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Spinning out of hand

Government’s headline management strategy has clearly gone awry.

The Modi government’s penchant for ‘headline management’ has got it into trouble this time. In an effort to finesse the lapse on the part of the government’s border management duties, official spokespersons have resorted to using tense as a means of information control. Speaking to the all-party meeting on June 19, the PM ‘clarified that neither is anyone inside our territory nor is any of our post captured’. After a storm of protest from people wondering what then were the issues with China in Ladakh, the PMO clarified on June 20 that the PM was speaking of the ‘here and now’, not what had transpired earlier.

Its statement explained that Indian soldiers had ‘foiled the attempt of the Chinese side to erect structures and also cleared the attempted transgression at this point of the LAC on that day’. There is no ingress into Indian territory. There was nothing said about whether there had been any.

There was no acknowledgement that the Chinese had, indeed, established positions across the Indian LAC and had removed their tents only after the June 6 agreement, and that the brawl, that took the life of Colonel Babu and 19 other soldiers on June 15, had occurred when they refused to remove one such structure.

Besides not telling us about possible Chinese ingress into the Galwan valley, it also had nothing to say about the fact that the PLA had dug into the area of Finger 4 in Pangong Tso, denying India the ability to patrol to the Finger 8 area which it considers to be within its portion of the LAC. Needless to say, the PM’s statement ignored this entirely.

Expectations that Modi would announce a tough response at the meeting were aroused by the headline news of June 17, when the PM said India ‘would give a befitting reply’ to those who had taken the lives of our soldiers, and ‘nobody should have any iota of doubt about this’.

Having positioned himself as a nationalist and, indeed, belligerent, defender of India, the PM suddenly took a restrained tone, which was all for the good but baffled his ultra-nationalistic fan base. But there must have been good reasons for his stance. Perhaps this was part of a deal that led to the release of 10 soldiers — a Lt Colonel, three Majors and six other personnel — that they had in their custody since the incident. Neither the Chinese nor the Indian side has acknowledged what was clearly a humiliating fact.

From the outset, headline management was a feature of this image-conscious government’s response to the fracas of Monday. Through Tuesday, even though it knew that 20 soldiers had died and 10 were captive, it acknowledged only three personnel killed. For good measure, it was anonymously put out that five Chinese soldiers had also died. It was only later, through a news agency, that another 17 dead were acknowledged. Simultaneously, anonymous ‘headline managers’ hiked up the number of Chinese dead to 43. All through, there was an attempt to use fake news to mitigate what had clearly been a setback to India.

But even then, the fact that 10 soldiers had been captured by the Chinese was not revealed. On June 17, the New York Times cited two Indian military officials, who spoke to them anonymously and presumably with authority, to note that ‘a number of Indian soldiers’ had been captured in the fracas that began ‘after Indian troops on Monday set fire to tents erected by Chinese soldiers’.

But this was not officially acknowledged. All that the government did was to wait for the negotiated release of the captives, and then announce on June 18 that ‘no Indian troops are missing in action’.

Headline management can clearly carry you only that far. In pursuit of a headline, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar claimed that the soldiers were armed, but did not fire because of the 1993 and 1996 agreements. This was a cynical misreading of the agreements which are about strategic issues, not tactical situations where your life is in danger. It strains credulity to believe that soldiers in that brutal melee did not use weapons because of some bilateral agreement. The simpler and more obvious answer is that for some reason, which the government should tell us about, the Indian group under Colonel Babu did not carry weapons, or did not have their ammunition with them.

All through, the government’s concern is not the events themselves, but their domestic political fallout. References now to the role of the ‘Bihar Regiment’ in the events are too obvious not to miss. The Bihar Assembly elections are due in October, and no doubt, the headline managers are working out ways and means of exploiting what was a needless tragedy born of the failure to adequately assess the intelligence and understand the strategic messaging being done by Beijing.

The English language has many words for the government’s handling of information on the Ladakh developments: ‘prevarication’, ‘obfuscation’, ‘equivocation’, ‘economy of truth’, and eventually, plain old-fashioned ‘lying’. The erosion of credibility that has occurred is not easy to measure. But it’s like Humpty Dumpty, once broken, it’s difficult to put together again.

This commentary originally appeared in The Tribune.

Manoj Joshi (ORF)
26 June 2020

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