Amberish Diwanji


Now that the Kargil war is over and journalists, who like vultures are always on the lookout for fresh, juicy meat, sorry, news, are slowly turning back to the tired old faces patched on our politicians.

There is an awful sense of déjà vu, of ennui, and every time the politicians open their mouths, there is this great longing to fall asleep. Only the sword over us journalists' individual heads to report what these big bores are saying -- and they aren't saying anything much anyway -- makes us hear them out so that we may file our reports and get on with our lives.

In that sense, though it sounds frightfully cruel, the Kargil war was like a breath of fresh air for us journalists. There was the green and blue of the uniforms, of brass insignia, talks of historic regiments -- Grenadiers and Gurkhas, Jat and Naga, JAKLI and Sikh.

Journalists beginning to read ranks from the epaulettes emblazoned with stars or stripes (on the army and air force respectively). Instead of hackneyed terms like BJP and CPM and Congress, we now had wonderful terms like LMG and MiG and platoons!

And anyone who had been anywhere near the front, even if for just a couple of days like yours truly, walked taller with tales of "When I was there...." As returning journalists recount, it was truly the mother of all experiences!

Maybe it is time that the politicians, who believe that they are the smartest media managers around, could learn a thing or two from the three men who briefed the press daily -- MEA spokesperson R S Jassal, Colonel Bikram Singh and Group Captain D N Ganesh. They started off hesitantly but soon wisened up with sharp and crisp answers.

While Group Captain Ganesh was taciturn (luckily in the later stages, the focus was more on the army and the MEA), Colonel Singh and Jassal were more open, even though some of the questions tested everyone's patience, while some of the replies would do our bureaucrats proud.

There was no doubt that the despite facing experienced hacks, the trio of Jassal, Singh and Ganesh literally often got away by giving half-baked responses, something for which a politician would have been hammered.

But a clearly partisan media ("How can we support Pakistani when they are grabbing our territory like some mediaeval rogue?") was just not keen on putting the three over a slow fire and gladly ate out of their hands. If the men were impressed by the heroic tales of valour and proud of the soldiers on the front, perhaps the women just have a weakness for men in uniform!

This was India's first televised war. While the press has covered the earlier wars, the media revolution since our last war in 1971 has changed the situation completely. TV brought the war home into the living rooms.

The plethora of print publications meant that there were more journalists on the front, each one seeking something that the other scribe did not have. Yet, despite some grave errors and some costly mistakes, on the whole the army appears to be happy with the coverage of the war.

"We in the army too have learnt from some of our mistakes," a senior officer told rediff.com, adding, "It was a first for both sides, but on the whole, it was great."

The most important one is the need for transparency. It is better to tell us what is happening rather than have it reported by the foreign media first and then do an explaining job later. For instance, when air strikes began, the air force refused to mention the jets involved till Pakistan declared publicly that it had shot down a MiG. Having learnt its lessons, when the IAF began using the Mirage, it immediately announced the same.

It is this transparency and openness that allowed the Indian media to score over the Pakistani and even the foreign media, since nothing much was really hidden. With every victory witnessed by scribes, Indian and foreign, no one could accuse the Indian armed forces of simply making fake claims.

The advantage of television is that it conveys the news instantly. To overcome this weakness, print scribes seek more information that can be attributed to anonymous sources or to off the record news. Thus, after the official briefing, non-TV journalists would move into the vast office of R S Jassal to try and get some extra information on the various goings on, things that he could not say on TV or publicly.

However, Jassal, somewhat like the Mughal kings of yore, held two sessions, which are best described as the Diwan-i-Aam and Diwan-i-Khas (general and special respectively). In the Diwan-i-Aam, where about at least 25 odd hacks are present, he made run-of-the-mill statements or clarified what he had said earlier, sometimes requesting that a particular statement be played up.

But in the Diwan-i-Khas, to which only about half a dozen or less of his favourite journalists are admitted to (and which does not include anyone from rediff.com), I guess he gave out more important information or news the government was keen should send a message across. Some discrimination in this age of equality!

There is one big worry. Now that the war is over and the ignored politicians (what bliss!) have a chance to regain the limelight with the coming elections, will our soldiers be forgotten? It is a thought that is haunting everyone, armed forces and the scribes. Maybe it is time that the Indian media made a sharp shift from reporting on the politicians to stories on the various facets of India.

Not that the media is not aware of it. And even while we all agree that we must cut down on politics, the politicians are smarter. They have successfully made elections an annual feature to ensure that we cannot ignore them, Kargil or no Kargil.

Amberish Diwanji isn't a bit battle-weary for his experiences