A message and the medium

Print edition : April 28, 2001

Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India by Arvind Rajagopal; Cambridge University Press, 2001; pages 393, price not stated.

THIS book is one of the most significant of recent contributions to the literature on the history and political economy of the Hindu Right in India between the late 1980s and the early 1990s, a period that saw the exponential growth of the Sangh Parivar's mass base and ideology. Also, the book has been published at an interesting juncture.

Nearly ten years have passed since the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and in that time, although the long-term goals of the Hindu Right have remained the same, its political practice has changed in ways that could not have been foreseen in the early 1990s. Many a zealot who participated in the mob violence that brought down the 16th century Mughal monument on December 6, 1992, is a part of the coalition government at the Centre today. The recent depositions of some of the architects of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement to the Liberhan Commission set up to inquire into the circumstances that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, indicates the nature of the retreat that the Sangh Parivar has had to make in the intervening years. Home Minister L.K. Advani, the lead communicator of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, who almost single-handedly raised its mass pitch and tied its goals to the creed of violence, today speaks of his sense of "pain" as he witnessed the destruction of the mosque on December 6, 1992.

Rajagopal's study traces what he calls "Hindu nationalist" mobilisation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with a specific focus on how the media, notably television, influenced and was influenced by this mobilisation. "I argue," says the author in his Introduction, "that the media re-shape the context in which politics is conceived, enacted, and understood." Yet in Rajagopal's study, the media's transaction with Hindutva is but one component, certainly the most important, perhaps the more theoretical.

The book also discusses "the pre-publicity given to the movement's chief symbols via a national broadcast of the Ramayan, a serialised Hindu epic; the promotion carried out by Hindu nationalists through publicity images and through fashioning political participation on consumer choice rather than ideological commitment per se; the attention given the movement by a language-divided print media; television viewers' own reading of the Ramayan serial; and the structured misconceptions of non-resident supporters in the U.S."

As an authorial summary of the book's content, this is a somewhat modest claim. An important contribution of the book is as a who-did-and-who-said-what account of the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign or movement. It chronicles and tries to make analytical sense of developments that occurred along the many skeins that came together in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It deals with that phase of India's post-Independence experience when two processes coalesced - those of Hindu nationalism in the political and cultural realm, and market liberalisation in the economic realm. Rajagopal's is perhaps the first in-depth analysis of the growth of Hindu nationalism in the context of economic liberalisation. "The euphoria over liberalisation, the growing assertiveness of its beneficiary classes, and the spread of a consumerist ethos, required a new set of ideas to replace a political world-view that now became associated with statis and quietism," writes Rajagopal. "The Hindu nationalists' appeals echoed those of an expanding market economy, both expressing the cultural and political assertion of newly rich classes. Understanding the spread of Hindu nationalism, then, requires inquiring how a sectarian ideology could metamorphose into a 'good product', and how the political project of the BJP could be advanced in the process."

Television as a device, Rajagopal argues, hinged the two processes that were in the making in the late 1980s, Hindu nationalism and economic liberalisation. In the weekly broadcasts of the Ramayan series by Ramanand Sagar that began in January 1987, audiences experienced "two events travelling in different directions, liberalisation, as a portent of things to come, symbolised in the newly visible wealth of consumer goods, and the Ramayan serial, harking back to a golden age." Tracing the history of state-run television under the dispensation of Congress governments, Rajagopal says that the mythology serials, a successor to the pro-development soap operas (Hum Log, Hum Rahi), departed from the Nehruvian stance of distancing religion from the secular functions of state broadcasting. For Doordarshan, it broke all popularity and revenue charts, but it also served to put Hindu myth firmly in the realm of what was considered "national" or "Indian" in a cultural sense. With a detailed discussion on forms of dialogue, narrative techniques and the technical aspects of camera work and editing, Rajagopal suggests the precise ways in which Sagar's Ramayan got a reworked message across to viewers.

