Category: Politics

The use of strategic silence

The more delicate problem is on-the-record interviews. The rules are straight-forward, but interviewing is still a subtle art. A journalist should have the knowledge that helps fashion a question, and then catch contradictions in any evasive answer. It is a very dead interviewer who goes with a static list of queries, and does not possess the agility to ask the right follow-up. It is only reasonable to expect that the person being interviewed will only give that much of information which suits his or her interests, but there are ways of inducing out what has not been said.

Aggression is not the answer. Accusatory questions are meant to provoke an unguarded response, but any seasoned politician will deflect such bouncers with practised ease. The technique that I liked was the use of strategic silence. Ask a question, as gently and plainly as you can. There will be an answer. If you believe the answer has been inadequate, or selective, let silence reign, as if you are waiting for the answer to be completed. Interviewees find silence very difficult to handle. They almost inevitably try to fill the silence vacuum with something, and that something turns out to be the observation or story that brings an interview to life.

But this was far easier in an age when print media was dominant. A print interview has time on its side. Television has enormous strengths, flawed by a fatal weakness. Television does not have space or time for silence. It is the journalist who inevitably ends up saying something, thereby letting his or her target off the hook. At its worst, of course, television encourages a screaming match on the assumption that an audience is more interested in a brawl than dialogue.

It is the job of media to ask questions, although the spirit of inquiry should never descend into the malice of inquisition. Politicians, naturally, resent this, as would anyone being interviewed by a heckler. But, equally, politicians should probably understand that their problems lie less in what a journalist has asked and more in their irresistible eagerness to say what they might later regret.

I enjoy the word “piquant”. It has the succulent resonance of onomatopoeia. It is sharp, tangy, pleasant to the taste and yet can sting. There is no pique, or irritability, or ire, in piquant. The best question in an interview is piquant. And the best answer? Cool. Anyone who loses his or her cool has lost the interview.

It is the job of media to ask questions, although the spirit of inquiry should never descend into the malice of inquisition. Politicians, naturally, resent this.

The relationship between government and media is surely the most tempestuous fact of any democracy. The two represent parallel poles of power, but they are never really poles apart. Their moods vary, depending on circumstance, stretching from mutual admiration to suspicion, scepticism, cynicism and, in the worst case, hostility. Sometimes, their interests are in conflict. At other times, personality takes over, and the irrational ego interferes with judgement. There is always a sub-text of need hidden in the dynamics, and this need can be personal or institutional. It should, therefore, be a relationship that is handled with care. Too often, it becomes a victim of carelessness.

It is important to lay down a marker before we proceed. A democratic government does not have censorship as an option. There are no ifs and buts. Freedom of expression is a non-negotiable right. There are occasions on which journalism may become as yellow as the tongue of a hypocrite, and governments may have a list of grievances stretching from Kashmir to Kochi, but the only recourse is redress as permitted by law. The law does not, and will not, allow the brutal knife of a censor. Censorship is unethical, illegal and unworkable. What next?

There are structures in a democracy that have found a way around this, most notably self-censorship by individual journalists as the quid pro quo of inducement. This, for obvious reasons, is hard to catch. The risk for media is that if this is once proven, then credibility is lost forever. Credibility cannot be restored by surgeons. If the audience loses its faith in a media product, then the life-cycle of that publication or channel is over.

The normal equation between a journalist and a politician is filtered through that most basic of all media tools, the conversation. It may come as a surprise, but sometimes the most productive chat can be off-the-record. This is the ultimate bond between politician and journalist, that of trust. Any journalist who breaks this trust is not worth a day’s further salary. Similarly, anyone in public life who misleads in an off-the-record discussion is shallow: no one in power tells all, but you do not mislead or distort either. There are cases where journalists misuse such confidence, but they end up hurting themselves more than the person whose trust they have abused.

“Aggression is not the answer. The technique that I liked was the use of strategic silence. Ask a question, as gently and plainly as you can. There will be an answer. If you believe the answer has been inadequate, or selective, let silence reign, as if you are waiting for the answer to be completed. Interviewees find silence very difficult to handle.”

The more delicate problem is on-the-record interviews. The rules are straight-forward, but interviewing is still a subtle art. A journalist should have the knowledge that helps fashion a question, and then catch contradictions in any evasive answer. It is a very dead interviewer who goes with a static list of queries, and does not possess the agility to ask the right follow-up. It is only reasonable to expect that the person being interviewed will only give that much of information which suits his or her interests, but there are ways of inducing out what has not been said.

Aggression is not the answer. Accusatory questions are meant to provoke an unguarded response, but any seasoned politician will deflect such bouncers with practised ease. The technique that I liked was the use of strategic silence. Ask a question, as gently and plainly as you can. There will be an answer. If you believe the answer has been inadequate, or selective, let silence reign, as if you are waiting for the answer to be completed. Interviewees find silence very difficult to handle. They almost inevitably try to fill the silence vacuum with something, and that something turns out to be the observation or story that brings an interview to life.

