A media plan for the US: the Indian media's coverage of the US-India defence relationship - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 23 December 2011

A media plan for the US: the Indian media's coverage of the US-India defence relationship

by Ajai Shukla
[This paper was written for a seminar organised in New Delhi by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in partnership with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF)]


• The Indian media admires and favourably covers socio-cultural aspects of the US; but is negative in its coverage of US strategy and defence policy.

• The Indian media’s coverage of defence and strategy is strongly influenced by inputs from the Indian government.

• The Indian media tends to portray the US as fickle and unreliable.

• A narrative of continuing technology denial to India by the US generates negative media coverage of the US-India defence partnership.

• Washington’s defence relationship with Pakistan is another key driver of unfavourable media coverage in India

• The US has not evolved a suitable strategy for dealing with India. It tends to treat New Delhi the same way as it deals with traditional allies.

• The media sees CISMOA, BECA and an LSA as instruments for railroading India into a US-led alliance through the back door.

• There is a need for the US embassy in New Delhi to be more pro-active in regularly engaging with defence correspondents in India

• The US embassy needs to make a concerted effort to educate Indian defence correspondents on the regulatory frameworks that govern US defence.

* * * *

It was still dawn in early July 2001, when the new US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, greeted the diplomatic correspondent of the Indian Express . For the next hour, over strong black coffee, the newly arrived ambassador carefully set out for the journalist his expansive new vision of US-India relations. Blackwill, like his boss, Condoleezza Rice, believed deeply in the US-India alliance and carried an explicit mandate to raise the profile of US-India relations. Jaswant Singh’s recent dialogue with Strobe Talbott had already hauled the US-India relationship by its bootstraps out of its post-nuclear test low in 1998. Now Blackwill had the ambitious task of building the patchy relationship into an overt alliance.

Such a transformation would hinge, Blackwill realised, on fundamentally altering the way the Indian media perceived America and reported about it. And so he talked to a string of journalists about decoupling India from Pakistan; common values of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law; America’s vibrant Indian-origin community; and the business opportunities between India and America.

Blackwill’s interview featured prominently in the Indian Express next morning. The media also carried many subsequent interactions with journalists across the English mainstream media. Then US ambassador, along with his media advisor, Gordon Duguid, realised that they also had to address the vernacular press. As Operation Enduring Freedom unfolded, the Blackwill-Duguid team reached out to Indian Muslims, through interactions with the Urdu press. Their successful management of the Indian media holds lessons for today.

Yankee, go home! But take me with you…

As American media managers know, the Indian media, like the United States itself, is a complex, multi-faceted entity. Even in the early 2000s, the Indian media had print, television, radio and fast-expanding web-based components, each with their pressures and peculiarities. These groupings are further divided between the comparatively restrained English language media and the rather more raucous vernacular press. The Urdu press, which both reflects and shapes the views of a sizeable Muslim populace, provides an additional layer of complication; its coverage of American geopolitics has long been coloured by the presumption of an American “crusade” against Islam.

The US is an even more complex subject, consisting as it does of multiple wings of government; a uniquely independent legislature with enormous powers; a massive economy with multiple interest groups; a heterogenous people; a vibrant culture; and a range of lifestyles.

How does the multi-faceted Indian media treat these multiple US subjects? Most media observers agree that the Indian media is largely approving, even admiring, in its coverage of US popular culture and lifestyle, the economy and the increasingly successful Indian diaspora. In covering these subjects even the conservative Urdu media reflects the aspirations of a new Indian generation that eyes the US with longing. But in its coverage of strategy; defence; diplomacy; and geo-politics; the Indian media remains skeptical, even disapproving. This has its roots in the Cold War period, and in Washington’s long-playing engagement of Pakistan. Even post 9/11, Indian audiences --- and the Indian media accurately reflects their view --- remain uncomfortable with the assertiveness and interventionism of American policy and with Washington’s continued reluctance to openly confront Pakistan.

