Aman Ki Asha – My take !

Part – I

My daily morning routine is fixed. Just before I am about to wake up, I sound out my wife that the tea should be ready and the newspaper should have been picked up from our balcony and laid out on the side table of my bed. The concept is – when I wake up, the first thing my eyes see should be a newspaper while the first breath I take should be the aroma of hot tea ! Now had I been married to anyone else other than my wife, I am sure she would have left me by now because of this annoying habit. But then, that is why my wife is so special !

True to form, this is the routine that repeated itself on 1st Jan 2010 too. Except that the time of my waking was around 11:45 A.M. because of revelry, late into previous night,  heralding the new year. This day, as I took the first hot sip of the fabulous tea, my still weary eyes glanced at the front page of the newspaper – Times of India. It looked curiously blank. All I could see was only white spaces all around with some text at the bottom of the page. I thought probably the hangover from last night is not yet over, and that is why I am unable to read properly. I took one more sip and tried to open my eyes much more firmly. Again it looked the same – bland white all around with some text in one corner. Then it struck me. This must be another of those full front page ads, classified as false front pages, that have become so popular amongst advertisers these days.  My initial reaction was that whoever took the false front page on the 1st day of new year must have paid huge amounts – but had spent no imagination in designing a proper and attractive advertisement.

By this time I had taken several sips of the tea and was now almost fully awake. I read the ad again, just to see who could splurge so much wastefully. And then I saw – by now the famous initiative by TOI group – Aman Ki Asha !

Of course the rest of the story is familiar. For the uninitiated, here is a brief recount. Aman Ki Asha is a joint initiative launched by the Times of India and the Jung Group of Pakistan to promote Indo-Pak peace. This they will do through facilitating cultural exchanges and people to contact.

This initiative was launched on 1st Jan 2010. When the ad first appeared in  TOI, it was met with derision by many top voices in the media. Their logic – TOI has in the past taken a strident position against Pakistan, most notably after 26 /11. So wanting to promote peace now was a bit rich. As I am writing this blog, the date has turned to 18th Jan. However in just 18 days, many far reaching things have happened. Let me try and make a sense of all this –

TOI is the largest circulated English daily in India. Jang group has the largest Urdu language newspaper in Pakistan.  This in itself makes the pairing odd. The true peer of TOI in Pakistan would be The Dawn – their largest English language daily. Similarly the actual peer of The Jung in India would be the the Dainink Bhaskar – the largest Hindi daily. So why did the newspapers, if they had to launch this initiative anyhow, did not co-sponsor it with their actual compatriots? That would have made more sense – similarity of the language and the idiom would have made exchanges much more smoother. Some analysts pondered over this initially but then ignored the issue as they could not see any pattern or discernible reason.

Many had hoped the initiative by the Times Group would be limited to placing advertisements and sponsoring articles in each others papers. Maybe some felicitation of songs and dances across the border and so on. And slowly the campaign would run out of steam and be forgotten. But then started the TV commercials in major news channels. And most would admit that the commercial running now – where Indians on the border help their Pakistani brethren request a song on AIR and then both dance in delirious joy once they succeed – is a fantastically conceived and very well executed.

I was in a multiplex this weekend to watch a movie. Just before the actual movie was to start, I saw Amitabh Bachhan light up the screen – he was appearing in another ad on Aman Ki Asha and using his baritone to propel the concept forward. As I saw this ad, and remembered the ads running on TV, I could not help but smile. It was clear that the Times Group had not launched this initiative in a fit of drunken blizzard, but that this was a well thought out campaign – and they were now utilizing heavy artillery to put the message home.

Around 10 days into the initiative, the curiosity and novelty around the campaign was wearing off. Times was still devoting precious news space to this initiative, but it was all in the inside pages. Nothing that was written in these pages seemed terribly exciting. At least not to me.