But this was far easier in an age when print media was dominant. A print interview has time on its side. Television has enormous strengths, flawed by a fatal weakness. Television does not have space or time for silence. It is the journalist who inevitably ends up saying something, thereby letting his or her target off the hook. At its worst, of course, television encourages a screaming match on the assumption that an audience is more interested in a brawl than dialogue.

It is the job of media to ask questions, although the spirit of inquiry should never descend into the malice of inquisition. Politicians, naturally, resent this, as would anyone being interviewed by a heckler. But, equally, politicians should probably understand that their problems lie less in what a journalist has asked and more in their irresistible eagerness to say what they might later regret.

I enjoy the word “piquant”. It has the succulent resonance of onomatopoeia. It is sharp, tangy, pleasant to the taste and yet can sting. There is no pique, or irritability, or ire, in piquant. The best question in an interview is piquant. And the best answer? Cool. Anyone who loses his or her cool has lost the interview.


M J Akbar
An article by:
M J Akbar

If Left doesn’t do God, it should try Godfather

When an obituary of the Indian Left is written, it will be said that it died of complacency. It was not homicide, really. It was suicide.

This must rank as one of the funniest stories in a long while. The Marxist candidate for mayor for the municipal election in Bidhannagar, next to Kolkata, on 3 October was the now-venerable Asim Dasgupta, who served as Finance Minister of Left Front governments in Bengal for more than a quarter century; but this is not a joke about how the mighty have fallen. In fact, it goes to the CPI(M)’s credit that it does not permit anyone’s ego to interfere with a party diktat. If a lofty Finance Minister is ordered to try for a suburban mayor’s job, so be it. The joke lies elsewhere.

Comrade Dasgupta is canvassing in the old-fashioned manner, door-to-door. According to the Indian Express, he tells citizens, “Don’t forget to vote. And make sure you’re there early in the morning…because that’s when we expect the trouble and disruption by TMC [Trinamool Congress] hooligans to be the least.” He also distributes a pamphlet captioned “Nijer Vote Nije Deen”, or, “Cast your vote yourself”.

This is uproarious for anyone who lived in Bengal between 1977 and 2011, when the Left Front held what seemed to be interminable power. In every election, the Marxists supplemented their vote, and ensured victory, in precisely this manner. Their cadre would, with the confidence of hooligans protected by state police, capture polling booths where they believed the vote would go against them. Officials manning the voting centres were intimidated if they did not collaborate. It is always fun to hear a shrivelled pot calling a whistling kettle black. Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is doing unto CPI(M) precisely what CPI(M) did unto others. It is almost impossible to imagine Bengal’s Marxists as advocates of fair elections. But defeat works wonders. It can even make you virtuous.

The odd thing is that four years after losing Bengal the Marxists have still not understood why. One phrase sums it up: Old Doctrine, Old Men. The Leftists have neither reinvented their philosophy to restore their equation with the young, nor retired the old men who have long passed their sell-by date. Asim Dasgupta is 69 now. In other words, he was 40 when appointed Finance Minister. Why has CPI(M) not made a 40-year-old its candidate for mayor in Bidhannagar? Is it because the party does not have too many members who are young and capable? Or is it because they still suffer from what might be called the “Soviet Politburo mentality”, in which once you were taken into the charmed circle you remained there till God sent summons? Since the Marxist icon Stalin did not believe in God, he solved the problem with a periodic purge, but that option is not available to Bengal’s Stalinists.

The odd thing is that four years after losing Bengal the Marxists have still not understood why. One phrase sums it up: Old Doctrine, Old Men.

Irrespective of localised results in a municipal poll, it is unlikely that the red flag, currently at limp half mast, will flutter under the leadership of tired old men. The interesting question is this: can leftists ever regain the space vacated by them in India’s electoral equations? Has pseudo-Marxism in India become as passé as Marxism internationally? The last outposts have fallen. China’s Communists have egalitarian intentions, but no longer believe that they can create prosperity through old, formulaic prescriptions. Cuba’s Raul Castro is beginning to see the light of radiant religion. He welcomed Pope Francis to his country by signalling that he could return to the faith. The pillars of Marxism have crumbled, leaving only good intentions behind.

The secret of Bengal-Marxist longevity lay not in doctrine but in a party machine. Their nemesis, Mamata Banerjee, understood this, which is why she simply usurped enough parts of that machine and adjusted it into her own networks. Simultaneously, the challenge of poverty is being addressed by political forces that owe nothing to the Left, and view this as a national mission rather than as part of an international revolutionary project. In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee wins because she has the support of the poor.

For three and a half decades, Marxists treated Bengal as their citadel, and it was a pretty effective fortress. Strangely, leftists never once believed that the doors of a fortress can also open outward; that it can be a secure base from which a realm, or an ideology, can expand. Instead they closed the doors upon themselves and retreated into an arrogant smugness.

