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Arvind Rajagopal: ‘Media are active agents of a counter-revolution’

Print edition : Mar 25, 2022 T+T-
Arvind Rajagopal

Arvind Rajagopal

A girl selling   newspapers at a bus stand in Guwahati. “After Independence, the vernacular press suffered a loss of status, certainly in north India, where the Hindi press suddenly became regional rather than national.”

A girl selling newspapers at a bus stand in Guwahati. “After Independence, the vernacular press suffered a loss of status, certainly in north India, where the Hindi press suddenly became regional rather than national.”

A clip from  the Hindi TV serial “Ramayan”. “Ramayan’s popularity persuaded the BJP that a campaign centred on Rama could work.”

A clip from the Hindi TV serial “Ramayan”. “Ramayan’s popularity persuaded the BJP that a campaign centred on Rama could work.”

Interview with Arvind Rajagopal, Professor of Media Studies, New York University.

Arvind Rajagopal is Professor of Media Studies at New York University (NYU) and is an affiliated faculty in the Department of Sociology and Social and Cultural Analysis, NYU. In 2010-11, he was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. His books include Politics After Television: Hindu Nationalismand the Reshaping of the Public in India (Cambridge, 2001), which won the Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Prize from the Association of Asian Studies and the Daniel Griffiths Prize at NYU, both in 2003, and The Indian Public Sphere: Structure and Transformation (Oxford, 2009). In an extensive email interview with Abhish K. Bose, he discusses the practices of the media and the governmental role in clipping media freedom in India. Excerpts:

We were supposed to have a communication revolution. The general opinion is that the press is under assault. The print media is facing a downslide throughout the world and India is not an exception. Lay-offs of mediapersons are no longer news. Can journalism go down without pulling down the communication revolution?

The idea of a communication revolution has been around for nearly a century now. Its meaning has changed as we moved from radio to television to the Internet, and from state control to market-driven media, but the idea is rarely analysed, so the claim always seems to be new. So, it is interesting that ‘old media’ like print appear like the last custodians of values in public life, and that those values, such as fairness, integrity in communication, and social concern, seem to be endangered with newer media. Technological advance was always thought to imply social advance or progress. In fact, each phase of the communication revolution was expected to surpass the achievements of what came earlier. The downslide you mention suggests that we did not get what we expected. If the communication revolution is turning into a counter-revolution, as I believe it is, we have to look beyond received accounts to understand why. We have been living in the communication revolution for more than half a century, and we were so convinced it would take us into a better future that we did not think history mattered. History, we thought, is literally for losers.

Well, this is a moment when we risk becoming losers. Liberalism, however wobbly, was the sheet-anchor of postcolonial culture in India, and today it is no longer available. Such an event reverberates across all domains, including the media industry, where content is treated merely as an audience aggregator, even if that content is false or anti-social. When liberals had railed against government control over media, until 1995, when the airwaves were opened to the private sector, the assumption had been that state monopoly was the biggest problem in the media field and that private companies would unquestionably improve the broadcast culture.

Without state monopoly, however, all brakes were lifted on a purely revenue-oriented model. In this commercial model, existing prejudices were dressed up and made attractive so that in some respects a kind of cultural regression was set in motion.

You are surely not implying that everything that happened during the era of state control was good?

No, of course not. The challenges of forging a democratic nation when social and economic reforms had not taken place were acute. Nation building involved, in some respects, one step forward and two steps back. There could not be a simple linear movement forward, given these challenges. In fact, there is one form of cultural regression that dates from the time of Independence. That is the nearly exclusive focus on domestic matters, and a relative lack of interest in international issues. It is an understandable “side-effect” of nation building, when it is as if a proper nationalist attitude means avoiding foreign temptations as far as possible. It was as if one had to purify oneself of foreign ideas and substances, which could be treated with suspicion. If you look at Indian newspapers before and after Independence, it is striking how international the reportage was before Independence, and how a domestic focus rapidly took over. Yes, India was part of a worldwide empire before 1947. But for nationalist politics to be effective, it had to be sensitive to international opinion. And often, that sense of an international audience went together with internationalist politics. Independence led to a much more self-absorbed phase.

Although liberalisation flooded India with foreign goods and media, and foreign expertise has become more important, an “India first” or a “region first” stance is still common. It can be hard to retain an Indian audience if you start talking about international influences. It is a paradox that media, which as both idea and institution, were promoted by the United States empire but have helped to deepen nationalism and parochialism.

Indian media took shape as one chapter in the communication revolution, which was an international process.

What are the implications of the communication revolution being, as you say, international? How did its international character impact India?

When the communication revolution was launched, it was accompanied by a major attempt to professionalise journalism. This followed the recommendation of the Hutchins Commission Report on the media, conceived during the Second World War and completed in 1947, with the entire operation funded by the media magnate Henry Luce. This event is not well known outside the U.S., but it had long-term consequences.

