Professor Srinath Raghavan is one of the leading scholars on historical and contemporary aspects of Indian
2019 with The Edict, is the newspaper’s first foray into reporting elections. In this interview, our Editor-in Chief speaks to Suhasini Haidar, National Editor & Strategic Affairs Editor at the national daily The Hindu. Apart from being one of the most credible and trustworthy Indian journalists on Indian foreign policy and current affairs, Mrs. Haidar also has a significant social media presence through which disseminates her views to over a million followers.
There has been a lot of conversation surrounding surgical strikes, Pulwama, Balakot, therefore, how vital, if at all, is the role of foreign policy as an election narrative this year?
I’m not sure if foreign policy itself is an election issue. I think it is clear from the Prime Minister’s speeches at rallies thus far that national security is the ruling party’s main plank. Over the past few years, with a lowering of Left-Wing Extremist (LWE or naxal) violence as well as violence in the North -East, security forces have faced their greatest losses on the LoC with ceasefire violations by Pakistan and in Jammu and Kashmir from terror strikes directed by Pakistan-based groups like Lashkar e Toiba and Jaish e Mohammad. Our security forces recruit from across the country, and therefore national security has a resonance in every state that has lost men. In the Pulwama attack for example, the fourty CRPF men who died belonged to sixteen different states…a swathe that cut right across the nation. So clearly, national security and the threat from Pakistan are a national issue. What is different perhaps is that the ruling party is choosing to make ties with Pakistan an electoral issue as well, targetting the opposition for taking a softer line on Pakistan, while the ruling party is touting the Balakot strikes as proof of its “tougher” line.
How do incensed reactions to Pulwama or any conversation regarding it, e.g., Union Minister Piyush Goyal’s comments at the India Today Conclave, affect your job as a commentator on foreign policy and diplomacy within the subcontinent?
In recent years, it has become quite common to question the patriotism or nationalistic feeling of journalists, and the comments Mr. Goyal made to the India Today anchor are symptomatic of this desire. However, journalism is about asking the important questions, and holding governments to account regardless of the allegations of an agenda. I don’t think it should affect our job, as our duty is to our readers/viewers and to the story itself. But to be honest, it would make it easier if this was something understood by the polity, particularly on social media, where it seeks to portray any questions asked by journalists, or stories that don’t follow a narrative acceptable to that side of the political sphere, as “anti-national”. Eventually, however, the truth prevails, and a journalist’s credibility is built by their commitment to it.
Another recent topic of conversation has been Masood Azhar, the Jaish-e-Mohammed is recognised as a terrorist organisation by the United Nations, therefore, beyond symbolism, does the listing of Azhar on the UN’s counter-terrorism sanctions list carry any benefits to India?
The UN listing of Masood Azhar may seem symbolic, but in fact it is a very important step in holding him to account. There should be little doubt about why he belongs on the list. To begin with, the world watched on television, as Azhar was exchanged for Indian hostages on the hijacked plane IC-814 in December 1999 at Kandahar airport. Subsequently, when the Jaish e Mohammad was listed by the UNSC’s 1267 sanctions committee in October 2000, the listing mentioned clearly that the JeM had been founded by Azhar, who had funded with help from Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. Since then, Azhar and the JeM have issued several statements espousing a violent insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir, and are wanted for several attacks. Putting him on the UNSC listing would check a box that has remained unticked for too long. Banning also ensures that Azhar can have no recourse to funds or arms or travel out of Pakistan. While the listing appears not to have constrained some others on the list like Hafiz Saeed, one should not underestimate its impact on terror groups and their leaders.
How should India navigate its equation with China, since they have blocked Azhar from being placed on the list? Will hostility be beneficial at all?
China’s decision to continuously block Azhar’s listing is clearly a cause for frustration for India, especially given that the government has gone to some length to better ties with China in the past year since the Wuhan summit. Even so, the government must pursue Beijing with a view to making it change its position. Hostility, threats and sharp comments from the U.S. don’t appear to have effected that change thus far, and India would do better to conduct direct bilateral diplomacy on the issue. A former Ambassador to China has suggested that India could also try a more “transactional” approach, seeking to offer China support on an issue important to it, in exchange for cooperation on listing Azhar.
Lastly, journalists covering foreign policy do not often play a role in the formulation of foreign policy strategies. Of course it’s not their job to do so, but has your work experience, or that of any colleagues, ever had any strong implications for Indian foreign policy? If not, do foreign policy journalists/commentators hold a role beyond studying the outcomes of different policies?
I don’t agree with your conclusion. Journalists prepare what is called the first draft of history, and often that is the narrative carried for posterity. As a result, most governments, whether they admit it or not, actively study journalistic coverage and foreign policy news analysis in the media in an effort to gauge the success of their policies. As journalists we often hear back from government officials and diplomats on subjects we write about. Often, it is to complain that we have been too critical. For example, during the Nepal border blockade in September-December 2015, officials were very cognizant of the criticism in the media, and softened their stand, atleast in some measure, due to that. In a few cases, officials will also take suggestions that appear in the media. But in the final analysis, the duty of the journalist/ foreign policy commentator is to their audience/readership, and to explain the world and how it is changing to them. I am not sure what could be a larger role than that!