The Agra Summit had not even finished when the Indians launched a full scale analysis of what had gone wrong with their set gameplan to expose Pervez Musharraf the military dictator as a showcase of autocracy in sharp contrast to the relative freedom enjoyed by the world’s “largest democracy”. In New Delhi on the way to the Summit at Agra, Musharraf succeeded in one short day in becoming a media darling in the eyes of the Indian public in contrast to his Kargil-monster painted image. Belatedly the Indians woke up to the fact that things were not going according to script. While 15 July was a relative lull, they pounced on the now famous breakfast meeting on 16 July with Indian editors/publishers as a blatant Pakistan ploy to pressurize India by conducting diplomacy through the media. Short shrift was given to the fact that it was not any Pakistani devious plan but a Pranoy Roy initiative to air the breakfast meeting on Star TV, and that the other Indian TV Stations just picked it up so as not to remain behind. The Indians conveniently also forgot that it was Sushma Swaraj who had gone on a fishing expedition a day earlier with depth charges meant to scuttle the peace process. Much was made of Secretary Information Anwar Mahmood’s public disclaimer about Sushma’s claims that there were no discussions about Kashmir at Agra in the one-on-one between President Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee.
While preparing a set-piece battleground for complete diplomatic and media victory, India had not counted on the rebellious nature of the Pakistani print media which fights each other and the government in power at all times but invariably come together in a time of crisis (or on hostile territory) behind whoever is the ruler. Agra was a Pervez Musharraf success story, he won the media war hands down. He was ably supported by a galaxy of media personalities from Pakistan, for once Pakistan came away from an important international event with the sweet smell of success. This success can be laid squarely on the military regime’s free media policy. It seems India badly miscalculated that the Pakistan print media would badmouth an unelected President of a military regime and embarrass him no end in a foreign land on international primetime. They did not count on the solid support he had painstakingly generated by the biggest gamble of all, he took a calculated risk in conceivably being the only military regime in history to have a free media. What he got back in return is a grudging legitimacy normally denied to military rulers. By the time the Indians realized they had badly miscalculated and belatedly attempted damage control, Pakistan’s media was ruling the Indian airwaves. One must commend the freedom and sophistication of the Indian electronic media, their potential is nothing short of tremendous. This freedom was used to maximum effect by Pakistani print media-persons, who in turn benefit from being far freer than India’s print media.
The freedom of the media aside, what is responsible for the Pervez Musharraf success story? One believes that it is the freedom of initiative exploited to the hilt by free enterprise. In contrast PTV was not only pedestrian, it was so pathetic that six months Rigorous Hanging should be considered fair initial punishment for its Managing director. In any case the President has repeatedly stated that he will never reinforce failure and PTV is nothing but an abject failure, the ultimate denouement of public enterprise. The bankruptcy of PTV showed in its abysmal presentations. On the contrary, it was a combination of the military regime and the free press that won the media war. In military terms, Pakistan’s armour (the free press) was allowed to run free in open country, the leading tank commanders (print media persons) given freedom of action to deal with targets on the move with the available means at their disposal. On the move Pakistan’s print media outscored their opposite numbers without any inhibition or restraint, not only holding their own even when outnumbered more than 4 to 1 ie. two Anchor/Hosts plus two “experts” as well as the “referees” in the broadcasting room to cut off embarrassing disclosures in mid-speech. This regime must take a lesson from this success and free the electronic media, that is the only way to ensure accountability, that in turn will lead to institutionalized good governance. Only those who have nothing to fear can afford this, obviously this regime has very few skeletons in its cupboard. Pervez Musharraf must sit down and think hard, to what does he owe his media success to, other than his own virtuoso performance? To PTV or his very wise decision to put his trust in the effectiveness of Pakistan’s free press? Free the electronic media, Mr President and see how Pakistan’s image flourishes once out of PTV’s grubby clutches.
Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan). He was Chairman APSAA for the year 2000, now acting in adhoc capacity pending elections for the year 2001.