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Chasing a spectacle

Print edition : Sep 23, 2011

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Anna Hazare ready for a media conference in New Delhi on August 13. Former IPS officer Kiran Bedi is also seen in the photograph. The campaign received continuous media coverage.-MUSTAFA QURAISH/AP

Anna Hazare ready for a media conference in New Delhi on August 13. Former IPS officer Kiran Bedi is also seen in the photograph. The campaign received continuous media coverage.-MUSTAFA QURAISH/AP

Anna Hazare's arrest gave the movement its momentum and the media a spectacle to cover.

ANNA HAZARE'S movement against corruption must surely emerge as the most televised and written-about event of the year, with the mass media giving it non-stop coverage. Newspapers on the whole were more nuanced, though most of them did succumb to the agenda that was being set by their fraternal counterpart, television. The print media devised novel ways of catching viewer attention, which had to be retained in the teeth of continuous and live reportage on television. Therefore it wrote innovative headlines, such as All roads lead to Annapolis, a reference to the sprawling Ramlila Grounds in central Delhi where the Gandhian sat on his indefinite fast. The devil was not in the detail. Viewer and reader attention had to be caught at any cost.

The Jan Lokpal movement in August managed to put the government on the back foot much more than the agitation in April had done. Had Anna Hazare not been arrested, there might not have been much to write about and the movement might also have found it difficult to sustain the tempo for a fortnight. The arrest gave the peg and the momentum to the agitation, along with the media coverage. The government had underestimated the impact of the televised event: with every successive day of procrastination, the headlines became more strident, the news anchors and reporters on the ground more hysterical, and the public reaction correspondingly high-strung.

For the youth, spurred by a sense of entitlement but faced with possible unemployment and a directionless future, the movement against corruption was the perfect antidote for their frustrations. It was amorphous, it had no political strings attached, and, above all, someone else was doing the fasting. After all, all that the movement expected of them was a burning desire to do something for India. There were no complicated questions, and corruption, or bhrashtachaar, as a stand-alone idea was easy to comprehend and react to. Therefore, barring the occasional voice of sobriety, the scope for a rational debate was just not there. By and large, the only village to be deeply involved in the movement was Anna Hazare's own Ralegan Siddhi. Much of rural India, reeling under the weight of double-digit food inflation, was out of the discourse.

The mass media, mainly television, went on as if it was because of their efforts alone that the agenda of corruption, mainly government corruption, had been taken up. Unsurprisingly, those who even mildly differed were harangued and berated for having failed to see the unfolding of televised history. It was no surprise that Hazare thanked the media repeatedly, including on the day he broke his fast. For the television channels, the organisers had provided enclosures to ensure uninterrupted coverage. It was, after all, a 24-hour show. One Member of Parliament aptly summed up the viewer fatigue caused by the non-stop coverage and made a plaintive request to the government to do something about the dabba, meaning television.

Barring a few writers in the print media, no one looked at the features of the Jan Lokpal Bill and the issue corruption except in a basic sense. Sections of the print media did a decent job of comparing what political parties had to say on the Jan Lokpal Bill, including on some of the not too positive features. But the rest chose to juxtapose the fasting and the issue of corruption as a contest between the Jan Lokpal Bill and the government's Bill.

There is no denying that there was a good deal of mobilisation, thanks to the televised coverage and to the social media of Facebook and Twitter. The Ramlila Grounds, Azad Maidan in Mumbai and Freedom Park in Bangalore became almost household words. Those who were curious, and many were, turned up to take a peek at what was happening. The basic appeal to people to participate in the movement was simple and uncomplicated. In July, as the build-up for the August programme began, the India Against Corruption movement described itself on the Internet as a non-violent and peaceful movement against corruption. Any person who has burning desire to do something for India can participate in the movement. Nobody is a representative of Anna Hazare. More than 570,000 people in India are already supporting the movement. There are no branches of this movement as it is not a Sangathan/NGO or any institution. Its aim is to develop a well organised communication structure to enable free flow of ideas. The IAC movement has more than 60,000 fans on FB and over 3,300 followers on Twitter profile, it said

A number was also given, to which people were asked to give a missed call from their cellphones, following which an SMS would be sent to them with details of the agenda on a daily basis. According to the digital brand management firm Pinstorm, which tracks Indian online entities daily and ranks their influence on the basis of their impact on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, the IAC movement featured among the top 10 online entities, which include MTV. By August, the strength of IAC's fan movement swelled to six-digit figures. According to another media-servicing agency, ZenithOptimedia Private Limited, and as quoted in the media, the genre share of news channels rose in the 12 days that Anna Hazare fasted. The time spent on watching news also doubled and viewership went up.

None can fault the organisers of the movement for their media management. The question is why the media allowed themselves to be managed so willingly, without posing any difficult questions. During Anna Hazare's fast, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokespersons hardly ever clarified their party's stand on the Jan Lokpal Bill, but no anchor found it worth pursuing. The views of the Left were not given adequate space in the electronic media, though some of the points they raised were accepted by the Jan Lokpal team. Interestingly, a Team Anna member mentioned, somewhat appreciatively, that while the Left had clarified its stand, the BJP had not. The emotive appeal of a 74-year-old man fasting while a Nero-like government looked on was the dominant theme of the coverage. Meanwhile, as the crowds swelled at the Ramlila Grounds, comparisons were made with Tahrir Square and the Jasmine Revolution.

The fast was over on August 28, but television channels did not take a break. On August 31, when Anna Hazare was discharged from the private hospital in Gurgaon where he was admitted, television crews followed him everywhere, some even boarded the Kingfisher flight to Pune and beamed pictures of a dozing Hazare. The viewers were told that South Indian food was served and he only had kheer. Breathless reporters spent the next few hours debating whether he would celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi at Ralegan Siddhi or stay the night in Pune. Almost all television channels covered Anna Hazare's movements live, all claiming that the coverage was exclusive. Will he rest or will he attend the programme in his village? was the question a reporter posed rhetorically. Like him, the viewers were also clueless. Another gushed, It is evident that every villager will come out to greet him but Anna won't like to participate in any of the programmes. The anchor in another channel asked his reporter with affected concern, But after a four-hour journey, he would like to rest, wouldn't he? At present the debate on television channels is whether Hazare should focus his leadership skills on getting the Armed Forces Special Powers Act repealed in Manipur or get involved in the Kashmir problem.

There have been protests against corruption, price rise and the government's anti-poor policies before. And they continue to take place. People have fasted, too, for long durations. Many progressive laws have also been enacted, without the advantage of 24-hour coverage. What propelled the government into action in those instances was pressure from the people, and a moral pressure to respond. Any attempt by the government to restrain the media on the grounds of their movement generating potential will be facile.

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