“Speaking for the Entire Country:” An Interview with Ashok Malik, Former Press Secretary of India
India has come under an increased international gaze in recent months for a variety of reasons. Headlines have been made about farmers protesting against new agriculture laws, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s push for a “Uniform Civil Code,” the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world (behind the U.S.), and continued religious conflict.
Former Press Secretary of India Ashok Malik follows a doctrine of pragmatic optimism when speaking of these issues. Though he apolitically reserved both criticism or support of his government’s actions in our interview, he defended his country against concerns that I raised from the “outside-looking-in” perspective.
As I pressed him on these topics a few months ago, not everything could be answered in his role as a current bureaucratic official in India’s Ministry of External Affairs. But from what he did, his patriotism and hope for India’s future shone through.
More of our interview will be posted to AYCE’s website.
Here are some of the main highlights of what the former press secretary had to say as a journalist, policy analyst, and bureaucrat in our discussion.
When you were the Press Secretary of India, it was obviously a very different role compared to what our audience is used to, which is that of the American Press Secretary (a very biased, partisan administrator). What’s the difference between what your role was serving the head of state, an apolitical official, instead of the head of government?
“As you correctly said, the President of India has no executive authority, just like the Queen of England or other monarchs. In this role, he or she is above politics. The nature of the job does not require the President to make controversial statements, so the less that he was in the news, the better I was doing my job. But it’s worth noting that I was the first political appointee in this role, chosen by a committee of politicians.
In that sense, my job was to… keep [the president] out of controversy (which I think I managed). I had an advisory role beyond the media and I also wrote his important speeches, which was a very educative experience. As President, he’s speaking for the entire country: not just for one party, one position, or one school of opinion.”
If we were to look at Indian journalism in a global scope, we can’t say that Indian news sources are necessarily rivaling big news outlets like the BBC or CNN. What is the biggest challenge facing these news outlets to become more globally influential, even as India gets closer to becoming the most populous country in the world?
“The BBC World Service and CNN International were designed from day one as international outlets. The Hindustan Times or the Times of India were designed from day one as being newspapers for Indians (or for those interested in India), rather than a global audience. If you live in New York, for example, you’ll probably log onto one of those websites only if you’re interested in India.
Is there a need for an Indian voice out there internationally? Yes, there is. But let’s not kid ourselves: even as the Indian economy grows, it’s still nowhere near a major Western economy in terms of global linkages. But as it continues, it will wire out a much larger footprint. Then, we’ll see the desire to put out the India story and a greater receptivity for news coming out of India.
We’re still in the beginnings of that journey.”
Religion and Farmers
In 2017, the Pew Research Center determined that India ranked 4th in religious intolerance around the world. Even the United States’ International Religious Freedom Commission just categorized India as a “country of particular concern.” We’ve seen political theories like the Hindutva doctrine or policies like the Citizenship Amendment Act greatly polarize Indians, and the world is closely watching these tensions. India has had a long history of religious disputes since Partition, but why has the country recently become more concerning to the international community now, compared to, say, 10 to 20 years ago?
“Surya, you’re quite frankly asking me a question of a political nature, which as a public servant I cannot really answer. Having said that, I’ll leave you with some broad thoughts: