The Indian obsession with Pakistan has nothing to do with Pakistan

First published in The Friday Times, 3 August 2018.

It was funny to hear Imran Khan complain about being portrayed by the Indian media as “a Bollywood villain”. The Bollywood reference was endearing, a reminder of the things that bind us. But it was unexpected to hear the prime minister-designate complain about the Indian media in his first speech. By doing so, Imran Khan gave the Indian media way more importance than it deserves.

The impression that the Indian media is so influential in Pakistan boosts my ego as an Indian journalist.

Perhaps it helps Imran Khan’s popularity in Pakistan to be told that the Indian media dislikes him. The truth is that way too many Indians see Imran Khan fondly as the accomplished cricketer and the glamorous playboy, the heartthrob of the ‘70s. Any number of aunties will tell you how they would throng to the stadium to catch a glimpse of him.

Nobody thinks that any change of leadership in India or Pakistan can make any difference to the intractable conflict the two countries have been locked in. There has, for instance, been no substantive change in India-Pakistan relations since Manmohan Singh’s chair was occupied by Narendra Modi. Imran Khan as Pakistan’s prime minister will not be able to change much, and we all know that. There will be more of the same: pretence of talking about talks, a terror attack or three, nasty exchanges at the United Nations and barbs over Kashmir.

This writer has only one request for Pakistanis: please stop taking the “Indian media” so seriously. It is not as if people who watch Arnab Goswami’s Repuberty TV take it seriously. It is entertainment, a farcical comedy. One day a Modibhakt friend (our ‘youthias’ are called Modibhakts and, yes, I have some such friends) was watching Repuberty TV and his dad entered the room. “Put on the news,” his dad said, with no hint of irony. The channel was changed to India Today. Repuberty TV is not even considered news. I call it Repuberty TV because it is Arnab Goswami trying to re-live his heydays from his earlier channel, Times Now, which has become so right-wing we now call it Times Cow.

I do not watch these channels. Not that I watch any channel because I am a cord-cutter. I don’t have a cable connection. I took out my dish antenna so violently one day my neighbours thought I was attacking Pakistan (just kidding!)

Noida to North Korea

Repuberty TV is unlikely to grow up anytime soon. Like Benjamin Button ageing backwards, our channels have been regressing with time. Donald Trump is shaking hands with Kim Jong, Narendra Modi is visiting Indonesian mosques, Rahul Gandhi is finally adulting, Pakistan has stopped having de jure coups, China is becoming the new US, Elon Musk is no longer cool…the only thing that’s regressing is the Indian media.

Repuberty TV and Times Cow will not grow up because, like their Hindi equivalents, they are fighting a race to the bottom. These channels, like the internet’s fake news industry, are competing to be more outrageous than the other. The more they shock, the more people will watch them. For TRPs, editors and owners of these channels will do anything.

The only thing they won’t do is go against the Modi government, because you don’t target Dear Leader in a democracy, not until he starts losing elections. This is why they have earned the moniker ‘North Korean channels.’ So the next time Imran Khan complains about the Indian media, he should clarify whether he is referring to North Korean channels or regular Noida studios.

It would be better, however, to not complain about them at all. There are some things that are a fact of life. We learn to ignore them, for better or worse, and focus on the good things in life. You can’t complain all the time about that garbage dump around the corner, for instance. At some point it gets ‘normalised’, to use the favourite word of 2018.

These North Korean channels exist like garbage dumps, they have great TRPs thanks to the money they pump into distribution, marketing and manipulating TRP numbers. That does not mean they are taken seriously. They have become so outlandish that they don’t serve well the cause of even being propaganda vehicles. A propaganda vehicle needs some modicum of credibility. Why will anyone trust some cartoon-like mad man shouting on TV all the time?

Pakistan as a real place

The truth is that almost no one in India cares about elections in Pakistan, who become prime minister, how free and fair the polls are, what the issues are – no, nothing. The hits on websites will tell you there’s been very little interest. The North Korean channels would bash not just Imran Khan but whoever won the election, because that’s their set script. Pakistan-bashing sells for its outrage value, not because people are actually interested in Pakistan.

Apart from the issue of terrorism and security, Indians have become indifferent to our western neighbour. Perhaps the same is true of Pakistani interest in India. We Indians are among the most inward looking people – our newspapers have the least coverage of foreign lands. That is what Pakistan has become: just another foreign country.

That may seem like a strange thing to say, given how many times we hear ‘Pakistan’ from Twitter trolls in India, and from politicians who keep invoking ‘Pakistan’ in domestic elections. Prime Minister Narendra Modi does it too, every once in a while.

Sadly, the word ‘Pakistan’ in Indian politics is code for Indian Muslims. It is a metaphor, an idea, a ruse, a chimera, a mythical land, a place of the imagination, the other world, a different planet, a fantasy. The one thing it is not: a reference to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan

So when an Indian politician says, “Pakistanis will burst crackers if I lose,” he’s trying to say the local Muslims are unpatriotic. When someone says, “Go to Pakistan if you want to eat beef,” he is trying to say Indian Muslims will have to live as per the diktats of Hindutva extremists.

As for Pakistan itself, no one cares. In the years to come, Imran Khan’s charismatic, if controversial, personality could perhaps change that. Here’s a quick-fix suggestion if he wants to become a Bollywood hero again: make the visa regime easier. Give a lot more visas. Unilaterally. Let Indians come and see the real Pakistan, as I did last winter. When they see your beautiful, colourful, diverse and warm country, they will realise how stupid they have been all this while.

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