It was here that Blackwill scored heavily. His blunt condemnation of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism; public criticism of the Pakistan Army’s stranglehold over policy; and his skepticism about the “the peaceful rise of China” were guaranteed to resonate with the Indian media. In all his public statements and private interactions Blackwill packaged the Bush-Rice outreach in exactly the phrases that India wanted to hear. Washington was clearly balancing Blackwill’s overtly anti-Pakistan rhetoric with a different, more Pakistan-friendly, tone from the embassy in Islamabad, but the Indian media heard only what it wanted; Blackwill was assured a positive press.

Also driving the favourable coverage of the US during that period was a coincidental congruence of American and Indian strategic interests. In late 2001, Operation Enduring Freedom threw the Taliban out of Kabul, allowing India to re-enter that country. Early in 2002, during the Operation Parakram crisis, American diplomats tried to force Pakistan into acting more decisively and visibly against anti-India terrorism. But this inexorably changed when the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and Pakistan began assuming a larger role in Afghanistan. With American policy changing and the uncommunicative David Mulford replacing Blackwill, the Indian media reverted to portraying the US as a fickle, unreliable player.

The media pattern could hardly be clearer: favourable coverage of the US strategic and defence partnership would require a degree of geo-strategic congruence, and Washington to be publicly in sync with New Delhi’s core concerns in South Asia. Even though Washington privately concurs with India about the need to rein in Pakistan’s security establishment, this is not the message that the Indian media, or the public, read. Therefore, when it comes to reporting on the US-India defence relationship, the baggage of history that the Indian media carries is rendered even more burdensome by a new era of American support to Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

Defence relationship: structural flaws

If the Indian media generally approves of America’s soft power; and is selective in covering US hard power; its approach to the US-India defence relationship has been uniformly negative. There are two key reasons for this: firstly, a publicly accepted media narrative (which feeds off an entrenched government viewpoint) of decades of US denial of weapons and technology to India, which was first imposed during the 1965 conflict with Pakistan . While Pakistan was slapped with an equivalent ban, Washington had already militarily equipped its military in the years leading up to 1965. As the Indian media noted, Pakistan fought with US weaponry: its air force flew US-built Sabres and Starfighters; and its army fought in American Patton and Sherman tanks.

After India’s “peaceful nuclear experiment” in 1974, Washington spearheaded an international technology denial regime that severely hamstrung India’s indigenous weapons development programmes. That technology garrotte was tightened after the 1998 nuclear tests, when Indian research & development (R&D) organisations --- including establishments from the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) and the Indian Space Research Organisation --- were placed on the US Entity List. All this is part of the government; the popular; and the media narrative in India.

Though these organisations have now been removed from the US Entity List , the tight American export-licensing regime --- specifically the US State Department’s International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR) legislation --- continues to make the transfer of US high technology contingent on hard-to-obtain licences. US assurances about easing the flow of high technology are undermined by widely reported incidents like Washington’s refusal to permit US aerospace companies to provide the DRDO with consultancy in developing the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft .

The public negativity that such denials generate is exacerbated by agencies like the DRDO; and the public sector production units under the MoD’s Department of Defence Production (DDP); which blame development delays on technology denial regimes. The impression that defence journalists obtain, therefore, from technology-hungry entities like the DRDO, is that of a US government whose delivery falls short of its promises.

The second major reason for negative reporting on US-India defence cooperation is Washington’s simultaneous defence relationship with Islamabad. This has been highlighted starkly during the ongoing contest to sell the Indian Air Force 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). Media reportage on the two fighters offered by US aerospace companies --- Lockheed Martin’s F-16IN Super Viper; and Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet --- was predominantly negative, mainly because the F-16 is even today the frontline fighter of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF); and was regarded for many years as the most likely delivery platform for a Pakistani nuclear strike on India. Although Lockheed Martin regularly pointed out that the PAF’s F-16s are inferior variants of the Super Viper that Lockheed Martin was offering the IAF, this technical argument was unsustainable, given the damning optics of such a proposal. Unsurprisingly, the Indian media viewed the offer as an “unethical attempt to make money off both sides of the India-Pakistan conflict.”

