Media overkill

Print edition : May 06, 2011

The electronic media set up make shift studios at Jantar Mantar to capture every moment of the movement. Here, Swami Agnivesh and Arvind Kejriwal being interviewed by a TV anchor. - RAJEEV BHATT

They played to the gallery, grabbing every opportunity to put Hazare's agitation centre stage.

THE movement against corruption led by Anna Hazare had the media completely on its side. The agitation, which began with Hazare announcing that he would begin an indefinite hunger strike on April 5 demanding the passage of a people-inspired Lokpal Bill, ended on April 9. The five days of the agitation saw the mass media, especially the new media, in a burst of hyperactivity, making calls to support the cause and stand with Anna and posting or forwarding e-mails to spread awareness about the man and his mission. One headline, India wins again, Anna Hazare calls off fast, summed up the mood in a section of the media. The support for the cause was so loud that any dissenting voice was stifled with the argument that the critic had little knowledge of the phenomenon that had been unleashed at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Incidentally, almost every day people's protests are held at Jantar Mantar, but seldom do they capture media attention.

A case in point is the march to Parliament organised from the spot by more than two lakh workers of the organised and unorganised sectors on February 23. The protest was as peaceful as Hazare's satygraha, but it was completely ignored by the same media that set up makeshift studios at Jantar Mantar to capture every moment of the movement, which was essentially one led by the middleclass. The euphoria created by the methods employed, such as coming out on the streets with candles and other paraphernalia, was such that some people even described Jantar Mantar as another Tahrir Square (equating the agitation with the popular protest against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo).

Not many in the media found anything wrong in the de-politicised language of the movement, especially the gory references to feeding politicians to the vultures or describing politicians as dogs. The sweeping disdain towards politics and politicians in the understanding that all politicians are looters seemed to indicate that here was a movement and a media that were quite oblivious that politics was more about eradicating corruption and that the movement itself was very much restricted to the urban middle class. The mild contempt that Hazare himself reserved for the electorate who, according to him, was easily bought with a bottle of wine or hundred rupees was baffling in the least.

The response to the agitation was clearly confined to the cities. At some places, people organised protests to articulate their long-standing demands in the backdrop of Hazare's fast. To that extent, the agitation may have been a rallying point, albeit a short-lived one. There was clearly no rural upheaval visible though the electronic media tried hard to convey that India had finally woken up. With 24-hour electronic coverage of the movement, which roughly coincided with the last week of the election campaign in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puduchery, it was the newspapers that people turned to for news.

While blow-by-blow accounts of small groups of people marching in various cities 79 cities, some estimated and their expositions on corruption and politicians were beamed repeatedly, the movement of India Against Corruption was being deconstructed in newsrooms with celebrities and persona from the Mumbai film industry holding forth on the ills that plagued the country. The media were divided, but it was just not possible to speak out critically against the movement. Much of the panel discussions were one-sided with a lone critic, who had perhaps been roped in to give balance to the coverage. One senior editor of a leading English newspaper explained on one of the television channels, while being guardedly sceptical, that one of the greatest lessons from the agitation was that the political class could not ignore the middle class anymore.

The Internet was a big mobiliser, as were SMS transmissions, thus benefitting the revenues of the telecom sector considerably. The headlines in newspapers and their electronic versions were equally hyper. On the website of one newspaper, the day's hot topics were listed as Anna Hazare/IPL/Muammar Qaddafi. Thanks Anna for the young awakening, was the headline of one news report in which the writer gushed incoherently: For the first time in the history of the country, Anna has inspired a thirst among the youth and even kids whose areas of interest seldom exceeded the realms of cricket and Shah Rukh Khan. It is opening up a new vista of awareness that Anna has flagged off a revolution never recorded in the annals of independent India.

One editor of a prominent Hindi daily described the fast as a tsunami which will stay for some days, but not before adding that not every strike led by Gandhi himself was justified. Other newspapers did not want to be left behind in the coverage of the revolution. So there were small reports of a handful of ex-servicemen pledging their support to Anna Hazare in Chandigarh.

The movement against corruption continued on Facebook. An appeal was issued to give a missed call on a particular number with a Mumbai code exhorting people with the lines If you are with Anna Hazare in his struggle against corruption and want to officially support him. Some recommended hanging by death for those who were corrupt. Facebook posts like Our nation is crying, stop being the spectator, be the doer.... and others using the abbreviated SMS language, such as u dnt know anna what a place u hav made in our hearts by ur step ur r d ideal man whom india dreamt for so many years- we r all with u, Gandhi is back again the real star, and Not for me, not for you, this is for India are a few examples that illustrate the nature of the support. Satyagraha by SMS, India's only beacon, Anna Hazare: The real celebrity were some of the blog posts. Free videos of Watch Hazare, the voice of the millions and of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar were uploaded on Facebook. By April 8, there were around 21,833 members in the community called Join Anna Hazare's fast to bring the Jan Lokpal Bill. The Internet had revolutionised a revolution.

Even the celebrities who had thrown their weight behind the movement had a word or two to say about the Internet movement. Actor Anupam Kher, who got into trouble with his remarks on the Indian Constitution, told mediapersons that he would rather be at Jantar Mantar fighting to save the country than sit at home tweeting about Anna Hazare's wonderful crusade. A day before Hazare launched his fast in Delhi, a car-and-bicycle rally was taken out in Mumbai; as per newspaper reports, there were more cars than bicycles. A victory rally by the same lot was taken out on the day Hazare ended his fast. The media played to the gallery, grabbing every opportunity to put Hazare centre stage. When reports of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi appreciating Hazare's work appeared following Hazare's own statement on the great development work in Gujarat, a television channel lamented: Politicians try to steal Nana's thunder. The reporter concluded that everyone wanted a share of the Hazare pie either by generating a controversy or by appropriating his battle.

The slogans continued in newspaper and television reports. We need hazaar Annas: Bips (actor Bipasha Basu), said one headline quoting the actress; another said Be ready for a bigger battle, and a third read Citizen Anna, Agent Prashant. Even the reporting jargon got internationalised as reporters carried forward their messianic zeal. One prominent television anchor, who had parked himself at Jantar Mantar, repeatedly reminded the audience that he was reporting from ground zero.

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