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Pakistan did it again

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September 22, 2005 18:33 IST

General Musharraf, make that Pakistan, did it again. While the talks in New York between the general and Dr Manmohan Singh appear not to have reached anywhere, Pakistan's media management did. At least as reflected in the writings of Indian journalists who were present at a briefing following a disastrous late evening media briefing which was notable for one fact, nothing was said.

While the Prime Minister's Office clamped up that evening and, apparently, went to sleep, the Pakistanis were at work, on our journalists. The result; it sounded like Pakistan was the nice guy trying to get the peace process moving and all that.

Four hours, four paragraphs

Whatever the facts, it was a victory for media management. And guess what, this ain't the first time. Pakistan has mastered the art of waging an image battle and they seem to do it with such consummate ease, it isn't even funny.

The year was 1998. For want of a more productive word, I was 'hanging around' at BBC's broadcast centre at White City, a west London suburb. Deciphering the entrances from the exits at this Pentagon-like building can take a month, about the time one spent there.

A typical day passed slowly, with activities ranging from attending a 8 am meeting, 'bashing' phones, chasing predictably dead-ended leads to helping out the Asia affairs section. Boredom was setting in rapidly and with no major challenges, journalistic or otherwise, I began eagerly looking forward to my last day at the great institution. Till one day when, quite literally, the bomb dropped.

A fresh-into-power Atal Bihari Vajpayee government announced on, May 11 that the country had returned to nuclear glory. Pandemonium reigned at the BBC newsroom, like it must have in newsrooms across the world. A flurry of calls went out to geo-political, regional and appropriately, nuclear experts. And a desperate hunt for an India expert to speak on the economic impact began in the city of London.

Without much success, at least in the early hours. Till a show producer chanced upon this 'hanger-on' and asked if I had any views to share on the subject. "Of course," was my response. Did I have a view? Well, not quite, not then at least. But then who could pass up a chance like this? A few quick 'fact-finding' phone calls were made back home. Half an hour later, I felt I had a view.

I don't know whether it was the insightful views or the fact that I was on the Beeb looking most dignified and important on a big news day that caught people's attention (there was perhaps one news channel in all of India), but it sure worked. Later, I did ask many of the folks what they thought of my views aired on the Beeb. They struggled to remember. "Yes, yes we saw you," they said brightly.

The hunt for 'talking heads' continued in earnest, former Prime Minister I K Gujral came on, acknowledged the scientific success but was careful to caution against jingoism. Nuclear experts arrived and commented on a host of matters ranging from radiation to the potential weaponisation. The news was still hot but beyond all the mishmash of opinions, it was not clear where things were headed next. Till a man called Mushahid Hussain walked in.

The rogue & the meek

Hussain was Pakistan's information minister and he was in London. The purpose of his presence there was not clear to me, one reason quite clearly was to trash Benazir Bhutto on behalf of his Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Whatever the reasons were, one call and he was at the Beeb the next day. It was my job to fetch him from the reception and guide him through the labyrinth of corridors while eliciting his views on the latest developments in the subcontinent.

The tall, stocky and dapper Hussain came on like an old friend. In a minute, the former journalist (he was once editor of The Muslim) had established where I was from and what I did there. He spoke of his own contributions as a columnist to some Indian newspapers and even some memorable meetings with a newspaper publisher or two. We spoke largely about journalism and journalists and even the dumbing down of newspapers back home.

He was carrying a copy of the Times, London which he asked if he could hold up during the television interview. I couldn't answer this, the Beeb show producer said ideally no. The Times full page story was an investigative piece on Benazir and her husband's nefarious financial dealings and Hussain was here to prove that it was not Sharif and he who were gunning for her, even The Times was!

The nuclear tests were obviously the bigger story and the Boston University educated Hussain took the stage like a pro. He spoke of the imbalances the tests (Pakistan would go ahead and do its own tests a few weeks later) would create in the region and essentially how his country was all for world peace and progress and would continue that way, were it not for the hawks over there at India.

He also argued, I don't recall the specific words, that the tests represented the BJP government's handiwork and did not necessarily represent the mood of the people of India. Later, he would argue, equally vociferously, that it was India's tests that forced Pakistan to carry out its own. All in all, several masterly strokes of media management.

While Hussain held forth in London, the smart and extremely eloquent Dr Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan's ambassador to the US, was doing the rounds in Washington. Lodhi not only presented the Pakistani point of view with intensity and passion but was also blessed with the fact that there was no one of consequence to counter her. She left a lasting impression. Co-incidentally, Lodhi, a PhD in economics from the London School of Economics, also worked as a journalist (she was editor of The News), before moving to foreign service.

Back at the Beeb in London, the editors and producers were aghast. They had been pounding at the doors of India House, the Indian embassy at Aldwych, to send someone up to speak but there was no response. "I can't believe it, we've been almost begging them to come and say something," said the Asia affairs editor. To no avail. The Indian camp was either too busy celebrating or had not worked its responses out or more likely, had not decided who to empower and who not. This was a government that had just come into power.

Months later, I asked Homi N Sethna, the man who led the team that conducted the 1974 nuclear tests, how they had managed the fallout. He didn't want the details to emerge in public domain but suffice to say that it sounded extremely well thought through.

Among other things, he spoke of how embassies and ambassadors were involved in detailed briefings that would ensure the message was consistent. Indira Gandhi supervised most of the effort personally.

After the initial bouts of media and image mismanagement, the BJP government may have learned its lessons. But the larger institution has perhaps not -- information and image management is a nagging problem with most governments and their functionaries in India. Relative success can be attributed to the instincts of those in power at that time and failures to the lack of a constant, well-tuned approach.

Musharraf's new gameplan

The Pakistanis appear to have scored once again this time in New York, at least going by the reports. Musharraf or not, there is a consistency of approach, when it comes to articulating the government's point of view. Am not an expert here so will defer to them to draw appropriate conclusions and make relevant suggestions. But the problem is not a new one, so someone needs to crack his or her head on it.

Some years ago, a CEO of a Silicon Valley company told me that the sign of a good, vibrant organisation was one where everyone from the CEO to the junior most employee said the same thing when it came to articulating the company's mission. This does not come out by accident, it comes out of painstaking effort and determination. And of course a buy-in.

It's tough to extrapolate that to a nation, but it surely can be to a group of ten or twenty bureaucrats who feel motivated enough to present a consistent point of view and not characteristically clam up. And surely not go to sleep.

Govindraj Ethiraj works for CNBC-TV18. The views expressed here are his own.

Govindraj Ethiraj