...”
Bhadrakumar retorts: “What do we say, we don’t want the MFN status...”
There’s no holding back Arnab, who speaks as he gesticulates agitatedly, “MFN status. How much are we going on the symbolism, Mr Bhadrakumar? My question is, why is South Block (which houses the Indian Foreign Office) emphasising that we have drawn this tremendous thing out of this visit. This beautiful relationship has now been struck, we have struck the right atmosphere, now we are about to do something tremendous. The fact is... you are talking to somebody who has no mandate. Mr Zardari has no political clout in the country. Why is the hype being created?”
Bhadrakumar says they are not here to discuss Zardari’s political status. Claiming to have repeatedly read the transcript of the briefing of Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, the former diplomat says he found nothing in it that should have anyone agitated.
Arnab: “It is over-interpretation. Isn’t it over-interpretation?”
But Swapan has raised his hand, and Arnab promptly turns to him. Swapan may want India to pursue a hard-line against Pakistan, but he is also a columnist who isn’t going to risk his reputation on falsehoods. He agrees with Bhadrakumar that Mathai’s briefing was marked by a certain degree of restraint, but points out that this sentiment was not echoed in the media. He cautions against undue raising of expectations, fearing it could lead India to compromise more than it is necessary. His prescription: Delhi should wait until such time as Pakistan is comfortable with its domestic situation.
Arnab asks the Pakistani guest, “I want to get a sense from Fauzia how the visit was covered in Pakistan. If it was a personal visit, he could have flown straight to Ajmer and back. He didn’t need to have lunch in Delhi.”
Fauzia says her piece, the gist of which is that Zardari has become extremely unpopular in the country, and he could have cut a better picture staying behind at the time soldiers and civilians had been buried under the avalanche in Siachen mountains.
It is just the opening Arnab needed to fire his next volley: “I worry, Mr Bhadrakumar, that maybe Mr Zardari in his last few months and weeks at the helm of affairs in Pakistan, is desperately trying to somehow go down into history to have done something. And... somebody has put a carrot in front of him, that something is moving an inch forward with India, without realising that neither people of India will accept such carrots nor will the people of Pakistan be swayed by it.” Arnab follows it with a jab that he possibly mistakes for a knockout punch, “Mr Bhadrakumar, you talked of MFN status. How can you compare MFN status with terrorism, terror-related issues, Hafiz Saeed?”
Bhadrakumar sniggers as he replies: “Of course, I never compared terrorism with MFN issue... Having dealt with Pakistan as a diplomat... I have never seen this attitude on the part of Pakistan to have a genuine economic cooperation with India. Now this is actually a litmus test…“
But Arnab isn’t willing to allow the former diplomat to stray away from the issue of terrorism. He keeps repeating: “Ansar Burney, Ansar Burney...” The reader is best advised to read aloud Bhadrakumar’s reply given below and holler, Ansar Burney, at every three-four words.
Picking up from where he was interjected, you catch up with Bhadrakumar saying, “... the litmus test of a certain willingness on the part of Pakistan to move forward. This is exactly the approach to Indo-Pak relations Delhi has been historically advocating. When Pakistan adopts... why are we afraid? ... And now Pakistan is agreeing with what we have been advocating ever since the Simla Accord, why are we chickening out... Take them at their face value...”
I count Arnab take Burney’s name six times. Finally, Arnab asks the Burney question: “... There are two cases. There is the case of Dr (Khaleel) Chishti, the Pakistani microbiologist. I think, since 1992, the case has been hanging on in Ajmer and he has been in jail. Ansar Burney has also put in a mercy petition for Sarabjit Singh to Asif Ali Zardari many years back, and he repeatedly keeps writing to Zardari. Why would we not pick up the Sarabjit issue? ... You don’t want to act on Hafiz Saeed, release Sarabjit, let the spirit of reciprocity hold... Chishti was discussed, why was Sarabjit not discussed?”
The point Arnab is making through the question needs explaining. Hafiz Saeed is viewed in India to have masterminded the massacre in Mumbai, and despite New Delhi’s demands, he has not been imprisoned or handed over to India. Sarabjit, by contrast, is an Indian who was given the death sentence for killing 14 people in bomb blasts he allegedly engineered in Multan and Lahore. Indians believe he is innocent, largely because the principal witness in the case retracted his statement, saying it was given under police pressure. Presumably, Arnab is making the point that Pakistan can compensate for its inaction against Saeed through the release of Sarabjit. Chishti’s case is decidedly different from Sarabjit’s – the former became embroiled a bloody family feud on his visit more than 20 years ago and was jailed (released and sent to Pakistan this week) for killing a person.
