A potted history of national television

Print edition : February 07, 2014

Photographers running past the Taj hotel during the Mumbai terror attack in November 2008. Photo: ARKO DATTA/REUTERS

Television journalists outside the Taj hotel during the Mumbai terror attack in November 2008. In the aftermath of the attack, "politics" joined "subsidy" as a dirty word on television. Photo: Shashank Parade/PTI

Rajiv Gandhi approached a well-known Bollywood producer and asked him to come up with a megaserial for television on the Ramayana. Here, the young Prime Minister with his wife Sonia in a tribal school. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

ONCE upon a time, when it was still a good word, “development” was Indian television’s single most important agenda. An experiment in the 1970s, called the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), had shown the way. The medium became the developmental message. Television screens warmed to the evangelical glow of this mission. They harped on the 20-point programme until it became second nature to bureaucrats, and programmers as much in the media as in the government—whether it made any sense or difference to the people themselves did not really seem to matter. Then, they introduced us to a young and modern and computer savvy Prime Minister as he set out, post an aerial career that had kept him removed from the ground realities, to engage with earthy politics. Television cameras were dutifully at hand as he strode, retinue of Ministers and officials in tow, into the heat and dust of villages, spreading his ready-made brand of development. They recorded, with watchful eyes, every ribbon cut by every Minister to inaugurate a scheme, site, road, bridge or building or anything that added to the development euphoria. It was all about Ministers and their ministrations, of course, in the public cause. By the end of it, there was development coming out of television’s and its viewers’ ears and the term became one of sufferance in the media.

Those were, unlike now, days of orderly television conduct because those were times when television was owned solely by the government. There were clearly established procedures both on and off screen. In an interview, the answer was normally longer than the question, which was a good thing. Sometimes, especially when Ministers or VIPs were the guests, the answer was so long that there was no time for another question, or so final that there was no question of another question, or a question was framed to suit the answer they had come prepared with—all of which was not such a good thing because it looked like crony television (this was before the emergence of the crony capitalists whom the media picks on these days). Off and behind the screen, there were forms to be filled for everything. If a news producer got word that a fire had broken out somewhere, he proceeded to fill out a requisition form for the camera and the vehicle, and with some alacrity, lest the blaze died out before the unit arrived on the scene.

Epic choice

The young and modern Prime Minister also decided to mend some of television’s set ways. Studiously avoiding taking sides on religion, for instance. He had by now become politically astute enough to realise that Hindus, the vast majority in the country, could not just be left at the mercy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Congress had to cultivate them as a religious denomination. He approached a well-known Bollywood producer and asked him to come up with a megaserial for television on the Ramayana. There were at least 300 Ramayanas the producer could choose from. He did a cardboard cut-out fusion of the Valmiki narrative and Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas. Some scholars say the Tulsidas version of the epic was influenced by the perceived threat of a Muslim invasion in the 16th century. Be that as it may, the airing of the serial was a masterstroke of galvanising Hindu eyeballs for Indian television. The screen became an object of ritual religious worship when the serial was on.

Since the screen was owned by the State, its worship, it was hoped, would translate into support for the government and, therefore, for the party that ran it. But the people were probably more discriminating and secular than that and gave unto television the things that were of television and to the state the things that were of the state. With the telecast, though, an Indian epic had been converted into a Hindu epic. The persona of Rama had been converted into an aggressive and aggrandising icon in battle mode, about to unleash the arrow from his bow. The older, familiar pacific calendar art of a benevolent Rama standing with Sita and Lakshmana on either side, and Hanuman kneeling at his feet seeking his blessings, had become passé. The young and modern Prime Minister may have unwittingly set in motion more than a new television-mediated, homogenised, pan-national Hindu religious consciousness. He may have provided the momentum that set the wheels of the BJP rath yatras churning, leading to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

The independent channels

Meanwhile, in the 1990s, unbeknownst to this television of and for the government, independent channels, enabled by new technology, were stealing a march over it. In the era of liberalisation and globalisation, and under not-so-young Prime Ministers of the Congress, the BJP and again the Congress, television was swinging from the one extreme of the state to the other extreme of the market. Like “development” earlier, it was the turn of another word, “subsidy”, to become the butt of ridicule on air. A sanctimonious corporate ethic began to infect the screen, and television anchors began to lecture those in power on the need for market-friendly good governance. Good journalism, they say, is about talking truth to power. Television journalism was talking forcefully to power all right. Whether it was the truth was unclear. Politicians and bureaucrats continued to dominate the proceedings on the screen, but this time around they normally figured as scamsters or as defenders of corruption. Television was striking back and the political class was at the receiving end.

The initial response, by and large, of television, particularly the English channels, to the coalition governments at the Centre since 1998 and the miscegenation in politics, with regional parties rubbing shoulders with national parties, was one of middle-class standoffishness. It tended to caricature Lalu Prasad and Mayawati as dehati rustics and be impatient for neater and more sophisticated categories and configurations on the national scene. Not that these and other regional satraps were innocents from the hinterland caught in the bewildering city glare of the media. But the fodder and the Taj corridor scams seemed to get disproportionately higher coverage than the slicker misappropriation and malfeasance of urbane politicians.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008, “politics” joined “subsidy” as a dirty word on television. The security lapses that led to the attack were placed squarely at the door of the political establishment. The candlelight vigils following the attack were as much in sympathy for the victims as in anger against politicians. The anti-political class rhetoric on television fed into this inimical sentiment on the street. A good section of the urban middle class seemed to turn its back on politics. A series of scams unravelling and kept in the limelight on television did not help the respectability of politics and politicians. A non-political, even anti-political, middle-class mind space had been created and was rapidly expanding. Anna Hazare and his cohorts waded into this space.

Studio and street

In its coverage of the Anna Hazare movement, non-governmental television established a relationship of continuum with the street. The studio became, as much as the street, a locus of direct democracy. It showcased an assortment that accommodated a range of persuasions and types, from different strands of socialists to picaresque heroes like Baba Ramdev, and spoke like, more than for, them. Its agency was agent provocateur-ish. On the other hand, the leaders of the established political parties treated the movement with disdain. The Congress Chief Minister of Delhi advised the leaders of the movement to move into politics and fight elections and win, and not dictate from the street, if they wanted to change the system. She must have been supremely confident that there was no chance of this happening.

But an influential section in the movement took her advice, stepped out of the Hazare line and reinvented itself as the Aam Aadmi Party. The party was born out of the movement. If there was a midwife, it was television. It was a motley group with a common maximum programme against corruption. There were no ideological underpinnings or other such theoretical liabilities that tend to cramp the style of political parties. From anti-politics it adapted quickly to politics. It explained to itself and to others that (much as it might have misled us into thinking so) politics was not a dirty word. It was the politician who was dirty and had to be cleansed. It was protean and open-ended. It could speak the language of the moment. Corruption loomed so large and was so in your face that it needed little else to recommend it to the people.

Television has not let it out of its sight for a moment since its birth. Indeed, if it had not gone out there and won an election, one would think it was part of a reality TV show.