And in the whole of June, any coverage of India in the international press was almost entirely focused on India-Pakistan tensions and arising nuclear uncertainties. There was nary a mention of Indian politics, business or society. Oh yes, there was an article in La Republica, which is published in Rome, about an Italian Gandhian leader. Then, I came across a political rally in Rome where the main placard held a huge portrait of the Mahatma along with the word Satyagraha. And I met an Italian TV journalist who is planning to make a documentary on Indian maharajas. Her last assignment here was the Kumbh mela. She reminded me of an earlier US radio correspondent in India who spent his three years here chasing stories on Phoolan Devi, dowry deaths and child labour.
It is sometimes difficult to decide which is more frustrating: being ignored by the world, or being cast in simple labels and often wrong stereotypes. Or, to have a multitude of social complexities, political imperatives and historical triggers viewed by foreign journalists through pre-conceived notions or delusions of real understanding.
There must be around 300 foreign journalists posted in India, the bulk based in Delhi, and another 100 or so others who frequent India on their beat. Most are young, smart and well-educated. The clever international set. But it is possible to become too clever, especially when there is little editorial checking, even less Indian-expertise in the head office, and if the foreign correspondent spends most of his or her free hours with the usual society crawlers, political peddlers or NGO types. Which explains why almost all major international newspapers had dismissed a victory for the BJP before the 1998 elections, or why so many of them were caught with their pants down regarding the true nature of Pakistani society.
Just weeks before September 11 last year, in a longish piece about the India-Pak standoff, the foreign correspondent of the Chicago Tribune wrote about the secular foundations of Pakistans democracy. When was Pakistan ever a true democracy, and when was it secular Soon after the 1998 nuclear tests, among all the wild cacophony of global reactions, was this gem from a CNN analyst: The world is now closer to nuclear war than ever before, and South Asia is the most likely place where it will start. Or, a fabricated report in a US newspaper about the sharp rise in cattle deaths and in the incidence of sickness at Pokharan due to radiation. Even Prime Minister Vajpayees rudimentary explanation to a simple village audience in Rajasthan about the big bomb was played up as a bellicose boast. For years now, most global coverage has usually put Pakistan-backed terrorist activities in parentheses, as if this claim is somehow suspect.
The entry of foreign media in Indian newsprint is a very welcome and belated step, and perhaps one of only two meaningful decisions taken this past summer (the other is the partial privatisation of Delhi Vidyut Board). At long last, and surprisingly, the protectionist lobby of some Indian newspaper owners who have been constantly filling their media space with inspired articles about the crucial role of the media in guarding national security and social cohesion has been beaten. Our media on the whole is a valuable national asset which we can be proud of, and now it is going to get bigger and hopefully better.
Competition and international linkages are generally positive influences, and there is real hope that foreign entry will lead to more coverage, better understanding, calibrated views and less stereotyping. And of course, it will be sweet irony to watch Pakistani generals face Western reporters based increasingly in Delhi. But in all this, let us not forget that the likes of The Los Angeles Times and The Guardian, two balanced and thought-provoking newspapers, are a rarity. The vast majority of foreign journalists are much like our own: sometimes slack, often opinionated and always eager for a sensational byline.
The writer is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors