There is an old Chinese curse, ‘May You Live in Interesting Times,’ generally attributed to the 19th century story-teller Kai Lung. Scholars debate as much regarding its origin as whether it is just a saying or a curse. The track record of 2011 unambiguously lends this saying a cursedly attire if we look at how tumultuous and interesting the year has had been so far. What began as an Arab Spring was succeeded by an Indian Autumn; Pearl Roundabout and Tahrir Square receded into background while Delhi’s own Ramlila Ground came to acquire the centrestage. The architect of this precocious autumn in Indian political climatology was none else than a septuagenarian Gandhian from Maharashtra, Kisan Baburao Hazare, aka Anna Hazare. Whatever be the individuality, nationality or modus operandi of the 2011 unrests, they were marked by certain similarities in terms of overall character. Resentment against corruption and corrupt governments and the consequent collective actions in form of uprisings has been the common theme. Citizen Kane’s famous line, ‘If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough’, seemed to lose its erstwhile sheen for there was no dearth of interesting news making events and incidents.
Media, in general, and the Indian Media, in particular, desperately sets its eyes upon such interesting times as it is then that it finds its role consummated. In a nation where 24 hour news channels have become an inescapable reality, media seldom gets such opportune moments where the compulsion to manufacture and fabricate news becomes redundant given the magnitude of the news itself. Such a lifetime moment was Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption crusade. It is easy to gauge how our news channels might have behaved then! What followed was a blanket coverage of whatever small or big, trivial or noteworthy, unfolded at the Ramlila Ground. And, with this all the vestiges of civility and all the euphemisms were gone baby gone, gone into background, pushed into backyard. While our print media got lost in such expressions as ‘Government relents, Anna hardens’, little realizing what every word connotes; our news channels kept on flashing the exact seconds and hours of Anna’s fast. ‘Anna to Gandhi,’ ‘Anna Ka Anshan’, ‘Mai Hoo Anna’ were some of the most visible motifs blatantly at display. And, if this was all falling short of stoking up popular emotions, we had a campaign against corruption getting metamorphosed into ‘revolution’, ‘August Kranti’!
If this was revolution, then the Ram-Janmabhoomi Campaign was also a revolution. There was nation-wide mobilization and participation in form of Hindu kar-sewaks and they finally achieved what they had aimed at and brought irreparable chinks in our already fragile social structure. And, what about the Mandal agitation? Did our enlightened reporters and news anchors have the slightest inkling; leave aside comprehension, of what a revolution is? And, how could a movement for a bill be suddenly described as revolution? What radical and profound changes did it bring, or for that matter, how far was the old established order changed? If this was a revolution, then I must accept that we are a nation of revolutions. Thanks to the binocular effect that media presents, we had to perforce look at Anna as Gandhi and his cohorts as Nehru, Patel, and Sarojini Naidu. Such captions as ‘Desh Mei Laakho Anna,’ ‘India is Anna’ deluged our mental and emotional constructs. Sanity seemed to have been inebriated with Anna looming large and gaining strength day by day in geometric progression. What began as persuasion got covertly converted into dictation when Anna indulged in such slogans as ‘laao ya jaao’, forcing the government and parliament to kneel down in abject surrender. Media coverage was so insulated from moral considerations that it had actually begun to believe in ‘the public has the right to see all that I am seeing’ and Anna gleefully embraced their acts, ‘Yeh Prajtanatra ke chauthe khambe ne dikha diya ki woh baki teen khambo se zyada majboot hai’. News channels were in a mode akin to Sensex type reporting: ‘Anna ke Anshan ke 270 ghante poore hue’. While some were content with showing how small children were making ‘paani par Gandhiji ki rangoli,’ others were more than happy in orchestrating six-year old girls perched atop their fathers’ shoulders with a banner showing, ‘Sarkar corruption hatao warna chappal khaao’. This is not news by any yardstick of responsibility and accountability; this is stoking up passion, creating hysteria and mobilizing an entire nation towards anarchy.
Anna Hazare’s eyes and ears, perhaps, did apprise him or might have selectively informed him regarding how he was being portrayed all across the nation and the globe. The thin line between supporting anti-corruption and espousing whatever was happening increasingly got blurred amidst the din which was in full bloom on our television sets. And, wasn’t Anna ‘loving it’ all? A crusader for Lokpal Bill suddenly became the modern avatar of Gandhi. Does Anna not have an identity of his own, does he needs such props for the validation and vindication of his movement? It was sad to see him delivering one speech after another like our well-seasoned politicians, with the portrait of Gandhi lurking in the background. He had suddenly become omnipresent. Switch on to any news channel you would have found him. Sign into your Facebook account, he would already be there in postings of YouTube videos self-proclaiming about his credentials. At one point of time, Anna appeared to have beaten Aamir Khan when it came to self-promotion and the advertisement of his own production. And, our media was there to ensure that he remained invincible at any cost. Poor Ramdev would have been catatonic trying to figure out, where did all his anulom-vilom and lauki ka juice go wrong? After all, he, too, had blown the same trumpet!
