On December 24, 1999, the Indian Airlines flight IC-814 was hijacked to Kandahar. It was a wonderful story to be told and reported, especially for the electronic media, which was still basking in the Kargil War glory. The "live" coverage and excited reporters cranked up such an atmosphere of emotional frenzy that before anyone could realise what was happening, the Vajpayee Government's decision-making had become hostage to the anchorpersons and their excitability.
Unconsciously, the thrust of the round-the-clock coverage by the electronic media was that the Government ought to give in to the hijackers' demand. The refrain was that, if, in the past, the Government could give in to the hijackers/kidnappers' demands in exchange for the safety of a politician's daughter, why not make another gesture of appeasement. The grand theme of a fashionable disdain for the politicians was discernible.
Moreover, the passengers on the IC-814 were the very people who are the primary constituency of the elite television channels and the advertisers. When the relatives of the hostages stormed the Foreign Minister's press conference on December 26, the viewer was left in no doubt on whose side the anchorman's sympathy was.
Stage was set for the Kandahar surrender. Since then, the serious security analysts have come to lament the role of the media in creating such a mood that an inept, uncertain and confused political leadership found it difficult to take a cool-headed and measured approach.
The same script is being written once again. From the night of December 13, anchorperson after anchorperson has taken it upon himself/herself to beat the war drum as loudly as possible. The Ministers are harangued for being so mealy-mouthy. If the United States could do it to Afghanistan, why can't we do it to Pakistan? Follow Israel. Tell us here and now, what is the Government going to do? Spell it out.
The Opposition leaders are being lectured at for not standing by the Government, ridiculed for exercising their democratic right to dissent. There is this distinct sense of disapproval that the Opposition is not for going to war with Pakistan right away. The wise young men and women with microphones can be almost heard muttering "politicians will be politicians."
May be the media has taken seriously the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee's exhortation the other day that we ought to learn a lesson or two from the ``patriotic'' behaviour of the American media. Mr. Vajpayee was inviting the media to emulate their American counterpart, which has unabashedly dropped all pretenses of journalistic objectivity and fairness in reporting an ``America at war.'' A war-like mood is being sought to be created and unfortunately many of the Central Ministers themselves are abetting this emotionalism.
Fortunately, the security establishment in this country remains, by and large, impervious to the spuriously created "public mood"; hard-headed and seasoned officials know the pluses and the minuses in each possible option. The danger is that the political leadership may allow itself to be dictated to by the war-drummers.