In the early 1980s, when the electronic media in India was made up entirely of government mouthpieces, All India Radio and Doordarshan, and anodyne government propaganda masqueraded as news, Khushwant Singh, the jolly Sardar of journalism, used to famously jest about the state of the electronic media across geographies.
When he woke up every morning, Singh would say, he would first tune into the US radio channel ABC and learn that the world, torn between the US and the Soviet Union, was on the brink of nuclear annihilation.
Alarmed, he would then switch to BBC Radio and be told that poverty and malnutrition in Third World countries was reaching catastrophic levels.
Now reduced to a quivering mass of nerves, Singh said, he would tune into All India Radio, where it was taboo to report on any "bad" news, and would be assured that all was well with the world.
Singh's joke about the manufactured sense of calm induced by propagandist media megaphones comes to mind everytime Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, as they did this morning in Bali.
Tempests may rage in Sino-Indian relations; both sides may be assiduously building up troops and armaments along their disputed border; Chinese troops may be making border incursions; China may be provocatively offering stapled visas to people from Arunchal Pradesh; India's oil diplomacy with Vietnam may have China hopping mad about intrusions in its sphere of influence…
But when Singh and Wen meet, even as ill winds blow all around, there's a certain curious becalming chemistry between them that appears calculated to soothe frayed nerves, like the early morning AIR newscasts that worked like Valium on Khushwant Singh.
This morning in Bali, Wen urged India and China to work "hand-in-hand" to ensure that the 21st century belongs to Asia. There are, he said, enough areas where India and China can cooperate with each other.
Singh, in turn, cooed like a turtle dove, committing India to developing the "best of relations" with China.
Diplomacy is, of course, the art of lying abroad for one's country, but what is it about the two leaders that allows them to be tone-deaf to the otherwise shrill nature of the diplomatic discourse between their two countries?
Both are specialists in their areas of scholarship: Singh is acknowledged as an economist of some repute — although that academic distinction has in recent times been eroded by his colossal mismanagement of the economy; and although, Singh is widely perceived to be too much of a babu and not enough of a political heavyweight, he has proved on occasion to nurse a Machiavellian streak that marks him out as an uncanny political survivor.
Wen, on the other hand, is a geologist by training who was elevated to the Communist Party's top ranks by Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China's economic miracle. Within China, he has come to represent perhaps the most human face of a faceless party – and is referred to as "Grandpa Wen" for presenting himself for photo opportunities whenever disasters strike. But in equal measure, he is reviled as "China's greatest actor" owing to his penchant for presenting a liberal face of China to the world media, while simultaneously overseeing the most severe political crackdown on dissenters in recent years.
For all its feel-good effect, the peacenik rhetoric that the Wen-Singh symphony sang in Bali is entirely out of tune with the day-to-day diplomatic discourse between the two countries, which is characterised by friction over everything from the long-running border dispute to geopolitical alignments to the components of bilateral trade.
There is certainly nothing inevitable about a downslide in Sino-Indian relations, but if the high-minded rhetoric is really to translate into positive forward movement on the ground, it doesn't take much from the Chinese side to allay Indian apprehensions.
Even given the convoluted course of the Sino-Indian border dispute, it doesn't help that China's strategy has been calculated to keep India off-balance with provocative territorial claims over the entire Arunachal Pradesh region and the Jammu and Kashmir area. And China’s courting of Pakistan, even going so far as to power its nuclear weapons programme as a foil against India, doesn't exactly reflect the bhai-bhai bonhomie that Wen and Singh seek to induce in bilateral relations.
For sure, there's a certain seductive placidity about the peaceable rhetoric that Singh and Wen seek to inject. But if the memo from their personal interactions don't reach their respective mandarins, their words will remain as divorced from with reality as propagandist AIR news bulletins of an earlier time.