First Person | On the Same Side

Unless the army realises that the media is not an antagonist it will continue to miss the point about communication

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

Random thoughts flitted through my mind as I sat listening to the first annual army day press conference of the chief of army staff, General Dalbir Singh on 13 January 2015. Listening, because, like most other journalists I was also reduced to the status of a listener, instead of a participant. Every time I raised my hand to request an opportunity for asking a question, the moderator showed me his watch.

Hence, the stream of consciousness. What is the purpose of this press conference? What does the army or the COAS hope to achieve through this press conference, so on and so forth? However, before I expound on these thoughts, a quick low-down on the conference itself.

The press conference was unprecedented in its execution. To start from the beginning, the army had printed invitation cards for the journalists it wanted to attend the press meet, unlike the other services which send out a mail blast to all journalists (and save that much of money). Based on the invitation cards, small table-tennis racket-like cardboard placards were made with a number written on it boldly on one side and the name of the journalist on the reverse in small print. The moment one entered the hallowed portals of the Manekshaw Centre, one was handed a racket. The idea, explained a young officer tasked to distribute these contraptions, was that during the press conference one was to raise the racket and based on the number, the additional director general public information (ADGPI), who would be moderating it, would check the number against the name on the list with him. So he would able to call out the name of the journalist quite elegantly. So far, so impressive. But seriously, all this effort for a press conference!

Anyway, once the journalists settled down in the auditorium, ADGPI took the podium to announce a list of do’s and don’ts. More don’ts, actually. In no particular order, here they are: Don’t ask any questions with political ramifications; don’t ask any question on comments made by others; don’t ask any question on a subject whose purview extends to another service or domain; and don’t ask any question on issues pertaining to sensitive national security matters. And do’s?

There were two really: Do ask one question at a time and do keep your questions brief. To murmurs of disgruntlement, ADGPI promised a treat. “I will buy you beer later, but for now, you just have to accept these conditions,” he announced.

His final words on the matter were: “The chief has only one hour as he has to rush to another conference.” This explained why 10 minutes into the meet, ADGPI started pointing to his watch. No matter that journalists from such media as News Nation, Hari Bhoomi (the reporter first introduced the publication to the COAS before asking her question), Doordarshan etc were called upon to ask questions.

Finally, the penny dropped. The racket charade was done primarily to help the ADGPI identify which journalists would be allowed to ask questions. Sample the first question: Can you please tell us something about your life and early career in the army?

For those who came in late, General Dalbir Singh took over as the army chief on 31 July 2014 after a sustained campaign in the media by his detractors. One of his predecessors, General V.K. Singh had imposed a ‘Discipline and Vigilance’ ban on him when he was the Corp Commander, 3 Corps based in Dimapur. The ban was subsequently lifted by the then COAS General Bikram Singh in June 2012. As a result of these unsavoury incidents, General Dalbir Singh’s entire military career was dissected and analysed in the media for nearly two years.

Even if this was not information enough, General Singh has a Wikipedia page; the Indian Army website has his brief CV and several profiles of him are available online on various media sites. Yet, the chief took this question and spent over 10 minutes to describe his life and operational beliefs, how most of his career had been spent in field postings and how he applied the experience gained from Operation Pawan (in Sri Lanka) to his subsequent postings in the Indian Northeast and Kashmir.

It did not occur to COAS’ spin doctors that biographical questions have no place in press conferences, which by their very nature implies news and immediacy. Such questions are asked in individual interviews. But as said earlier, this was an unprecedented press conference.

Dalbir SinghGiven COAS’ busy schedule, not only were precious minutes spent on background information already available in public domain, the chosen few were allowed to flout the ‘don’ts’ issued by the ADGPI himself by asking multiple questions in the first instance. A few others were indulgently allowed to bypass the racket routine and barge in with their questions, because apparently those were approved by the army and were aimed to highlight the achievements of the chief in the short span of six months.

For instance, a question was asked on the undesirability of short tenures of officers in senior ranks. General Dalbir Singh has been cognizant of this malady which was introduced by the AV Singh Committee report to ensure faster cadre mobility. “I have reviewed this,” he answered. “And the process of addressing this has already started. I have ordered the extension of GOC tenures from 12 months to 14-15 months.”