The media’s anti-US stance on defence cooperation, it must be reiterated, accurately reflects Indian public opinion; the government perspective; and a large majority of India’s strategic community. Even the most cursory empirical analysis would indicate that America has failed to convince India’s media and defence watchers about its bona fides in seeking defence cooperation with India.

The unfortunate superpower habit

In their domestic functioning American leaders and officials are accustomed to treading with extraordinary sensitivity. In foreign relations, however, even in interacting with its closest allies, the US tends to behave like a brash superpower. Washington mostly gets away with this. Its traditional allies --- the UK; Japan; Australia; and South Korea to name a few --- have long been used to a relationship of apparent subservience. Most of them were compelled by their diminished post-World War II circumstances to follow the US lead; and they have experienced the benefits of US leadership, which allows them to punch above their weight in the international arena. Washington’s more recent allies, particularly eastern European countries like Poland and the Czech Republic that aspire to shake off Russia’s overbearing influence, also have no choice but to accept inequality.

In engaging India, however, the US encounters an unprecedented paradigm: a multi-aligned country with growing international stature; in which neither government, nor intelligentsia, nor media, are convinced of the benefits of partnering Washington. There is near consensus within the Indian media that the US needs India more than India needs the US; and that the US is an opportunistic and fickle ally.

Washington, however, apparently oblivious of its dubious currency, demands that New Delhi structures the defence relationship according to American rulebooks. Sustained pressure from the US State Department and the Pentagon for New Delhi to sign three defence cooperation agreements --- the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA); the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA); and a Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) --- has evoked uniformly negative coverage from the Indian media, which sees these as instruments for railroading India into an alliance through the back door.

Only now is Washington internalizing that Indian domestic politics; and New Delhi’s strategic antipathy to anything resembling an alliance, preclude the signing of these “foundation agreements” . The removal of this demand from the public agenda during US-India interactions has paid immediate dividends in terms of more positive Indian media reportage. With these obstacles having been bypassed in the recent sales of American aircraft to the IAF (viz. the C-130J Super Hercules and the C-17 Globemaster III) the Indian media has reported on these acquisitions in far more friendly terms than the earlier reportage about the MMRCAs.

Media management: feeding the beast

Even given the US embassy’s sophisticated, highly structured approach to “media management”; and its effective mechanisms for information dissemination, there are simple measures that might make some headway in positively influencing media reportage of the US-India defence relationship.

Currently, America is losing the battle of perceptions by default. While multiple wings of the MoD put out information from the Indian side; the US embassy in New Delhi --- and particularly the defence section --- remains highly constrained in interacting with the media. Given the technological superiority of American military equipment; given the enormous traffic in military-to-military exchanges; and given the number of training exercises that the US and Indian militaries cooperate in, there is a great deal to talk about. But off-the-record media briefings, or discussions on background --- the meat and drink of reportage anywhere --- are simply not conducted by the US embassy. Increasing the interaction between embassy and the relatively small community of Indian defence reporters should be an urgent priority for the US.

Media interaction in the US embassy is more biased towards engaging senior editors, not the defence beat journalists who actually write the stories. Talking to the editors might well generate favourable opinion columns; but it is sustained interaction with the beat journalists that is more likely to generate favourable news reports. Even a relatively junior defence beat reporter must be able to call the defence section and obtain a response to any story that is going out.

Another proposal that might reduce the negative friction from complex US government processes would be to acquaint Indian defence journalists (and indeed diplomatic correspondents) with the legislative and decision-making structures of the US Congress; the State Department and the Pentagon. Even with the best of intentions, it is near impossible for Indian journalists to comprehend the complexities of the US regulatory framework whilst operating from India. The US embassy could consider sponsoring specialist courses in American institutions that deal with licensing; procurement; budgeting; and defence planning processes.