Then came the front page news in TOI  on 12th Jan 2010. M K Naryanan, the India NSA was going to be moved out, and possibly would be rehabilitated in Raj Bhavan. It was a bolt from the blue. No other media group in the country had any inkling about this news story. Not the Indian Express, which usually takes leads in breaking stories, not HT, not any TV channel – no one. 12th Jan was Tuesday.  On 13th Jan, Hindustan Times, carried the same news, on front page, though in smaller highlight. This was odd since the HT, a fierce competitor of TOI,  rarely repeats a story that it missed on day one. Yet this was important news and there was no shame in repeating a story broken by competitor. Although HT added no fresh perspective to the story – they just repeated what TOI had already reported.

The news channels had not yet picked the story. It was only on 14th Jan that broadcast journalists started tweeting about this news as breaking news and by the evening it became breaking news on almost all news channels ! Of course by 15th Jan the news was everywhere and by 16th Jan the official list was also out. Naryanan was moving to West Bengal as governor.

Initially when TOI reported this news, no other media house took it seriously that is why there was lack of excitement. They would have thought that this was just kite flying by TOI. But ultimately what TOI had reported on 12th Jan, became breaking news on most TV channels on 14th Jan.

The Times group had clearly beaten everyone by at least two days in reporting this news.

So, is there any pattern in all these apparently unconnected events?

I will argue in part two of this piece that there is. Possibly a history changing pattern !

Part – II

As I watched the scramble in the media on Narayanan’s removal, I remembered a TV interview that he had given to Karan Thapar for CNN-IBN. This was just after the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008. To a pointed question by Karan Thapar, Narayanan had effectively said that the ISI was an evil organization and it had to be “crushed”  before any meaningful progress took place between India and Pakistan. Of course, this was before the even more diabolic 26 / 11 attacks. But as these words played in my mind, something struck me – Narayanan was always a hawk when it came to matters of Pakistan. The Pakistanis would never tire of telling this – through official channels as also through the writings in the media and other such forums. Possibly it had something to do with Narayanan’s IB background.

My question was – why would a person, who was a hardliner against Pakistan be removed now? Surely we still need to persist with a hardline against Pakistan considering its waffling on prosecuting the 26/11 culprits. Was there some other reason behind this sudden move. After all, a man who had survived the fallout of 26/11 would surely not go out this unceremoniously? What was happening behind the curtain?

Here is my theory:

The Times Group in India and the Jung group in Pakistan, which have jointly launched the Aman Ki Asha initiative, have differing reader profiles. Times cater to upward mobile English loving elite in India while Jung’s readers are the mass population of Pakistan, who know only Urdu. So why did these two newspapers choose to come together? It is because, the readers of these papers have something very common between them – hostility towards the other country.

In India, the most vocal and the most hostile towards Pakistan is the educated and upwardly mobile middle class. The class that came on TV after 26 /11 and shouted “enough is enough” ! The lower middle class of India, or the uneducated mass in villages really do not care that much about Pakistan. They have their daily lives to care about. They would rather spend their energies thinking about their daily struggles of existence rather than waste time on thinking about Pakistan’s existence.

The educated, middle class of India, mostly hostile to Pakistan, reads English language newspapers. In this category, TOI is the clear leader – way ahead of any competition.

In Pakistan the situation is reverse. The middle class there yearns for peace with India. They have been educated in elite colleges and realize that India may not their mortal enemy, but just a neighbor. They may still hate India for some of things it does, but also cherish the freedoms that Indian middle classes have. They would want to enjoy similar living conditions and free flow of business and ideas – they would thrive in the commerce so generated.

The common masses of Pakistan, however, are either suspicious of India or are actively hostile. This is because of years of ideological brain washing that they have received in their madrasas.  This have been further fueled by language papers such as the Jung.

Thus the pairing of TOI and Jung. TOI is the preferred newspaper of the class in India which is most hostile to Pakistan. The Jung group is read most by people in Pakistan who have grown up on anti India propaganda. Both the newspapers, through this initiative, are trying to soften the hostility in each others country. That is why TOI did not choose The Dawn of Pakistan. The readers of Dawn, the middle classes, are already better disposed off towards India and thus any effort by Dawn would have been like preaching to the converted. Similarly any initiative by Dainink Bhaskar would have not had the same effect, since the very vocal chatterati does not read Hindi newspapers.

