Indian elections through a Kashmir prism

IN Media Monitoring | 04/11/2004
Indian elections through a Kashmir prism

 

Kashmir-related stories dominated the India coverage in the Pakistani newspapers in the first fortnight of May, the Indian elections per se came second.

 

This is the second set of articles  in the Hoot on how newspapers in India and Pakistan report on each other’s countries--- A Panos-Hoot monitoring project.   The first period covered reporting from  March 17 to April 17 in the Times of India, the Hindu, Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran. This article relates to the second period of monitoring, the month of May, when general elections were held in India. Four Pakistani newspapers were monitored: Dawn, Nation, Jang and Nawai Waqt. Two Indian newspapers in English were also monitored during this period:  The Times of India and the Hindu. This is the first article relating to the second period. 

 

Shubha Singh

India and Pakistan are two neighbouring countries that display a keen interest in each other`s affairs. The newspapers, on an average, carry one or more articles and news reports on political developments, foreign policy and defence related matters, sports and entertainment from across the border. The coverage increases when there are events that are of interest in both countries such as political developments or the India-Pakistan cricket series.

The month of May 2004 was the period of the final stage of the Lok Sabha elections and the consequent change in government in India. Pakistani newspapers, both Urdu and English routinely carried stories on the election campaign. Jang and Dawn newspapers had regular coverage of the elections from their own correspondents; Jang newspaper sent its correspondent, Javed Rasheed to cover the elections and Dawn newspaper carried reports from its Delhi based correspondent, Jawed Naqvi.

The other newspapers made use of a variety of news agencies such as  AFP, Reuters, Associated Press of Pakistan, News Network International, and smaller news agencies like Kashmir Media Service, ANN, as well as reports from their own monitoring desk, which collated radio and television news. They used syndicated material from Guardian news service and Interpress agency. Though the news papers carried reports of the election campaigns and speeches of Indian leaders and personalities such as Atal Bihari Vaypayee, LK Advani, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, and Bal Thackeray, news from Jammu and Kashmir was a special attraction in the Pakistani media.

The Indian newspapers during the same period had a higher frequency of sports stories, though Pakistani politics, defence and foreign policy related items also featured regularly in the newspaper columns. Entertainment and occasionally business related stories also made their appearance in the Indian newspapers. The Pakistani newspapers had a much wider range of stories about India because of the elections in India. The stories ranged from the election campaigns to the surprise verdict of the people, as well as commentaries on the change of government and the likely policies that the new government would adopt. Kashmir-related stories dominated the India coverage in the first fortnight of May; the usual topics were the election boycott, the people`s response to the boycott, the violent incidents in Kashmir. The other topics that figured in the Pakistani newspapers were the elections in India, sports stories, India-Pakistan negotiations, and a few items on movies and business issues.

The Times of India had 32 sports stories relating to Pakistan during May 2004, while the Hindu carried 42 items. The Hindu, which has a correspondent based in Islamabad had 29 items reporting on political matters in Pakistan during the month of May and another 33 stories that related to India-Pakistan issues, defence, foreign affairs and the war against terrorism. The Times of India had 16 items of politics, and 14 other stories like defence and foreign affairs. Many of the India-Pakistan stories in the newspapers of both countries were denials or responses to remarks by official spokespersons or politicians. The two Urdu newspapers carried a total of 27 items on developments in Kashmir. The Nation and Dawn had 24 sports stories with a connection to India and 19 business stories; the sports stories were on cricket, junior hockey and boxing.

The Indian newspapers carried stories on the hunt for al Qaida operatives in Pakistan`s tribal areas, and Pakistan gaining entry into the ASEAN Regional Forum after India dropped its objections. Other stories were on the attempt by the exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif`s brother, ex-Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif to return to Pakistan and his prompt deportation, and Gen Pervez Musharraf`s statement that junior army officials had tried to assassinate him in the two bomb attacks.

The huge interest in cricket and the people to people contacts that had been generated during the cricket series in March-April continued through the month of May in the Indian newspapers. The sports coverage from Pakistan was mainly on cricket; the Pakistan Cricket Board`s response to the India-Pakistan cricket series by seeking a report on the causes of Pakistan`s defeat and its eventual decision to retain Javed Miadad as the team coach. The "soft stories" on people to people interaction focused on Ghulam Ali`s visit to a mid day meal programme run by ISKON, the Lahore Museum`s plans for Hindu, Jain and Sikh sections and the visit of a Pakistani delegation from a boys school in Karachi.

On the other hand, while the Pakistani papers, particularly the Urdu papers concentrated on reports from Kashmir, the Indian newspapers carried reports on terrorist attacks in Pakistan. B Murlidhar Reddy of the Hindu wrote that Pakistan was faced with an embarrassing situation. He said that not a single foreign militant suspected to be hiding in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan had surrendered at the end of the government deadline. The Pakistan Army had struck a deal with tribal chiefs, granting them amnesty provided they cooperate in the search for the fugitives. At one stage Pakistan had said that an estimated 600 militants were hiding in the tribal areas.