The report had a hostile reception in the U.S. press since it was critical and aimed at reform. There were various recommendations for preserving public media that stirred debate. Perhaps the most consequential recommendation was that universities include communication, which included journalism, as a full-fledged discipline of research and training, equal in stature to the older disciplines at least in institutional terms. This was a move that was heeded and replicated around the world. The Indian Institute of Mass Communication was founded in 1965 with a grant from the Ford Foundation to ensure that India had its own communication experts. Over time, other institutions began to be set up to teach the subject. A history of how the field was shaped in India is yet to be written, but I think there was a lot of suspicion among the established academic disciplines about this upstart field promoted by the Americans. Over time, however, communication became professionalised in India, too, by academic training with institutional pedigree.

The outcome was to provide respectability to the rapidly expanding personnel of the media industry. College training and certification became a requirement for one to be hired in the news industry. Previously, the industry largely operated at the fringes of respectable society, as a British civil servant, Humbert Wolfe, wrote in the 1920s:

“You cannot bribe or twist—thank God!—the British journalist.

“But seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no reason to.”

American journalism

It is a well-known fact that British journalism is led not by The Times or The Guardian but by tabloids. But where is the U.S. in this picture?

American journalism was, if anything, worse. For example, the newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst helped to provoke a war between the U.S. and Spain in 1898 by carrying “fake news” about Cuba’s treatment of American citizens. The excuse was nationalist assertion, but it was only a cover for ensuring increased revenue. For a business magnate of the next generation like Henry Luce, brazen greed was no longer respectable, whereas if you claimed to be upholding an idea or a principle, even a reactionary one, it was more acceptable. Maybe that too was partly a “media effect”.

Born in China to American Christian missionary parents, Luce believed the U.S.’ destiny was to be the world’s leader. During the Second World War, he foresaw that the 20th century could be the American century. A fervent Republican who opposed President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Luce formulated what would later be called soft power as the means by which the U.S. would dominate the world. According to Luce, it would be a fair-dealing form of leadership with America’s democracy as a model for all to follow. For this leadership to be possible, the media industry needed to be held to higher standards.

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The communication revolution reflected great optimism in what technology could do for development. It was also a way of bypassing more difficult questions about wealth redistribution and social reform. As its own proponents pointed out, it was not a real revolution but rather an attempt at capitalist evolution. That was the attraction for the U.S., in promoting the growth of media technology internationally.

You have conveyed the importance of an international framework for understanding media institutions domestically. But what was the communication revolution’s trajectory in the Indian context?

Western proponents of the communication revolution paid little attention to the achievements of previous epochs and of other cultures. They often assumed that the communication revolution was filling a vacuum in national and international communication. This was a misleading idea. In fact, dense and efficient information networks across the Indian Ocean region and Central Asia long predated the arrival of the British. For example, Buddhism spread far and wide through the movement of people, with only rudimentary technologies, and that was millennia ago.

If we examine the consequences of communication technology from the onset of printing, the outcomes are different depending on where we look. It was in China that printing was first invented (for instance, for printing money) but no major change followed. In India, printing spread with the arrival of Westerners, but the change was slow to come. Communication technologies were not the driving force in the freedom struggle; on the contrary, independence occurred despite such technologies, which in any case belonged overwhelmingly to the British. Europe fabricated mythologies about white supremacy and the inferiority of the rest of the world while relying on print. In other words, printing led to many things, only some of which were enlightened and revolutionary. To assign an irresistible progressive force to communication technology is mistaken.

The communication revolution as I noted was an American formulation, dating from the 1930s. The development of the U.S. was the first case where the development of communications (roads, canals, railways, telegraph) enabled industrialisation, instead of the other way around, as in Europe. But the U.S. was not like other countries since it took shape after the feudal era and had no strictly feudal class as such. In most places, existing elites sought to reinforce their control over society and directed the development of communication to limit any radical outcomes.

In India, upper castes have dominated business and politics in most areas, and media control was one aspect of such domination. There is more contention and debate now, but by and large that remains the case.

Death knell of secularism

Let me return to the question, how did the communication revolution proceed in India? Today we notice that even major media houses are sidelining ethical aspects. How do you explain the diminishing ethical standards even on the part of leading media?

[Bharatiya Janata Party leader] L.K. Advani, when describing the media during the 1975-77 Emergency, said, “When they were asked to bend, they crawled.” The speed with which the Indian media adopted the crawl under Advani’s own party is remarkable. The Times of India is often named for inaugurating the practice of devaluing editorial judgment and abandoning ethical norms, with its paid news contracts with private parties. It became so successful that others felt they had to imitate The Times of India . Looked at in this way, it is a purely marketing logic. It culminates in a race to the bottom, as P. Sainath has observed. But there are at least three factors, when taken into account, that offer a larger view of this development.

