Armed with plenipotentiary powers to make war and never sue for peace, our TRP wranglers have covered themselves with vainglory in the ongoing crisis between nuclear neighbours. A good number of them rechristened their studios ‘War Rooms’. India TV has favoured theatricals since Aap ki Adalat, but ABP News and India Today Live indulged themselves, too. Where’s the bomb shelter? The broom closet?
The Indian news — especially the English channels, proving that advantaged schooling does not automatically deliver better education — has been an alloy of morning show potboiler trailers and demo levels of first person shooter video games, where you ‘spectate’ without personal risk. It’s deeply embarrassing, and the Pakistani TV guys are having a good laugh. They are not unlucky enough to have Republic TV, but they have Public TV, whose anchor took a thain thain video montage from ABP News and did some satirical miming along with it. But sadly, 92 News went the Indian way, with a male anchor dressed as a three-star general and a woman colleague in naval or air force rig. Very boring.
The Pakistanis also have the extraordinary channel City 42: “Tauba, tauba, the tomato will be replied to by the atom bomb. What do Indians think, Pakistanis can’t live without tomatoes? Dahi is a good stand-in and tauba, tauba, what do they think, our atom bomb was for keeping at home? The atom bomb was made for India, and their tomatoes will burn exactly like their cities. And tauba, tauba, next year we shall export tomatoes to India.” With every “tauba, tauba,” this bizarre anchor devoutly tugged his earlobes. This was a nationalist response to India slowing tomato exports to Pakistan. Nothing to do with Mirages and F-16s.
But for quality burlesque, back to the escalation, and Indian responses to news that as a goodwill gesture, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman would be released. Times Now: “Blackmail falls flat.” NewsX: “No deal, Pak folds in fear.” India Today Live: “India gets hero back: Massive victory for India.” Back to Times Now: “Will the pro-Pakistan lobby accept that pressure not pampering works against Pakistan?” Whatever these guys are shooting up, it’s something cheap and dirty, and they’re getting it from the same pusher. Because in large numbers, Pakistani civilians had demanded Varthaman’s release, and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan had done it unconditionally.
Television has set the agenda much more forcefully than before, and many of Arnab Goswami’s peers have tried to shoulder the burden of saving India, though he is happy to bear it alone. In their eagerness, anchors tried to stay ahead of both the government and the military forces, depending on unnamed sources. And therefore, 300 terrorists were killed in the Indian airstrike, unsupported by a shred of evidence. On the other side of the border, quoting sources, ARY News confidently confirmed that “all three” Indian pilots were in Pakistan’s custody. And curiously, disclosures were made from the Twitter handle of Major General Asif Ghafoor, rather than official channels. The fog of warlike misinformation was so thick that, quite sensibly, Mirror Now decided to slow down the news, and not carry unverified material.
In foreign coverage of the incident, the experience of Christiane Amanpour holds up a mirror to reality. She couldn’t get a single Indian minister to speak. In Pakistan, she got Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who went “aah” and “err”, mostly. Not his usual assertive self, like when he ticked off a Pakistani journalist, who had had the temerity to ask why, if Pakistan had scrambled aircraft on the first day, they had not engaged the Indian Mirages: “You are a Pakistani. This is not the time to question the ability of the Pak Air Force”. Of course, in the press conference of our Ministry of External Affairs, no questions were entertained at all.
In related news, Microsoft reports that India is the global fake news leader, with a higher proportion of people exposed to imaginative rubbish. And Elliot Alderson, the entity popularly known as ‘the French hacker’, has looked deeply into Indian Twitterspace. Recall the moment in 2001 when Dave Bowman entered the monolith and said: “My God, it’s full of stars.” The hacker’s view of Indian Twitter: “My God, it’s full of bots.” Which have been operating unmolested for years.