Saturday, May 10, 2008

Will we, Won't we?

Byline by M J Akbar: Will we, Won't we?

Hearing about the indestructible indomitable will of the Chinese, in the solitude of my Singapore hotel, set me thinking about the kind of will we humble Indians have. Is our will, in comparison, highly domitable? What does domitable mean? Is it the opposite of indomitable? Is there a word called domitable?

One of the minor attractions of a foreign hotel room is the chance to switch on a strange television channel. The field is open; any country with a reasonable budget and a desire to be seen as an international player now has a state channel airing its version of events.

Predictably, the British thought of this wheeze first: very few know that 50% of the BBC's expenses are still paid by the British Foreign Office. In the heyday of Empire this was considered a legitimate part of national duty; and during wartime, the investment provided extraordinary returns. The logic had to be twirled around in the post-imperial phase, and the BBC repositioned itself as the international guardian of truth, democracy, liberty, freedom and whatever the British Foreign Office considered worthy and useful. To its credit, the BBC was never as obedient as the government would have liked, which is why it discovered an international audience. There was a time when BBC radio was perhaps the most important source of news for much of the world. The BBC could even dare the government in wartime. It famously refused to describe British troops during Mrs Margaret Thatcher's Falklands War as "our" troops and called them "British" troops. At this distance this may seem a minor or perhaps even a trivial distinction, but for those in media who have to deal with nervous governments during wartime, there is nothing trivial about standing up for identity. Still the umbilical cord exists, and no one quite knows when mummy is tugging at the cord.

The American experiment in quasi-government media independence has been, shall we say, less successful. The Voice of America is only accurate in one respect: it is the Voice of America, with a modification – it is the Voice of the American Government. The VOA's spectacular spread is matched only by the spectacular failure of its inability to reach anyone. Credibility cannot be purchased by dollars. Or by Euros, for that matter. But what is good about European news channels broadcasting in English is that they offer you a different dimension of warzones like Iraq or Palestine. The American coverage, including that of non-government media, tends to follow some invisible consensus in which, for example, Israel can do little wrong and the Palestinians little right. The consensus does not extend to all aspects of coverage, but it certainly conditions reporting of war.

Even when you do not understand the language of television reporting, as for instance on Turkish channels, it is always instructive to see the images that are being broadcast. They are significantly different from the "consensus" images of Anglo-Saxon media. The great effort to take independent coverage to an international audience was made, of course, by Al Jazeera when it followed up its hugely successful Arab channels with an English version. The effort is brave; but the jury is still out on the quality of its impact. There is a sense of discomfort in English Al Jazeera, or perhaps the more accurate term would be uncertainty. It is never sure which note to hit. This grey confusion does not exist in Arabic, because it was always certain what it wanted to do. It was the first channel to report the Arab street, even when this caused great discomfiture to Arab governments. Although Al Jazeera is owned by Oman's rulers, they have wisely kept a distance between their channel and their foreign policy. Al Jazeera is hated by more Arab regimes that it would care to count. That is its strength. Perhaps its problem in English is that it wants to pander to its claimed audience, even when it claims the high ground of neutrality, instead of letting the news speak for itself. All audiences have biases, and it would be a foolish media person who ignored these biases completely; but media's true worth is tested only when it rises above the clamour of the audience on the few occasions when this is essential.

Perhaps the most interesting channel I have come across is the Chinese English channel. The last time I watched it, in a Singapore hotel, it was going on and on about the "indomitable" will of the Chinese people. It is a phrase that makes me nostalgic, almost taking me back to college and the good old days when anyone in Calcutta with any sense of adventure had Chairman Mao's Little Red Book in his pocket. (The Chinese were very kind; they sent it free.) They did go on a bit about the indomitable will of the Chinese people, and how it would inspire revolutions everywhere. India was reserved by Chairman Mao for a prairie fire that would light up in different spots and then slowly join up to set this uppity, half-baked nation ablaze with red flames. The prairie fire at my college, Presidency, was quite fierce for a while; but the one in Delhi's elitist St Stephen's College, I gather, went up in smoke. I shall not describe what kind of smoke it was.

Hearing about the indestructible indomitable will of the Chinese, in the solitude of my Singapore hotel, set me thinking about the kind of will we humble Indians have. Is our will, in comparison, highly domitable? What does domitable mean? Is it the opposite of indomitable? Is there a word called domitable? There should be, logically, but anyone who knows English also knows that logic has nothing to do with its grammar and phraseology. Ever tried to find what the opposite of "unbend" is? It certainly isn't "bend".

I suppose only a very domitable people accept the conditions we do. The news is that our deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, a protégé of the Prime Minister, finally discovered the state of Delhi airport and has called a meeting to find why this experiment in state-private sector partnership has become one unholy mess. It has taken Mr Ahluwalia time, not because he does not travel abroad, but because all high officials are taken through a gilded route when they traverse through airports. High Cabinet Ministers of course have their own airport. They just don't tell anyone about this. But we must give credit to Montek: he could have behaved like others, ignored the punishment that is inflicted on ordinary passengers and gone back to his desk. He could have scratched the back of the civil aviations ministry and lived happily ever after. He took some action. We shall see if anything comes out of it.

Carry on, Montek. Maybe one day you shall make us Indians indomitable as well.

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