Back to the debate, you can see Bhadrakumar losing patience with Arnab. He remarks caustically, “I don’t know whether you were an insider and you know something that I don’t know. I don’t know whether they discussed at all, or whether they did not discuss at all...It is wrong on our part to jump to any conclusion...”
But you lose track of Bhadrakumar as Arnab interjects, “The government of Pakistan has been openly lobbying for Chishti’s release.”
Arnab repeats the question even as Bhadrakumar speaks. You get to hear the former diplomat as he raises his voice to say, “When the foreign secretary said that the issue of terrorism was discussed upfront with Pakistan - upfront is a very strong expression in the diplomatic medium...”
You miss out a portion of Bhadrakumar’s submission as Arnab asks: “Was Sarabjit discussed?”
But the former diplomat, battle hardened now, is not willing to relent: He tries to complete his piece: “... When the foreign secretary said that, I’d like to believe that terrorism was discussed certainly. But terrorism is not the be-all and end-all of the relationship also...”
Arnab interjects: “It is the stumbling block.”
You, once again, lose out on a portion of Bhadrakumar’s response, but, finally, hear him say, “Both are major regional powers. There is a regional context. There are many things happening in Pakistan, there are many things happening in India. We are both countries with national aspirations. We need to have a prospective view of how life is going to be in the medium and long term.”
Arnab, in the manner of a schoolboy, quips, “We don’t want to be stuck in photo ops.”
Bhadrakumar continues: “I can’t understand how you can just count the trees, and say this is the wood all about.”
Arnab lists a series of meetings between the Pakistani and Indian leadership over the last three years: “2009 Russia, 2009, Sharm-el-Sheikh, 2010 Thimpu, 2011 Mohali, 2011 Maldives, 2012, Seoul... What have these photo ops got either the people of Pakistan or India?”
Bhadrakumar is heard saying, “Of course...” But Arnab wants Swapan to answer the question, and Bhadrakumar keeps quiet, even though the anchor had taken a dig at him. Swapan, too, says there has been a discernible shift in Pakistan’s position regarding trade with India. But this shift hasn’t happened because India diluted its position on terrorism, but despite the fact that India “maintained that terrorism is the most important issue”. Swapan, therefore, says if progress in trade happens, it would be evidence that it “pays to stick to your position...”
Arnab asks: “Can you move this relationship on the basis of trade talks? Isn’t that fooling yourself?”
Perhaps Arnab hasn’t read the TOI’s website devoted to Aman Ki Asha. A joint statement issued by the editors of the Jang Group and the TOI editors has these lines, “We will need to reach out and pluck the low hanging fruit in the beginning before we aim higher. Issues of trade and commerce, of investments, of financial infrastructure... will be part of our initial agenda.” Give it time, Arnab, the TOI website suggests the better route to peace is to resolve less complicated issues before moving to those considered intractable.
Sorry for the minor digression. Swapan says trade can’t be the basis for moving the relationship; that the basis has to be a political one. He points to the lack of consensus between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan, and wonders whether Pakistan’s political class is in a position to “control its support” to the Taliban. He refers to Imran Khan’s alleged softness to the Taliban, as also to the perception that he is popular among certain sections of the cantonment. This twist in the debates sees Fauzia wade in – she refutes the charges against Imran, says India and Pakistan need to clear the air on many issues, including Kashmir, and they should sit together to evolve consensus on these in a candid manner.
Suitably armed, Arnab asks, “Why has it not moved, Mr Bhadrakumar... since Sharm al-Sheikh? Because of terror, because Pakistan has not acted on terror?”
Bhadrakumar is biting: “I think we have to be exceptionally myopic to be unable to see what happened in all this period since Sharm al-Sheikh...”
Arnab: “What has happened?”
Bhadrakumar says that as a joint secretary who dealt with the Pakistan division, he did not have a single day in his tenure during which there wasn’t bloodshed on the border. This hasn’t been the case since Sharm al-Sheikh, he points out, reiterating that even the graph of cross-border terror has registered a dip. He says, “Alright... there is an infrastructure of terror...”
But Arnab’s voice drowns out Bhadrakumar’s. He is citing Prime Minister Singh’s statement in Seoul in March, but you understand neither till Bhadrakumar gets the better of the anchor in the slanging match to say, “Why are you afraid if I want to say something? Give me as much time as you want to give others.”
Arnab: “I want to ask you a counter-question...”
Bhadrakumar: “What is your counter-question?”
