A man watches a television channel broadcasting news of a European Parliament delegation. Indian news presenters have a partisan approach to their work. Photo: AFP / Sajjad Hussain

The elite, middle and working classes alike in Nepal like to watch Indian TV primetime news and talk shows. My son, in fourth grade, is one of them.

He does not understand what they are talking about, but reckons the behavior of Indian talk-show panelists and moderators is funnier than entertainment channels. He thinks their verbal jousts are like testosterone-driven exchanges between professional wrestlers. 

It’s no wonder that Indian TV debates resemble cockfights. These news channels are a source of misinformation and entertainment unparalleled by anything Bollywood could do. 

However, Nepali viewers who used to laugh at salvos directed at Pakistan and China on Indian TV are now witnessing vitriol directed against Nepal.

Indian news channels have aired scorn, contempt and even thinly veiled threats after Nepal issued a new map including the disputed territories of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Lipiadhura last week. 

Indian TV also has spared no effort in vilifying the actress Manisha Koirala after she applauded Nepal’s move to issue a new political plan incorporating territory that India claims is disputed.

Koirala is special to both Nepal and India as she is one of the leading artists of Nepali origin in India’s film industry. Similarly, she hails from a political dynasty in Nepal, which has produced three former prime ministers and aspires to launch her second career in Nepal’s national politics.

Nepali members of Parliament, journalists and strategic analysts have been invited to these news programs for panel discussions. But rather than being given a fair opportunity to speak, Nepali panelists were shouted down and lectured about Indo-Nepalese relations, and news anchors were vehement in saying that China was behind Nepali protests against encroachment and the new map issued by the Nepalese government.

Paranoid Indian media

Despite being the world’s second-largest country by population and seventh-largest by area, GDP and nuclear power, India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity seem to be under a severe threat. This is not from external adversaries such as Pakistan and China. Instead, the danger comes from within in the form of its own TV news media. 

It seems ironic that one of the most patriotic and nationalist media in the world is a threat, but in present-day India, it is the bitter truth. 

Outside South Asia, people may think that Indian television news channels have been promoting India’s national interest as if it were an onus thrust upon them.

The opposite is true. They are the cheerleaders of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s every anti-Pakistan and anti-China outburst. The Indian media have consistently covered up Modi’s failures, weaknesses and wrong decisions in foreign and neighborhood policy since 2014. 

For instance, Indian TV channels like Aaj Tak, ABP News, Republic TV, Times Now and Zee News created immense amounts of hype that India would easily win if a full-scale war broke out with China. This was while the Chinese and Indian militaries faced off at the Doklam tri-junction of Bhutan, China and India in the summer of 2017. 

However, India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) sent a report to the Indian Parliament amid the Doklam standoff. The report pointed out that India had stockpiles of just 20% of the arsenal needed for a full-scale war against any adversary.

It said India had arms and ammunition for less than 10 days to fight a short, intense war. A reliable source says that relying on these news channels’ propaganda, Modi was about to declare a full-scale war against China in 2017. 

In almost doing so, Modi overestimated the scope of the India-US Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) signed in 2016, which is an ad hoc arrangement and advances India-US military cooperation. The deal gives the US and India access to each other’s military facilities for fueling and logistic support on a reimbursable basis.

The CAG report, which stressed how underprepared India was to engage with a full-scale war with any adversary, compelled Modi to roll back his intention of declaring war on China. A reliable source says: “If the full-scale war were indeed to break out, India would suffer a defeat much worse than the debacle of 1962. War is fought with arms and ammunition, not on television news programs.”

There is no doubt that the media act as an executive arm for any regional and global superpower to expand its sphere of influence by expanding its soft power among friends and allies. As the regional power and aspiring to the position of global superpower, India could have had its media play a more effective role.

The press could have tried to hold the government accountable by exposing its weaknesses and bad decisions in foreign and neighborhood policies. The Indian media could also have provided genuine information, critical analysis and insights for effective and efficient foreign and neighborhood policies to promote India’s national interest in the region.

The media could also have played a greater role in exporting Indian democratic values and culture and persuading people of the neighborhood to align with Indian views and interests.

However, Indian TV news channels have been doing the opposite. No one in South Asia takes either the Indian government or the Indian media seriously. The Indian media are no more than a laughing-stock in South Asia. 

The Indian people should be mindful that their nation cannot become more robust in the South Asian region and the global stage merely if Modi becomes strong domestically. India will be strong if it assesses its ability, strength and capability from facts on the ground, figures and observations. India will be strong if it devises appropriate foreign and neighborhood policies.

Absurd, irrational and jingoistic journalism won’t help India to promote its image in the region or the world on the airwaves.

However, Indian TV has created a monster. India is now seen as a regional hegemon in South Asia and a warmongering nation that undermines the territorial integrity and sovereignty of its smaller neighbor Nepal.  

The watchword of Indian TV is an abomination of all things Pakistani and Chinese. Indian academia, journalists and strategic analysts have been constructing the narrative of permanent enmity among India, Pakistan and China.  

The concept of permanent enmity has been manufactured by arms dealers, manufacturers and sellers from the West. As India is the second-largest arms importer after Saudi Arabia, it has been spending a much higher amount of money than it needs to on armaments. Besides, the Indian media have been fostering and deepening the discourse of permanent Sino-Indian and Indo-Pakistani enmity.    

Why don’t they cover the possibility of amity between India and China and India and Pakistan? Rational people must think about it. They never talk about the cost of rising defense spending of India on their channels. 

Indian TV channels applauded unprofessional and non-military comments made by Indian Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Mukund Naravane on May 15. He said Nepal had raised issues “at the behest of someone else,” unnecessarily dragging in China.

Rational people need to think seriously about the possibility that Nepal could use India against China. If India cannot be used by Nepal against China, how can Indian media and strategists believe that China will readily agree to be used by Nepal against India?

Every school kid knows this. We Nepalis have a genuine commitment not to allow our soil to be used by either of our neighbors against each other.

Indian television media’s content seems to be based on the Indian version of the communication concept of the “CNN Effect.” That is based on the notion that continuing a 24-hour flow of information gets policymakers to change their minds on any issue. The Indian version of the “CNN effect” is based on the premise that the continual flow of (dis)information changes people’s minds. It can also reshape public opinion on politics, foreign affairs, and diplomacy. 

But this theory cannot be used beyond a certain limit. There is another concept in military strategy: the “Vietnam Syndrome.” This refers to America’s reluctance to engage in war against a foreign country after its shameful defeat in Vietnam. 

Despite lacking the capability to engage in sustained warfare, if India were to be led into a war based on mere TV propaganda, the Vietnam Syndrome would be the inevitable outcome. If led into war by the bluster that its media characteristically and habitually indulge in, India would be left incapable of defending its territory in the future.

The realm of Indian foreign affairs and strategic analysis has been run by the most shortsighted and least intelligent people for a long time. Since Modi came to power, that reality has gotten even worse.  

India will get nowhere in the region or on the global stage if it relies on analysis and insights of foolish, childish, irrational, sycophantic, and unintelligent journalists, academics and strategic analysts. India’s strength of having a large number of English-language news channels could play out against its pursuit of asserting soft power in its neighborhood with acid-tongued news hosts and the tunnel vision of Hindutva nationalism. 

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Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master's program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.