IT was the Bharatiya Janata Party that reaped the political benefits of a series that the Congress had hoped would widen its own Hindu support-base. The Ramayan television series, Rajagopal suggests, could not achieve what the Congress hoped it might - the creation of a unified Hindu public and vote bank.

There were several factors that prevented this, primarily the fact that the Hindu population was divided by caste, class and region. There was also the contrary pressure exerted by the print media, which were internally divided in their attitudes and perceptions of the Ayodhya movement. The movement, argues Rajagopal, was able to harness popular energies and win sympathies outside the immediate ranks of Hindu militants, though this was achieved in ways that were violent and sectarian. It spurred a debate on the nature of popular culture and a re-evaluation of the role of religion and religious symbols in society. Much of this debate was conducted in the Hindi language press, which, Rajagopal argues, had a cultural affinity with the Ayodhya movement that the English press both lacked and did not seek to establish.

The perceptions that informed the reportage of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the English and Hindi news media, Rajagopal says, were quite distinct. In a chapter in which he contrasts the coverage of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement by the English and Hindi print media, Rajagopal fleshes out his argument on what he sees as two highly polarised print traditions, and how they responded to the politics of the Ram temple. The English language print media tended to see it as a law and order issue, and its coverage reflected the viewpoint that emanated from official sources, whereas the Hindi language press had its ears closer to the ground and reflected the cultural heterogeneity of the movement to a far greater degree. "The English language press," writes Rajagopal, "in a sense created the movement as it would become - closed, implacable, and impervious to reason, and challenging the existing bounds of legality by embracing religious fanaticism rather than the principles of constitutional democracy. Yet the Ram temple movement was plainly not a monolithic entity; it enclosed a range of positions, from those critical of British colonial inheritance or desirous of more indigenous cultural influence, to the pious and devout, to those who conceived of collective revenge against Muslims as a liberating development." Rajagopal stretches his elitist vs popular characterisation of the English and Hindi language press to the point where he attributes some of the "most important biases" in the Hindi press' coverage as "not intentional but inhered in the language and in news values..."

To observers of and participants in the media coverage of the Ayodhya movement, the qualitative divide in the print media was quite simply one between reportage that was communal in its intent and choice of news, and that which was not. While it is possible that a larger section from within the Hindi print media turned into Hindu media, and quite blatantly fabricated facts and data (of which Rajagopal offers several examples), sections of the so-called "national" English press were equally prone to reportage that was provocative, that relied on rumour, and that was sympathetic to the goals and the vision of the leaders of the Ayodhya movement.

Rajagopal's evidence - he has followed some of the key events of the Ayodhya campaign as reported in two English dailies and one Hindi daily - does not contradict this viewpoint. Language, however nuanced and close-to-the-people it is capable of being, is not the only factor that determines quality reportage. The reportage on Ayodhya, for example, was determined by the editorial stance of the publication; often by the ideological sympathies of the journalist in question; by the business interests of the publication; and so on. Often, as Rajagopal writes, ideology may not have been the issue at all. The slant of a story may reflect the need of a poorly paid stringer to placate local political and business interests.

Rajagopal is on even weaker ground when he takes his argument a step forward and characterises the news values of the English language press during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement as having been "state-centric" given its colonial heritage, and the Hindi language press coverage as "society-centric" reflecting "...the more anti-colonial heritage of an indigenous language press..."

Rajagopal links the performance of the Hindi press, presented by him as popular, diverse and hybrid, with the values of the freedom struggle, while taking on the English press for being elitist, stodgy and distant from the aspirations of the people. This assessment is, to say the least, inexact; and it does not seem to be supported by Rajagopal's careful documentation as seen elsewhere.

The Ayodhya movement grew along a complex trajectory in the 1980s and 1990s, a process that Rajagopal's substantial documentation and analysis offers a perspective on. The BJP, now installed in power in a coalition arrangement, has for the time being set aside its Janmabhoomi agenda, although other segments of the Sangh Parivar are not about to abandon the original intent of the movement. Rajagopal's book has provided a framework for understanding the political practice of the Sangh Parivar as it is likely to evolve.

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