Parties, like individuals, can become bed-ridden for many reasons; many have died an early death because of irrelevance. When an obituary of the Indian Left is written, it will be said that it died of complacency. It was not homicide, really. It was suicide.

Is it too late for recovery? No. But the Left does not need a doctor. It needs a miracle. Miracles require God. If the Left will not accept God, it should at least try a different Godfather.

 


M J Akbar
An article by:
M J Akbar

Islam and Burra Sahibs in 1965 Pakistan.

The Pakistan elite till the mid-Seventies, when Gen Zia led the coup that overthrew Bhutto, was a combination of Islamic tendency and Burra Sahib behaviour.

There is a small but significant question about the 1965 war that no one has asked and, therefore, no one has answered. Why did Pakistan codename the first part of its dual campaign after a small, rocky island off the coast of Spain and still in the possession of Britain? Why was the August 1965 assault, in which Pak-trained fighters posing fraudulently as “Kashmiris” attempted an insurrection in the Valley, called Operation Gibraltar? It seems odd, if not downright idiosyncratic. Except that it was not deception; it had a meaning that would resonate among militants in Pakistan.

Gibraltar begins life in history as the launch-pad of a Muslim Arab victory that changed the history of the world. Like so many Spanish place-names, it is a distortion of Arabic. The island was named by Arabs after Tariq ibn Ziyad defeated the Visigoth king Roderick, and laid the foundations of Muslim rule on the Iberian peninsula that would last till the middle of the next millennium. The Arab success was swift and stunning. As the iconic historian Edward Gibbon wrote in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, if the Arabs had moved west from west instead of turning east, Britain could well have fallen and minarets might have risen instead of spires in Oxford and Cambridge.

I cannot be very certain about the ambitions of General Ayub Khan, who was dictator of Pakistan then, since he was widely considered a realist, but the name certainly reflected the fantasies of his young foreign minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was the principal architect of Pakistan’s invasion of Jammu and Kashmir in 1965. Perhaps Ayub Khan was a realist only in comparison to Bhutto. Even after the comprehensive defeat of Pakistan in 1971, Bhutto was still talking of a thousand-year war with India.

Pakistan activated a two-stage plan in the autumn of 1965. The first, through Operation Gibraltar, was designed as a mirror of 1947-48, when trained irregulars, commanded and accompanied by regulars and officers, were sent to create an alibi uprising. The second stage was called Operation Grand Slam, which was to be conducted by formal troops of the Pak army. After some tense fighting, both were reversed, and Pakistan ended up losing ground across the line and an international reputation for foolhardy failure that it has not quite erased. But is there a clue in the name of the second stage as well?

Yes. Grand Slam is, as everyone knows, a term from bridge: the ultimate contract, and therefore the highest form of victory. By the ceasefire, there was nothing grand left about the mission, and the contract ended in shambles. But the name offers a hint about the mindset.

The Pakistan elite till the mid-Seventies, when General Zia ul Haq led the coup d’etat that overthrew Bhutto, was a combination of Islamic tendency and Burra Sahib behaviour. The bureaucrats and officers were Anglicized children of the British Raj, who ruled the country without much interference from the elected class, who might have brought the flavours and biases of the land into the higher echelons of Karachi, Rawalpindi [which was home to General Headquarters] and Islamabad. This conclave of privilege lived by the rules and etiquette of club life, spoke good English, and considered itself a benevolent necessity that was doing its patriotic duty by keeping the geographical unity of Pakistan intact. It paid occasional homage to Islam, when considered politically expedient, but not much more. Bhutto had the gall to tell the fundamentalists who objected to his preference for whisky, that he was only drinking alcohol and not the people’s blood. This class was socially, culturally and strategically attractive to its mentors in Washington and London, particularly in the Pentagon and Sandhurst.

That Pakistan is gone. It disappeared in stages, rather than overnight. Zia set the course during his long decade; he turned the annihilation of Pakistan in 1971 into a reason for reaffirmation of Islamicization, rather than its abrogation. His successors lost direction as new tides of religious fervour began to envelop the public discourse and then the polity. General Pervez Musharraf tried to reverse this process, but with the weakness of a dilettante. His heart lay in preservation of personal rule, not in bringing the nation back to its senses. He was the Bahadur Shah Zafar of the Grand Slam Sultans. The deluge did not wait for his departure; it came while he was in power.

Delhi has to deal with a radically different power structure in Islamabad. Those who claim office in Pakistan, even by democratic elections, know that survival is possible only through compromise with fundamentalists. That is one of the critical hurdles to any form of a peace process.

I cannot think of anyone in our country who would miss Bhutto, but spare a thought for Ayub Khan and his predecessors. It is no surprise that the General understood war much better than his arrogant civilian deputy.


M J Akbar
An article by:
M J Akbar