India has been seen by the world through myriad prisms for a long time. From the epithet of ‘land of snake charmers’ and mystics to being touted as the next big emerging power, India keeps changing its imagery on the world canvas inside the temples of time. Nitin Pai, co-founder of Takshashila drove a session titled ‘Outside Looking In: Eyes on India’, that centred on how foreign entities viewed India and its story. Joining him were The Economist’s news editor in Asia and an India correspondent based in Delhi – Alex Traveli; senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations – Alyssa Ayres; writer, journalist, and author living in Singapore – James Crabtree; Max Rodenbeck, who writes for The Economist and has been Middle East Bureau Chief in the past; and author of “Asia Reborn: A continent rises from the ravages of colonialism and war to a new dynamism”- Prasenjit Basu.
James Crabtree in his opening remarks shared his view of the perception that many in India had about the foreign media being negative about the country and anti-Modi. He said that it was actually not true and a major part of the international media saw India in positive light. He also added that compared to a country like China, India was more open to scrutiny and as a result, journalists from outside have been able to comprehend India more easily.
Nitin steered the conversation towards Mr. Basu who admitted to have taken up on himself to promote the positive story of India because a lot of investors in the foreign countries happened to hold a negative bias. Mr. Basu also asserted that the media in Singapore too used to bring out all the negative stories about India thanks to a few journalists of the usual cabal who used to write opinion pieces churning out negativity. It was getting difficult to get the story of India out and in such circumstances, he decided to try to change the narrative.
Alyssa underlined the nature of audience that she wrote for as compared to the journalists on the panel. She mentioned that her writing was more focused on India-US relationship with a preference for the US interests in mind. Max Rodenbeck pitched in with a reflection on his coverage of Egypt and compared it to that of India which is already being covered by a number of media houses and journalists from outside. This makes the job more difficult. He also remarked that the press in middle eastern countries has been under constant pressure and as such their people rely a lot on the foreign journalists. India to him cuts a different picture where his first impression of the country was that of an open society that largely has a free press.
Nitin kept the audience amused by interspersing the session with his wit and packaged some serious sessions under the hide of sarcasm. On being asked why the Economist was so hostile towards India, Alex also reflected upon the Economist’s decision to support the Indian National Congress for the 2014 general elections and explained that although they did not hold votes here, they certainly thought it was their responsibility to inform the Indian populace about the better choice. He also brought out that Indian media too has been under constant duress and it was extremely easy to get a threat call from a politician in India.
Nitin put forth a comparison of the foreign coverage of India in the 90s when India was always put in the dock on issues like the CTBT (Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty) and NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons) and the country was always on the defensive to the present times when the narrative seems to have changed. Responding to Nitin, Mr. Basu added to his point and informed the audience about how the event of India overtaking China on growth rate did not find any coverage on the front page of major international publications. Also, according to him, economists have been knowing China’s economic crisis from a long time but only now has the press come out in open, admitting that they had read China wrong for the last 25 years.
Nitin asked Alyssa if the US viewed India more positively now. Alyssa admitted that there has been a positive change in American view of the Indo-US relationship and India had a much better visibility as an ally now. However, she added that the US still viewed world in verticals of Europe, Russia, major economies of Asia namely, China and Japan, and Middle East and since India has not been a traditional ally and neither there is any crisis looming large, US doesn’t have enough attention on India. The session closed with Q&A where questions were asked on subjects relating to controversial representation of India’s history by the west, arms race, and the 2019 general election with the last one getting deftly ducked by all the panelists but Max Rodenbeck and Prasenjit Basu who placed their bets on the BJP and Modi.
About the Author: A wanderer at heart, Vibhuthi is the author of Rainbow, an anthology of poems that was published in 2009 by Nishaganti Publication. She treads through life, by twirling with words, reading into pauses and looking for meaning. She currently writes for Bookstalkist.