The Times of India published a Reuters report from Quetta on May 4 regarding a car bomb explosion at one of Pakistan`s biggest construction projects. The explosion killed three Chinese technicians and wounded 11 people in what a government minister called a terrorist attack, it reported. B Murlidhar Reddy wrote in the Hindu from Islamabad that three Chinese engineers were killed and 11 others injured in a car bomb explosion in the coastal town of Gwadar. Another bomb attack was reported on May 7 in the Hindu. At least 14 persons were killed and 100 injured as a powerful bomb ripped through a mosque filled with worshippers in Karachi. Police believe it was the handiwork of a suicide bomber set up by some groups to further the sectarian DIVide in the country, it said.

Regarding Pakistan`s democracy, the Times of India in its View & Counterview column said that Pakistan`s re-entry in to the Commonwealth was a "tacit endorsement of a dictatorship. The inclusion smacks of hypocrisy." The counterpoint held that "engagement, not exclusion is the way forward. Democracy cannot be foisted on any country from outside."

Relations with Pakistan featured in the Indian election campaign as BJP leaders claimed credit for the improving relations with Pakistan. The Times of India wrote, "the promise of peace with Pakistan was arguably the only election plank of the outgoing Vajpayee government that genuinely struck a chord with the people." During his Bharat Uday Yatra, LK Advani darkly hinted at the possibility of BJP playing the spoiler if defeated. "The BJP alone can find a solution to problems with Pakistan because Hindus will never think that whatever we have done can be a sell-off".

In Pakistan, during this period the main attention was on the elections in India. According to Javed Rasheed of Jang newspaper, Shahi Imam, Maulana Ahmed Bukhari had claimed in an interview to Jang that Muslims have been exploited in the name of secularism. The Congress party had never fulfilled its promises and Mulayam Singh was playing a political game, he had never done anything for Muslims. The Shahi Imam said that if he had not welcomed a change in BJP, there would have been many more Gujarats. "I have never appealed to Muslims to vote for the BJP, I have just said to rethink. And the so-called secularists are getting panicky. From Nehru to VP Singh, all these leaders have used Muslims for their interests." In another article Rasheed said that the Delhi scene had changed and that the two largest political parties, the BJP and the Congress were in touch with the Muslims. The Imam of Fatehpuri mosque, Maulana Mufti Mukarram Ali was supporting Congress, while Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Maulana Ahmed Bukhari had appealed to Muslims to vote for the BJP.

On May 14, Dawn newspaper carried 18 items related to the Indian elections while the Nation had nine stories on that day relating to the poll reversal. The Dawn newspaper had two stories on the front page, two on the business page, one editorial and two oped page articles. The international and world in focus pages had ten items on the Indian elections. On May 15, the Nation had 10 stories while Dawn carried 11 items. The Nawai Waqt had seven stories on May 15 while Jang had three large stories.

The headlines in the Nation of May 14 were: Gandhis are back, Vajpayee quits as BJP suffers shocking defeat. Peace with Pakistan a lifelong wish: Vajapyee. Rejection of communal politics. US to work closely with new PM. Major winner, losers. Sonia pledges to continue talks with Pakistan, Pakistan hopes peace process will continue. Indian stocks rise on hopes of stable Congress government. No shift in India`s peace stance likely wrote Afzal Khan. He said that diplomatic and official circles did not expect any substantive shift in the Indian stance on the current dialogue process between the two countries, but there was strong hope that the new government led by the Congress would pursue it more vigorously than its predecessor.

The headlines in the front page of Dawn newspaper were: Dialogue with Pakistan to go on: Sonia and Congress, allies poised to form government. Other stories were Big win for Rahu, End of the road for statesman and poet. BJP defeat pleases hardliners. Focus on cities, neglect of poor doomed BJP: analysts. Yashwant Sinha loses. Sonia Gandhi defies pundits, pollsters. Sunil Dutt, Govinda elected. No. 13 brings mixed fortunes for Vajpayee. Local issues played key role in Indian elections. India: a crisis of legitimacy. Change in India not to affect ties. Indian investors asked not to panic. India`s stunning poll results. We don`t get it do we? In the wake of Indian polls. Indian poll results won`t derail talks: EC.

Once the change of government was evident, the concern in Pakistan shifted to what it would mean for India-Pakistan relations. An editorial in the Dawn newspaper talked of India`s stunning poll results. It articulated Pakistan`s interest in the result, and said: "In Pakistan the main concern is understandably about the future of the peace dialogue which has just been launched. Since it did not emerge as a major election issue in the campaign, one can safely assumed that the Indian electorate favours peace with Pakistan. It can only be hoped that the BJP in opposition will not suddenly turn hawkish on this issue."

An article by MH Askari, titled "In the wake of Indian polls" gave the popular perception in Pakistan. It said: "While it is generally believed that both the BJP and the Congress are committed to staying with the ongoing India-Pakistan peace process it is only natural that Vajpayee should be expected to be more flexible in any negotiations with Pakistan: he is the father of the peace process."