Unfavourable media coverage of the US-India defence relationship stems from a popular perception, shared by the media, that America is a fickle and opportunistic ally that continues to prop up Pakistan, while simultaneously pulling India into a potentially embarrassing alliance. Given this fundamental distrust, clever media policy or the effective dissemination of information will achieve only limited success in generating more positive media reportage.

Instead, Washington will have to review the fundamentals of its engagement with New Delhi. It will have to learn to deal with a more equal partner than its traditional allies, and to be more watchful of Indian core interests in South Asia. This would require structural changes to US foreign policy in South Asia. Events other than the relationship with India are already driving such a change; and a significant hardening of America’s approach to Pakistan might well catalyse a major improvement in the US’s media profile in India.

Meanwhile, the US could benefit from acquainting the Indian media with the complexities of the American political, legislative and budgeting processes so that reportage in India can be more understanding of the imperatives and constraints that make Washington sometimes appear a more difficult partner than it actually is.


  1. Dear Col. Shukla,
    Excellent article, i do hope the US Embassy and especially the incoming Ambassador Ms. Nancy Powell reads it and acts upon it.

    Am sure you will be accused of being an 'Amriki agent' by the usual suspects and they will see conspiracy in your advocacy of F-35over Rafale & Eurofighter :-).


  2. Col.Shukla
    Don't you think that the US media has also been framing a negative image of India after the down-select in M-MRCA. they had assumed that one of their contractor's would go through the deal
    The Americans always want to have a share in every country's defense pie but are not ready to accept competitors from other nations as it would pose a threat to American defense industry.

  3. It is a odd article, in light of the Russian ambassadors comments and the following...

    "Media interaction in the US embassy is more biased towards engaging senior editors, not the defence beat journalists who actually write the stories."

    Is Broadsword trying to sell itself as a defence beat journalist looking to cooperate with the American embassy by addressing this point?

  4. It is an excellent and well analyzed article.

    I think the priorities shall be kept as following:

    • Washington’s defence relationship with Pakistan is another key driver of unfavourable media coverage in India.

    • A narrative of continuing technology denial to India by the US generates negative media coverage of the US-India defence partnership.

    • The US has not evolved a suitable strategy for dealing with India. It tends to treat New Delhi the same way as it deals with traditional allies.

    • The media sees CISMOA, BECA and an LSA as instruments for railroading India into a US-led alliance through the back door.

    • There is a need for the US embassy in New Delhi to be more pro-active in regularly engaging with defence correspondents in India.

    • The US embassy needs to make a concerted effort to educate Indian defence correspondents on the regulatory frameworks that govern US defence.

    • The Indian media tends to portray the US as fickle and unreliable.

    • The Indian media admires and favourably covers socio-cultural aspects of the US; but is negative in its coverage of US strategy and defence policy.

    • Washington’s defence relationship with Pakistan is another key driver of unfavourable media coverage in India.

  5. If there is one thing that's same between us and our western neighbour, it is the strange love-hate relationship between our countries and USA. Indians still consider Pak to be the puppy of uncle Sam. Uncle Sam's action during the cold war era and Afghan war is too difficult to get rid of so soon. However, it is in the imminent interest of India to align with the USA to make a new world order. Chinese are no longer sitting on the fence and waiting for US to weaken, they are activelyu asserting themselves in the South China sea and elsewhere. Soon the enemy will be at our gate and we have move fast to preempt it's growing muscle power.

    However, given the total lacuna of strategic thinking and the insipid leadership of Manmohan Singh, I doubt if anything will be done and we would have missed the boat.

  6. This is tdblog@yahoo.com:

    That is a humongous article, probably the longest one so far that I have read on Ajai's blog. Great way of repaying where your parent companies bread & butter donations come from.
    You have your opinions and I have mine, so lets keep it like that. Please dont reply the way you treat other bloggers comments in your replies. You are no more a god then a mere Indian like me.