Another question was asked on the 7th Pay Commission. The COAS was once again ready with the answer. “All the three services are united in this,” he said. Recently, all three of us (service chiefs) went for the presentation made by the Pay Commission. I requested the Pay Commission to visit forward areas to see for themselves the degree of difficulties that the troops have to face. It has already visited Leh and Kargil in the northern sector and Jodhpur in the desert. Next month (February 2015), it will visit the eastern command.”

The COAS also said that the army has identified more than 100 programmes for capability-building, out of which seven have been put in the category of critical areas for modernisation. Topping the list of critical items are the artillery guns, 814 of which have been cleared by the Defence Acquisition Council for the total cost of Rs 15,700 crore. Second in line are 3rd generation missiles (Rs 3,500 crore) totalling 8,000. Third are helicopters, procurement of which has been fast-tracked, according to the COAS, followed by upgradation of ‘A’ vehicles, purchase of assault rifles, bullet proof jackets and helmets.

Yet none of this found mention in the newspaper reports the following day; because from the media’s point of view, probably none of this made any news. The news had come out a few weeks earlier when the Comptroller and Auditor General’s and Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence’s reports were made public. Both castigated the army for abject levels of war preparedness, with troops lacking things as basic as balaclavas and PT shoes, forget weaponry. In fact, the vice chief of army staff made more news when he told the law-makers that army’s already depleted levels of war wastage reserves were being diverted to the new raisings (17 Mountain Corps).

Hence, when the COAS said that DAC has cleared artillery guns or procurement of helicopters has been put on fast-track, it just led to the sense of deja vu. It will be news when at least one of these critical programmes reaches fruition.

So why have a press conference when you have nothing to say?

Like so many traditions of the Indian military, the annual press conference on the eve of its raising day is one of the events that add to the build-up of celebrations. Since it is a commemorative occasion, the atmospherics are very important. To put a 60-minute time line is certainly no way to start on a pleasant note. If indeed the chief was busy, then perhaps the press conference could have been scheduled on another day. As it turned out, the chief did not seem to have a pressing engagement which couldn’t wait. After he was ushered out of the auditorium amidst protest by the journalists, he accompanied them to the dining hall and spent a reasonable amount of time there.

This reminded me of another press conference a couple of months ago conducted by the service PRO. Before the navy chief’s arrival, he announced that the chief had plenty of time, and he would answer everyone’s questions. Sure enough, the press conference carried on for nearly two hours, after which the navy chief came down to the lawns where lunch was served to further interact with journalists. No one asked him his biography!

The customary press conference is probably the only orchestrated occasion available to the service to showcase the best of their chief. However, no chief can come out looking in control of his time and office, if officers junior to him make presumptions about his availability or inclination. Surely, a chief can decide whether a question is undesirable or not.

If only more journalists were allowed to ask questions, perhaps, topical issues like the firing on the Line of Control and international border could have been raised. Perhaps, somebody would have asked him whether he fears that the situation on LC may escalate; Or about reinforcing the LC by easing out the Rashtriya Rifles from the hinterland; Or military exercises with the Chinese Army; Or implications on the ground of the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) and the Chumar incident. Perhaps…

Since none of this happened, tongues wagged about army’s botched efforts to protect the chief from exposing his various shortcomings to the media. This could not have been the intention of the officers involved in organising the press conference. In fact, I saw no reason why the chief needed to be shielded from supposed tough questions. He came across as a pleasant, confident and articulate person, quick to smile and communicate. Since he appeared to be more comfortable in Hindi, he answered most of the questions in that language. Why should that be the reason for sneering? And why should that be a reason for officers conversant in English to be embarrassed of their chief?

Finally, a word about public relations. It is unfortunate that despite nearly two decades since the office of public information was established, the army has not been able to evolve a standard policy on media interaction. Most importantly, it appears that the army has not been able to figure out what exactly is the role of the media. Even today, all reportage is viewed from a personalised prism of positive and negative. Criticism of a class of officers is seen as criticism of the institution and the ensuing displeasure is justified on the grounds of morale; as if one media report could affect the morale of the army.

Maybe the army needs the services of a professional public relations organisation. Perhaps, then it will understand that the art of communication is more than Psy-ops.


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