We should begin with the vernacular or Indian language newspapers, which predate and outweigh the English language press in terms of their reach and popular exposure. The identification of journalism with the nationalist movement was very strong, and this strength was mainly in the vernacular press. The English language press was mostly colonial, The Hindu being one of the exceptions. After Independence, the vernacular press suffered a loss of status, certainly in north India, where the Hindi press suddenly became regional rather than national. As regional politics disarticulated from national politics, it reflected ground-level realities, and this did not necessarily mean greater accuracy in all respects. For example, in the cow belt, Hindu conservatism was influential, partly because that reflected the owners’ outlook.

Also read: How the Modi regime continues to undermine the news landscape

There were, of course, great variations within each language stratum. But market forces impacted the vernacular press much more, partly because government support for it was less than what the English press received. As a result, the norms, say in the Hindi press, were at times much closer to the commercialism of The Times of India today. For example, Hindi newspapers at times reproduced sensational fake news because they believed it was good for their business. Communal riots were always a selling proposition, even if the stories—about Muslim insults or injuries to Hindus—were untrue. If English language media have succumbed to money over morals, one way to think about it is that the majority practice has spread from the hinterland to the metros, so to say. This is not to argue that the English press was better. Rather it is to question the simplicity of the story we often get, as if, when Samir Jain decided that Bennet and Coleman (the Times group) were in the advertising and not in the news business, that was where the troubles began.

What allowed the vernacular culture to move upward from below points to our second factor, namely a transformation in the way national culture defined itself. Roughly put, certain aspects of vernacular culture, especially from the Hindi belt, became politically fashionable over time. The regionalisation of politics, the decline of the Congress and the rise of the BJP are all important here.

Last but not the least is the international context, crucially the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In the Indian press, the fall of the Berlin Wall was hailed by big business and by the BJP. They declared it was the death knell of Nehruvian socialism. Industrialists such as J.R.D. Tata, Rahul Bajaj and Viren Shah were writing newspaper columns welcoming the end of Nehruvian socialism. But it was the death knell of secularism, too, though we did not know it at the time. In fact, Organiser , the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] mouthpiece, equated the destruction of the Berlin Wall with the Babri Masjid demolition. The Indian Left may have thought that it had strong national roots, but the attack on democratic forces steadily grew after that. Without an international perspective, we would assume the rise of the right wing to be a purely domestic phenomenon, but look around and you see it is a larger story. There continues to be resistance, but it is taking place in a larger context which we must try and understand.

The decline in media is not only a reflection of a larger political decline. The media are now active agents not of national development but of a counter-revolution.

Role of Advertisements

The decline in the credibility of media houses is often attributed to the increasing role played by advertisements in the running of media industry. Going by the content, there is a prevailing notion that media houses have a responsibility towards advertisers and not readers. What are your views?

Advertisement is a good example of a liberal initiative that began innocently as a support for public debate, and now threatens the very existence of the public sphere. Initially, advertisement was seen to be so important as a revenue source of newspapers that it was granted tax exemption. Ad agencies, you will find, were always lobbying for this, when, periodically, the government threatened to impose taxes on advertisements. That exemption, which in Britain dated from the 1850s, was carried over to India and remained on the books until quite recently. Advertisement was considered free speech and hence protected from taxation. This protection was enacted when most advertisers were individuals or small businesses. A large volume of classified advertisement was a sign of a successful newspaper. In the 1980s, I recall, the first several pages in The Times of London were filled with classified ads and not news. The prominence given to them was meant to show the newspaper’s broad customer base.

It is ironic that what was meant to serve as a foundation for spreading enlightenment and free thinking has turned into its opposite. Advertiser money diminishes the cost to subscribers, so we get ever cheaper news. The worth of the product diminishes at the same time. But the failure of the government to respond to the degradation of news, for example, private treaties signed by media houses to produce paid news, is a political decision, not a market phenomenon. It represents a failure of regulation. It is also a betrayal of the public responsibility of media houses that have received tax subsidies and land grants for the services they claim to provide.

Government advertisement revenue was always a major form of control over the media industry. When foreign ad agencies in India, led by J. Walter Thompson & Co. [JWT], constituted an industry-wide lobbying body and demanded a 15 per cent commission for the advertising work they undertook, the Indian government, under Jawaharlal Nehru, endorsed their demand, ensuring that businesses would be persuaded to follow suit, instead of following a competitive process, which would have driven down the commission and lowered costs for commercial sponsors and for the public at large. Why did the government do this? The higher cost was seen as a kind of insurance supporting a free and democratic media system that could be independent of the government.

