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|July 20, 2001||
Amberish K Diwanji
The hype has failed, let the talks begin
That the Agra summit failed to reach any final decision or even an agreement is not by itself surprising. After all, the two countries were trying to resolve the Jammu and Kashmir 'issue' or 'dispute' (depending on how one sees it); a state that has forced India and Pakistan into three wars and an ongoing civil strife that India terms as Pakistan's proxy war.
To expect an issue bedeviling the two neigbhours since Partition to be resolved in a couple of hours, and that too simply because the two leaders in question -- Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President General Pervez Musharraf -- liked each other, smacked of naivety in the extreme. Personal likes and dislikes, while it can help a situation, can never substitute hard negotiations and realistic bargaining, both of which are needed to resolve any outstanding issue or dispute.
The good news lies in the fact that despite the abysmal failure to even bring out a joint statement, the two sides separately agreed to continue talking and discussing bilateral relations. If anything, that is the success story, for which both New Delhi and Islamabad can take some comfort in.
We have only to witness the utter torn-to-shred Oslo Agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians to see how difficult it is to reconcile fixed positions and to inch forward on disputes that the people view, alas, in emotional terms. It was only a few years ago that Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin brokered an agreement for which they shared the Nobel for peace in 1994 (along with Shimon Peres). But such quick peace has its limits and the 'mother of all tribal wars' (as Thomas Friedman describes it) continues unabated. It is anyone's guess when this war, which is as old as the India-Pakistan conflict, will eventually end.
We in India too have an example: the Kargil war that broke out barely three months after the Lahore Declaration. Whatever the Pakistani army's motives, the Kargil war clearly showed differences of opinion in the Pakistani establishment with the deal that the then Pakistani president Nawaz Sharief had inked with Vajpayee.
To that extent, by not seeking the ultimate 'hype' of an Agra Declaration (more on this later) but agreeing to disagree over fundamental differences, both the Indian and Pakistani side showed maturity. No deal is better than a flawed deal; it is also more honest. That is a promising start.
There is no point in going into why the talks failed or what went wrong; analysts and columnists have done the same to death. But if there is one aspect that needs to be mentioned, at the risk of repeating what others have said, then it must be about the media's unbelievable desperation in covering the event (rediff.com included).
Even since the invitation was announced and then sent out, the media has gone, to put it mildly, berserk. We had articles on what will happen, analyses on the talks even before the talks began; what Musharraf will say, what Vajpayee will do, will he recite a new poem, the food he'll eat, where they will stay, the color of Musharraf's suite… in fact, in all this information overkill the only detail left out was the color of Musharraf's pajamas at Agra.
Sure, it is news, but surely there is such a thing as too much of it. Little of it all was germane to the key talks. Is the media so devoid of other issues and stories that for days before the talks, and for the three days of the talks, Agra alone was 'the' news? Worse, in the world's second poorest regions (after sub-Saharan Africa), where even today millions barely get two square meals a day, there was this pathetic media obsession on the gastronomic feasts being prepared for the visiting Pakistanis at the various banquets for them. It was in poor taste (no pun intended).
Tragically, we saw the same mindless frenzy when then United States president Bill Clinton visited India. It almost seemed that since Clinton and Musharraf admired the Taj Mahal, India's relations with their respective countries were on the mend.
The media 'hype' (a much used word but still relevant) was sickening.
The primary culprit for this unnecessary media frenzy is the presence of news channels that broadcast news 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These news channels, desperate for news stories that can bring in advertisements and sponsorships, convert news events into some kind of soap opera broadcast round the clock. And in their search for exclusive stories and bytes to fill up yawning time, everything is news, whether it is the food Musharraf ate or the clothes he wore. And when the talks floundered, now, we have reporters substitute lack of information with interpretations of "body language" in a manner that Desmond Morris could never have imagined.
The web and print media have chosen to follow suit rather than show some sense of propriety. The world, or even the rest of India, did not stop functioning on July 14, 15 and 16 but one could be forgiven for believing that if one were watching TV or reading the newspapers in or websites from India.
It is the media that sought to set the tone for the talks and the media that seemed most upset at not getting its preferred headlines. Yet, whether the media desperados like this fact or not, the simple fact is that diplomatic negotiations can never be conducted under the public spotlight.
Hopefully, the next time round, with less media frenzy we may actually get more substance from the talks.
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