    Now for the objective analysis:

    1. India thankfully has become a very smart shopper, buying the transport planes for their features from US, although a costly maintenance but an assured one, since the American spares will arrive for sure.

    2. Not buying any piece of technology transfer required defence assets from US, you name it anything CISMOA etc. This is not an accounting or audit firm where US can demand any time audit or refusal to be used in a particular situation that the US doesn't agree to.

    3. US is the biggest example of discriminatory laws in the world. They have a very different set of laws to protect their customers or citizens and their country as a whole. And they are equally tweaked when those same US companies seek deals elsewhere in the world. Europe is way better in these ones especially UK.

    4. When we Indians consider Pakistan and China as our biggest threat, lets us objectively analyse the situation. It is China and US which have for their vested interest supplied Pakistan with money and arms. So the two biggest threat right now is China and then US, Russia and France too might sell arms to pakistan, but that is a neutral scenario and not strategically driven. France has very clear policy, have money will supply all arms and ammunitions.

    5. F-35 is no better then the same age comparisons to F-16, simply put it is a single engine plane, no techlogy transfer and not at all cheap. All these points together make it a hugely costly mistake, even to think of F-35 is blasphemy.

    6. Japan is under US umbrella protection and hence it has lesser choice then to opt for any other countries plane. As for India, we have to fight our own battle, be it against techlogy embargo from US and Europe or war with China and Pakistan. So we need to be more self reliant and manufacture the PAK-FA SU-T50 from scratch like the SU-30MKIs and only import the engine and engine supports with an aim for being completely self reliant in the longer run.

    7. US is out to openly exploit any and all of its allies and hence lets play ball with them till they can deliver benefits to us.

    8. Second last point in the summary list is like a Journalist begging that pls keep sharing more information and engage with me more frequently so that I can continue doing my job and earn my livelihood, that is the most ridiculous of all so far.

  7. USA is unwelcome mainly because it has not opened its cards on issues like Kashmir, although US has managed to drum up anti China beats in India which is almost irrelevant because no nation will attack another nations with which it trades more than 100bn annually...and irrespective of what India media might say Pakistan is still the biggest concern, because they hav got nukes and they want kashmir too...as far as US is concern it should stop meddling in India's internal issues...it has flared up protests against nuclear power plants in India and it is supporting fake anti graft movement..through its proxies..it has maligned Russia and is fuelling protests in Persian Gulf and Russia...in such an atmosphere how and why shud I trust US and its policies...I don't understand what they want from us and unless I understand that I find it hard to trust them...and no matter how much branding they do...its almost impossible to buy human trust...u can buy humans but to buy trust is a different ball game...

  8. Good article especially the front end.

    I thought the latter part was a bit self-serving and transparent - maybe your angling for 'sponsorship' yourself or want to be first one on the list!?

    Merry Christmas


  9. @ tdblog

    Your allegation: "Great way of repaying where your parent companies bread & butter donations come from."

    Do you even have a point, or are you just doing the usual crappy Indian thing of making allegations to cover up your lack of substance?

    Just to place on record: I don't have a parent company. I work for myself... I'm an independent consultant who is widely published. That's far more than you can say for yourself.

    You plead: "Please dont reply the way you treat other bloggers comments in your replies. You are no more a god then a mere Indian like me."

    Dost, I'm not a "mere Indian". I'm a proud Indian. I've served my country for 26 years in uniform, carrying a gun to places where you would never go.

    You, on the other hand... none of us here are sure at all of what you've done for your country. Or who your masters are.

    So when you have an argument, make the argument. Don't try slander. It doesn't work with me.

  10. @ tdblog

    I'm not publishing your extended rants. They're too verbose, they lack content, and they would waste the time of serious followers of defence who visit here.

    You might like to set up your own blog and propagate your views there. A pity nobody will visit to read them, but tough shit. Broadsword is not going to become a platform for uneducated, pompous nitwits to air their views at great length.