The way Anna Hazare and the anti-corruption movement were projected by our media demands serious analysis. How could the tango be so perfect? The same media was silent when two of its time-tested protagonists were accused of involvement in the 2G scam and several of its maai-baap were found to have been complicit in the Commonwealth Games scam. A mountain out of a molehill wasn’t created then! And, to add to the horror, the same two media celebrities were found to participate in discussions and host shows after being in hibernation for quite some time. If this wasn’t archetypal hypocrisy, then what was it? Thanks to media, if there is one word that now the whole of India must be remembering after Jai hind, it is corruption, for day by day autopsy had been conducted on this word: corruption in bureaucracy, corruption in parliament, blah blah blah. However, while this surgery was being done by some of the most accomplished and venerable media surgeons, they did not consider it appropriate enough to have a small peek at what was rotting inside their own purulent body. How could it go unnoticed? How could the same lens which generally displays prismatic colors be so monochromatic? How could you be so munificent and overtly generous at one place and silent in other? So if this wasn’t a diversionary tactic, what else was it?
Such was the fascination, fixation, obsession and enamorment with Anna complete, that whenever he wasn’t visible, the cameras automatically veered away to his team members. It was pitiable to see Kiran Bedi waving the national flag while Aamir Khan and his group were performing the ‘Mitwa’ song. Seemed ‘Radha kaise na jale’ song from Lagaan was being enacted live before the entire country. Commentators on News 24 kept on discussing the prospects of Raju Hirani and Aamir making a film on Anna while IBN7 kept on flashing ‘Anna ka wajan 7 kg ghata’. A day earlier, when the government had rebuffed Kiran Bedi and Arvind Kejriwal, the duo were found to be complaining like five year kids before the media, ‘aaj hame data hai’. ‘Aaj Hame Data Hai,’ ‘Anna ka Anshan kaise tootega’ were repeatedly shown on all news channels as though some nuclear buttons had been advertently pressed on. There was not even a single channel which didn’t try to vilify the ruling party. What was grey was made to look pitch dark with little or no efforts made to understand the other side of story. Parliamentary democracy had been hijacked and the government put under immense pressure to the extent that the Prime Minister had to speak and speak loud that ‘I am not corrupt’. Never before were government and governance customized to look so dystopian and every dissenting voice made to appear phthisical! The entire Lokpal Bill Movement became a media-facilitated showdown between the government and Anna.
Even Big Boss edits sensitive scenes and conversations before going on air. But, in the live nautanki at the heart of Delhi, news channels kept anxieties building up, emotions running high and the entire nation on the edge. The atmosphere was kept histrionically charged up and finally it became so pervasive that even Arnab Goswami, the most famous face of Times Now and normally one of the most balanced anchors, lost his senses and began predicting events on the day of catastasis, the sizzling Saturday, a day branded by him as historic. He was so ecstatic that he began to behave like a tarot-card reader while the parliament was debating the Lokpal Bill. One of his constant refrains was ‘this is a historic day……celebrations going all across the nation’. May be I am being a bit myopic and failing to configure the hidden historicity in Arnab’s perceptions, but so surcharged was the atmosphere on the last day of the ‘haar-jeet’ muqabla that he forgot that he was a news anchor and tried being Irfan Habib and Yogendra Singh at the same time, fretting and fuming at anyone expressing a neutral viewpoint. The very lynchpin of a democracy is consensus and acceptance of diverse viewpoints, whatever they are and howsoever acrid they may be.
While surfing on Facebook, I found, “Anna ka Andolan ab Desh ke chhote chhote gaao-kasbo tak bhi pahuch raha hai….aur tod raha hai jaati, dharm aur umr ki simaaye….Paanch saal ka bachha ho ya chhiyanve saal ka boodha, koi ab beasar nahi…Dekhiye Maurya ki khaas report.” To me it looks more like the old Vicco-Vajradanti ad, than a sensible news report. Maurya TV was not alone in being blessed with such ‘vishesh’ and ‘khaas’ reports. And, give me a break, what is this ‘khaas’ report? A newsman and news channel are supposed to present what is happening with full fairness and objectivity. The principle of free speech doesn’t entail so much subjectivity where the real issue gets clouded. Why has the obsession with scoops stooped to such a level? In the twelve days tamasha at the Ramlila Ground, gossip news and tabloids which had little social value simply fed the voyeuristic needs of ignorant people. Media’s Anna or Anna’s Media ostensibly triumphed, yet the already oxymoronic concept of media ethics and real journalism lost.
Reflecting on post-Watergate journalism in ‘The Idiot Culture,’ investigative journalist Carl Bernstein noted, “Good journalism is popular culture, but popular culture that stretches and informs its consumers rather than that which appeals to the ever descending lowest common denominator. If, by popular culture, we mean expressions of thought or feeling that require no work of those who consume them, then decent popular journalism is finished. What is happening today, unfortunately, is that the lowest form of popular culture – lack of information, misinformation, disinformation, and contempt for the truth or the reality of most people’s lives – has overrun real journalism.” Our media, amidst Anna’s fast and break-fast, went light years beyond redemption and reproach.