It was Frederick the Great of Prussia who said that he and his people had come to a mutually satisfactory agreement — they were free to say what they liked and he was free to do what he liked. Frederick obviously was an autocratic monarch who did not worry himself too much about the opinion of his subjects.
Present-day governments can hardly afford not to appear to care, so they do the next best thing. They mould opinions and perceptions, as do toothpaste sellers, fashion designers, car manufacturers or anyone else who can sell anything at profit. By doing this, governments try to ensure their perpetuity while the manufacturer does it for profit. Perception management by governments is called propaganda and psychological warfare (psy-war), while the private entrepreneur calls it advertising.
Psy-war is as old as history and an essential ingredient of Statecraft. It is the fourth arm of combat, usable all the time. Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Sun Tzu’s Art of War refer to this. The Nazis had their Lord Haw Haw trying to undermine the morale of the British forces, while in the 1965 India-Pak conflict we had the popular ‘Radio Jhoothistan’. The Iraqis had someone who the invading Americans called Baghdad Bob, as he tried to boost the morale of his people in 2003.
In the Cold War’s early days, psy-war and propaganda were used to keep communism at bay. Saving Europe from Stalin’s depredations was the rallying call for America. Noel Coward, Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, the Rockefellers and the Henry Fords were part of an endless list of an American Who’s Who involved in this. Eminent Europeans also joined the enterprise. The CIA led this multi-million dollar campaign operating on the principle of plausible deniability. For 17 years, a CIA officer, Michael Josselson, managed the campaign with almost fanatical zeal. At its height, this programme of cultural propaganda had spread to 35 countries under the umbrella of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. The Congress funded magazines, held art exhibitions, organised philharmonic orchestras, ran a radio station from Germany, which quickly acquired 29 other stations, and ran the Encounter magazine.
Sometimes, things do get out of hand leading to spine-chilling realities. The 1960s film, The Manchurian Candidate, was about an American soldier captured by the Soviets and taken to Manchuria for brainwashing into an assassin. While the film was a box-office sellout, the Americans did have their very own controversial project — MK-Ultra — for mind control. There were experiments on unwitting human guinea pigs to assess the effect of mind-altering drugs like LSD — all in the name of protecting freedom. Earlier, the Nazis had similarly experimented and so had the Russians. This was a quest for dominance at its sinister best, showing excessive zeal born of arrogance. The results of these experiments are still shrouded in secrecy.
The Cold War was won not just through ‘Star Wars’, military alliances, friendly dictators, proxy wars and the Afghan jehad that overstretched the Soviet empire. The Berlin Wall came down as much through sustained efforts of the cultural cold warriors who had prevented an exhausted post-war Europe from succumbing to communism. The 1980s Afghan jehad was as much a case of perception management as a campaign on the ground; so was the 1991 Iraq war when instant global TV came of age as did Indian TV during the 1999 Kargil war.
It is more a case of managing perceptions or creating images in peacetime. The more innocuous ones are the larger-than-life images of a minimally clad Lord Greystroke a.k.a. Tarzan swinging from tree to tree in the jungles of Africa saving the British empire from cousin Kaiser Wilhelm, or Superman saving the world from evil.
These days ‘spin doctors’ are an essential component of governance and indulge in George Orwell’s doublethink — the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, accepting them and being able to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them. The current American concept of preemptive war really means that while war is undesirable, a war to prevent even a remotely perceived war is desirable.
Effective psy-war is to put forward and defend an idea or offer a better way of life. The ultimate test for a successful psy-war is when it appears not to have been carried out at all. The favoured tactic could be the ‘necessary lie’ based on some basic truth for it to be acceptable. It was this absence of any truth in the allegations that Saddam Hussein had acquired WMDs and was in cahoots with al-Qaeda that led to a catastrophic campaign.
In the Indian context, conducting a long-term psy-war campaign during peacetime requires unusual tenacity and hard work. We are dealing with an implacable foe, whose long-term objectives are at variance from current overt declarations, who cheats his benefactor habitually and connives at selling atomic secrets for ideological reasons. Under US pressure, Pakistan has made tactical adjustments without any change of heart. Benazir Bhutto’s disclosures in the revised edition of her autobiography, Daughter of the East, confirm this.
Besides, terrorists use modern communication systems for effective anti-State propaganda. Al-Qaeda leaders have used this from their hideouts in Waziristan. The ISI-backed Lashkar-e-Tayyeba has not only thousands of well-trained fighters, it has a huge propaganda network. Its main publication, Al Dawat, sells more than 80,000 copies at major bookshops across Pakistan.
The net has become the new medium for propaganda by terrorists or insurgent organisations. Easy and unregulated access and anonymity of communication has enabled organisations like the Lashkar, Hizbul Mujahideen and the LTTE to run websites. Nothing helps the terrorist more than having the media show mangled bodies and chaos that follow a terrorist attack. This is striking terror in the hearts of the people at no cost to the terrorist.
Since perception-building is a long haul, relying solely on the transient bureaucrat equipped with opinion but without expertise can leave the system stultified, dogmatic and even totalitarian. It is important for the credibility of such ventures that they are not required to support government policy in all aspects. It has become necessary to involve private entrepreneurs because they have the skills to act.
The Indian challenge is to make our presence felt abroad without this being seen as another boring government endeavour. A country that aspires to greater glory must have a credible voice. Image-building can be a collective national enterprise. Psy-war does not have to be a sinister venture. It is more about spreading the country’s soft power and its voice and influence, at least up to the range of Agni-III.
Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research and Analysis Wing