  11. In short pay us defence correspondents more in cash and kind to project you. is that what you are saying? To me it looks like an offer of quid-pro-quo

  12. I personally think comments are getting too personal. Be objective. As someone who has also held India's flag high in places where the blogger may not have gone, nor seen the slaughter I have (that I am SURE) let me tell you to trust America in fighting arms will be most suicidal. Does the blogger remember the Navy coming back from deployment without orders from Command during operation Parakram? Thats because there was a teeny weeny US communication equipment on board. How can we be sure that US will not disable our equipment at crucial points? Can we take the risk? what will happen if there is an embargo(like before)? Will we be forced to reinvent the wheel like the FC of LCA?
    We all know there will be no REAL Technology transfer from US of A.
    Are we going to pay money to USA by buying so that same or similar equipment is given to pakistan FREE - in effect we are paying for Pakistan as well. Please address these issues also.

  13. why should we care of US regulatory mechanisms if they are against our interest? They ask US to change laws if they are against their interests. We should do the same because as their economy is in doldrums they need our custom so let them change the rules. We also need assurance that rules will not be brought in to change terms of contract. Otherwise there should be no defence trade.

  14. Strategically the latest triangle is such that India can not partake with NATO, but India can partake with SEATO. Moreover India can partake with CENTO provided the Pak gets dissolved back. Now it is for the others to make the room accordingly.

  15. Col - another bull shit and your usual rant and rumbling. Technology denial is reality and therefore report it rather than volunteering for gate pass to US embassy.

    To AMERICANS - convince us people of India that you can be trusted. No point convincing salesmen - politicians & 'meat and drink jurnos'.

    Col - If you have to suck up to Americans, swallow your Indian pride and do suck up. Indian public perception for US will remain negative until they change biased policies - mere management of public perception will not help. As you said correctly, negative perception about USA increased after Blackwell exit because no positive development has happened on the ground after Bush-Blackwell-Rice exit.

    Sample this "Israel bars AESA radar export to India" Source: http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/israel-bars-aesa-radar-export-to-india-351666/

    Friends don't do this. This happened much, much before down select..so we now have Germans & French to collaborate on AESA. Also, treat this as a rebuttal to your T-90 and Russia bashing.

  16. Ajai

    At least, you have accepted that there is a concerted US effort to 'manage' Indian media; and it has been going on since quite a few years!

    No wonder we see, minor issues with Russia getting blown out of proportion, and at the same time issues with US(historic at times) being shown mildly!

    During the past few weeks, when classified reports of 1971 were declassified, Indian media, put a rosy picture of US vis-a-vis India and falsely at that!
    Whereas 'The Bhagvad Gita' issue made it to the Indian parliament!

    I don't think any free thinking Indian is seriously opposed to US, as long as they meet us as equals without trying to 'manage' our internal affairs!
    And the US should focus on its own actions, rather than trying to alter our opinions on their actions!

    Biases, if it exists within us, will change with time, one cannot change symptoms without changing the root causes of the issue!

  17. tdblog@yahoo.com to Broadsword:
    reply to Broadsword @16:03.

    Not publishing on your blog is ok, cause I am not in publishing business and moreover it had become a one way conversation from your side to me rather then for the blog and the blog merely became a medium of delivery of this messages.

    I doubt if you have answers to any of the objective points I raised.

    But truly the most filthy form of language one could use in a public forum from your side Ex. Col. Dunno if that suits your repute, a pity.

    I am sure you found the same or similar tone in comments you chose to publish after our conversation, and sure they were all with great substance...!

  18. Col. Shukla,

    In your post, you have eloquently posted what US should do in terms of its media management to further its aims.

    My simple question is, how does it matter to India? Does it help furthering Indian interests - since the short answer is no, I would have truly appreciated your post if it was the opposite, how should India control the media management in US to further India's interests.


  19. The ad hominem criticism of Ajai is, for lack of a better term, retarded.

    I mean if he wanted to sell himself to the highest bidder he would hardly want to put it up on his blog!


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