The counter-question isn’t really a question. Arnab cites the statement the Indian Prime Minister had made in Seoul following a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart on March 22. Singh had said he could think of visiting Pakistan if there was something “solid”, something India and Pakistan could celebrate. Bhadrakumar says he agrees with the prime minister’s position, but he also adds a caveat, arguing that he favours the European model of diplomacy – leaders there meet over the weekend even though they don’t have an agreement to sign.
Bhadrakumar adds, “Why should there be a Siachen Agreement, why should there be a Sir Creek Agreement for our PM to meet Mr Gilani.”
Arnab is now apoplectic: “I am not even talking about Siachen Agreement or Sir Creek. I am talking about Hafiz Saeed. If I mention Hafiz Saeed, you will say MFN. I mention Hafiz Saeed.”
Bhadrakumar: “Hafiz Saeed has come up...”
Arnab: “It is not good enough to come up.”
They are now speaking simultaneously, and it becomes extremely difficult to decipher them in the din. As the decibel level goes down, you hear Bhadrakumar say that Saeed has become an issue because of the intervention of a third party, essentially referring to the bounty the United States had announced on him days before Zardari flew to India. Anyway, he says, “Saeed is not the be-all end-all of Indo-Pak relations... Since the India foreign secretary has said that the terror issue was raised upfront... and in that context they have discussed Hafiz Saeed, I don’t see the problem...”
Arnab mocks, “Mr Bhadrakumar, come on, just before leaving Lahore, Zardari said, ‘My stance on Saeed is not different from my government’s. My visit is religious...” Bhadrakumar now sees an opportunity to make a sally and interjects, even as you hear Arnab say: “He (Zardari) is avoiding the issue.”
Bhadrakumar: “Be sensible, you mean to say the president of the country should be having a difference of opinion with his government on certain issues in its relationship with India. Don’t be funny...”
Arnab: “It is not about being funny. My question to you is that had the same incident happened, had 200 Pakistanis been killed in cold blood by terrorists sent from India, would an Indian president be able to go have lunch, call it a personal visit, shake a few hands, and fly back. That’s the fundamental question: What would have been the public discourse in Pakistan then?”
Bhadrakumar wants to answer the question, but Arnab’s preference is Swapan. “Let us get another view,” Arnab says. But Bhadrakumar has taken to imitating Arnab’s style. He exploits a momentary pause in the debate to butt in, “We have a relationship here involving two countries which have killed each other over and over for six decades and you are talking about 200, it is 2000, it is 20,000 in all kind of situations.”
Arnab: “You are playing down 26/11.”
Bhadrakumar: “Does this mean you don’t try to normalise relationship?”
Arnab: “Let us hear the other side. A lot of people think 26/11 can’t be brushed aside.”
Swapan reiterates what has already been said – the timing of Zardari’s visit was inappropriate, that many Pakistanis don’t consider him to be fit to lead the country. But the debate has already lost its edge. Bhadrakumar is not going to speak, and Arnab readily agrees with Swapan when he says India and Pakistan need to discuss, in a frank and open manner, the fundamental issues dogging the two countries. Fauzia is the last to speak – she sees value in photo-ops because these inspire hope in people who desire peace. There are several private initiatives, she adds, mentioning Aman Ki Asha as one such example.
Now that you have read Arnab, glance at some of these lines culled from the joint statement of the editors of the Jang Group and The Times of India. “In this perennial season of inertia and zero-sum calculations prejudices continue to fester, stereotypes are entrenched and myth replaces reality.”
Try telling this to Arnab.
Another paragraph says, “The media in India and Pakistan speaks directly to the hearts and minds and stomachs of the people. It can do so by shaping the discourse and steering it away from rancour and divisiveness.”
Did I hear you say: Let Arnab sit at the steering wheel of Aman Ki Asha?
The editors definitely didn’t have Arnab in mind at the time they wrote these lines in the joint statement: “The media can begin the conversation where a plurality of views and opinions are not drowned out by shrill voices. It can cleanse polluted mindsets and revive the generosity of spirits, which is a distinctive trait of the Subcontinent. It can help cool the temperature and wean away the guardians from fortified frontiers.”
Oh, really? Obviously, the TOI bosses haven’t heard the Times Now editor-in-chief closely. The TOI-Jang statement further adds, “A surge of goodwill and flexibility on the part of civil society and the media will push these (external) forces back by denying them the raw material that manufactures hate.” We know Arnab is an amiable, well-meaning Indian who happens to head a TV channel entangled in the business of attracting eyeballs. Perhaps the media partners on the Aman Ki Asha bandwagon want to run with the hare and hunt with the hound, create a brand image and yet get the eyeballs of those who are votaries of muscular, demented nationalism.
The writer is a Delhi-based journalist