Jang newspaper`s correspondent in New Delhi, Javed Rasheed took a quick straw poll among Indian leaders regarding the prospects of India-Pakistan relations. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee expressed the hope that Indo-Pak friendship would not be changed and relations with Pak will improve under Sonia Gandhi`s rule. Responding to the Jang survey, Rashtriya Janata Dal chief, Lalu Prasad said relations with Pakistan would improve and his government will not step back from the peace process. Former prime ministers Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral said that relations would improve and Inder Gujral added that that it did not matter who formed the government in India, relations with Pakistan will not be affected. NCP leader, Sharad Pawar spoke of good relations while CPI(M)`s Harkishan Singh Surjeet said relations will improve as did Ramvilas Paswan. Congress spokesperson, Kapil Sibal said good relations with neighbours will be top of Congress agenda.

Pakistani newspapers discussed the reasons for the BJP`s surprising defeat. Karrukh Khan Pitafi in a long Sunday Review article in the Nation (May 23) said that the pre poll estimates of Vajpayee`s popularity were not untrue. But while his popularity continued to grow, his health did not. "Only a week prior to the elections an Indian news channel had aired an interview with Vajpayee. His delivery, his face expressions, memory and even body language spoke volumes of his plight."

As it became evident that Manmohan Singh was to be Prime Minister reports appeared about his background. A story from Gah, Chakwal interviewed 80-year old Mohammad Ashraf, who had studied in primary school with Manmohan Singh. Ashraf said that he had failed in the final year of primary school and Manmohan Singh moved on to middle school, their close friendship had lessened. The villagers of Gah were very happy that a son of the village had reached highest office in the neighbouring country, they said.

The disquiet in some circles in Pakistan became evident in the next few days. An oped article in the Nation on May 20 by Aziz-ud-din Ahmad said that it was difficult to forget that most of the problems between the two countries date from the period when Congress was in power. But what is equally important is that attempts at dialogue were initiated during the tenures of Rajiv Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao. There is a perception that as Mr Vajpayee made improvement in Pakistan-India relations a major policy issue and as leader of the Hindu nationalist party could take decisions on Kashmir without anyone accusing him of a sell-out. He was thus in a better position to settle outstanding disputes. With Mrs Gandhi declining to head the government the Congress can take bold decisions. It remains to be seen whether it has the will to do so, the writer said.

In Nawai Waqt, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), Raja Mohammed Zafarul Haq declared that resolution of Kashmir problem was impossible during Congress rule and said that tension between India and Pakistan would increase on this issue. Pakistan should not forget that it was DIVided during Congress rule and it had fought wars of 1965 and 1971 with India while Congress was in power. He predicted that the Congress party would show more rigidity on the Kashmir issue.

Columnist C Raja Mohan spelled out the Indian position in an article titled "Reassuring China and Pakistan" in the Hindu newspaper. He stated that India`s interlocutors in Islamabad and Beijing need to be reassured on the essential continuity in New Delhi`s approach after the changeover towards resolving two of India`s most complex national security challenges. "Congress leader, Natwar Singh tipped to be next foreign minister, has already suggested continuity. --- While the Congress has always supported talks with Pakistan, it has been critical of the Islamabad framework. -- Gen Musharraf`s distaste for the Shimla Agreement is well known and so is Mr Vajpayee`s willingness to experiment with new approaches to peace with Pakistan. That the Shimla Agreement remains the bedrock for the Congress has been underlined by Mr Natwar Singh. Islamabad will have to avoid getting impatient with the new government and New Delhi has the responsibility to signal that it will stay the course on the agreed principles."

The Times of India on May 25 gave Prime Minister Manmohan Singh`s views on relations with Pakistan. It said that in the clearest indication that he is serious about the peace initiative with Islamabad, PM has said, "short of secession, short of redrawing boundaries, the Indian establishment can live with anything" as far as the question of Kashmir and Pakistan is concerned. In an interview to a freelance journalist, Jonathan Power, he said, "soft border may hold the key" when people on both sides should be able to move freely.

However, some comments and statements emanating from New Delhi caused concern in Islamabad. On May 31, the Hindu`s report from Islamabad referred to the view - "China model not relevant in India, Pakistan relations". "There is a sense of unease in Pakistan over comments attributed to K Natwar Singh that India would like Pakistan to emulate the "Chinese model" in resolution of differences even as Islamabad is taking every opportunity to establish contacts with the new government in Delhi."

Pakistani newspapers had extensive coverage of the  Indian elections and its aftermath. The election campaign and the change of government provided interesting stories that were followed by debate and discussion on what the change meant for Pakistan. Pakistan`s battle against terrorism interested the Indian newspapers. The extensive coverage exposed the reader to events in the other country and while some of the comments may have a negative tone, the broad coverage helped to develop a better understanding of life and events in the other country.

Shubha Singh has covered foreign affairs for Indian newspapers for many years. Currently she is a columnist with the Pioneer. Contact: shub@vsnl.com
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