But was this initiative a suo motto initiative of these groups? I would argue that this had the go ahead from the highest seat of powers in each country. Consider this – was it is a mere coincidence that these papers came together? Or was it a very well thought out and carefully crafted move involving the governments of both countries. The TOI would not put its reputation on stake for an issue which has no hope. It would not splurge money on ads which have no future. The Jains of  the Times Group are fiercely business people. They are not going to spend money on an initiative that they know will fail. Unless, that is, they have been given guarantees by someone high up in the government.

My arguments is this – something is brewing between India and Pakistan. And the initiative by these groups is part of a strategy co-authored by India and Pak in official circles. Else Jung, a paper hitherto hostile to India throughout its history would not have suddenly started singing peace tunes. It is one of the fiercely pro establishment papers in Pakistan. It would not have taken such a big step without a go ahead from the establishment.

The governments of India and Pakistan, in tacit support by Army of Pakistan, have choreographed this move. As a means to prepare public opinion in each others country. That is why TOI is confident of spending money on such high profile campaign – it knows it will reap rich benefits as the newspaper which heralded history should a final settlement happen between India and Pak.

And that is where Narayanan’s removal makes sense – he was a hawk on Pakistani matters. A stumbling block if Manmohan Singh has decided to gamble on peace with Pakistan. A person who used terms like “crushing”  the ISI. An insider in team Manmohan Singh who was proving a stumbling block.  It was a move which was designed to send a signal to Pakistan – we have taken step one, now is your turn. So all this talk of Narayanan’s removal owing to Chidambram’s hyperactivity is just smokescreen – under which far reaching things are happening.

Also it was no coincidence that the TOI reported Narayanan’s departure much before anyone had even a clue. Could it be that the TOI was leaked this news by top echelons of PMO?  This is perhaps part of the deal – that TOI gets all advance news on Indo-pak front in lieu of it putting its brand name on an initiative which is still risky !

So this is my prediction – expect some thing big on Indo Pak peace front this year. Something very very big !

And also expect some dramatic, but choreographed events to build up public opinion in both countries, especially India – what if Sachin  Tendulkar is given the highest civilian honor by Pakistan and in the ceremony General Kayani, the Army Chief,  salutes Tendulkar? Imagine the play that the electronic media will bring and the affect this will have on mass imagery.

After that, will not any concession that India makes on Kashmir sound as only just reciprocal? And remember – Kashmir can only be solved by Indian concessions – as it is Pakistan which is wanting to change status quo and India has fought to preserve it.

So expect, some dramatic but actually just symbolic act by Pakistan – like the Tendulkar felicitation – reciprocated by India by changing the status quo on Kashmir.

We are living in interesting times ! Watch the space.

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2 thoughts on “Aman Ki Asha – My take !

  1. Amit says:

    Your arguments flow nicely, however, the blatant question before is can Pakistan be trusted? There are a number of open matters: 26/11 being just one of them. I do agree from an idealist point of view that Peace between the two nation would be the greatest cost reduction initiative in the history and that money can be used in a number of things much more fruitful than marshaling troupes or making “heaven on earth” a desolate place.
    Personally, I feel that vote bank politics in India will ensure that we do not take any hard steps and being seen as Pro-India by same Madarsa class in Pakistan would be fatal for their leaders. Therefore, the two nations are destined to squabble and fill pockets of West through various arms deals and weapon upgrades…

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  2. Akhilesh Mishra says:

    Amit,
    I agree with you squarely and completely. Infact I am hawk when it comes to matters pertaining to Pakistan. In other places I have been arguing that chasing peace with Pakistan is actually a chimera – why would Pakistan give up its strategy of terrorism – which it thinks has worked – unless it is compelled by force to change its startegy, or we conceede to much in negotiation and give them what they want.

    What I was suggesting in the post is that Manmohan Singh seems to have decided to have his third and possibly last throw of the historical dice – fisrt being in 1991 and second was in 2008 when he pushed ahead with nuclear deal. I am arguing that something is cooking benhind the scenes, which we are not yet aware of – I am not saying that what is being cooked is necessarily good !

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