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Advertising revenue was understood as one component of such a system. If you go back to the annual reports of JWT in the 1950s, you will find that they carried pictures of the Bhakra Nangal Dam, and bicycles were among the chief products they advertised. Ad agencies were part of the support system of the public sector. One departing chief of JWT, Subhash Ghosal, said in his farewell speech in the 1970s, “Advertising is a protected sector.” But with liberalisation, ad agencies, too, began to claim that they were victims of discrimination.

Is it that the communication revolution is not necessarily democratic. The government is using its influence to control the media. Do you agree?

In India, the idea of a communication revolution arrived as a state initiative. Even industrialists such as Vikram Sarabhai assumed this because only an entity like the state could negotiate with foreign military institutions and obtain the needed satellite technology; private sector benefits would be downstream. It was only in the 1990s that the private sector went upstream and acquired a major presence in the field. Until then, communication was a function overseen by the Government of India.

Since a revolution seeks to change the existing balance of force, it cannot occur without force. Any government will claim the people’s mandate when it does this, although its force is likely to be transfigured in positive ways. The question might be, what kind of balance is there between authoritarian and democratic tendencies, and between equality-promoting and equality-diminishing outcomes.

Here the Emergency was a turning point. Expenditure in government communications grew many times, and satellite television was also introduced at that time, as it happens. After the Emergency, once the Congress returned to power in 1980, authoritarian publicity of the kind witnessed with, for example, family planning, became much more discreet. Market reforms began to be introduced. With the growth of television, telephony and the Internet, the accompanying claims about an information revolution became palpable.

Liberalisation is seen as symbolising the information revolution in India is it not?

Agreed. With liberalisation, bureaucratic controls were softened, at least for the non-agrarian sector. What followed, as we know, was increased economic growth and upward mobility for the aspiring poor and middle classes. Today all the credit for this development is claimed by the ruling party. But it is obvious that the growth could not have been possible without the infrastructure laid during the previous years, enabling people to strive in ways that previously were not feasible.

It is clear that subsequent economic policies have lowered growth rates, even allowing for the pandemic. We have seen distinguished economists leaving this government rather than risk their reputations by associating with it. Economic policy decisions are made for short-term political ends, and then the applause factory is activated.

You observe that the government uses its influence to control the media. That happened even under previous governments; monopoly over the airwaves being the clearest example. We need to distinguish between different kinds of influence here. Under the Congress there was relatively more room for free speech and free thought, although you usually had to go to print media for that. Compared to the BJP, the Congress practised a big tent approach and accommodated criticism and debate. For example, journalists could use their press card to go to government offices and talk to bureaucrats without entering their names in the register. It meant government servants could speak to the media without fear of reprisal. That was maintained until 2014, I think. And once that practice was stopped, only or mainly news the government wants us to receive could be published.

BJP’s anti-politics

Would the Congress have been any better if it had as much power as the BJP does today? Many people would question your assumption.

The Congress and the Jan Sangh/BJP grew together. For a long time, it was difficult to make a hard-and-fast distinction between the two parties. The conservative outlook of many Congress members found organisational form in the Jan Sangh, which morphed into the BJP. Thus in 1992, [K.N.] Govindacharya, who had until 2000 been the party general secretary, had said: “BJP minus Congress equals RSS” (in a personal interview). He was suggesting that the two parties were substantially the same; the only difference was that the BJP had the RSS as its grass-roots cadre. In this line of thinking, many examples of undemocratic practice can be mentioned which indicate that the Congress was also authoritarian and thereby reject the notion that the BJP is materially different. A recent book on the Emergency makes exactly this argument.

One major difference however has become more important over time. For all their defects, there were always Congress leaders who believed they could evolve in the process of political struggle. Whereas it is doubtful if the RSS, which is the BJP’s think tank, did so. Recall there was mass resignation when the question of dual membership was raised in the Janata Party period. Members chose to remain in the RSS, which was a secret organisation, rather than with the Jan Sangh, which was subject to the rules applicable to all electoral parties. As the BJP has grown stronger, it could have evolved to build on the strengths of its interlocutors and coalition partners. Instead, the “go-it-alone” pattern has become more pronounced, not less. If today critics are denounced and smeared as criminals or terrorists, that shows a rejection of politics in principle. Democracy only amounts to lip service. In a sense, this is a familiar pattern. Anti-politics is in the party’s DNA.

Did a Hindutva orientation in the major segment of the Indian population begin as early as the 1980s? Is that why TV serials such as “Ramayan” attained popularity? Is it possible to enjoy the serialisation of the epic without being ideologically oriented towards Hindutva?

I undertook a reception study of Ramayan while it was still on the air in 1988-89, in Delhi and a small town a few hours away. Few people I spoke to at the time expressed overtly Hindutva-oriented opinions, even though the Ramayan was the topic. Viewers stressed the piety, the obedience and the sense of a lost utopia as what drew them to the show. Taking this towards a campaign to demolish a mosque was on-the-ground work in which at the time the Congress and the BJP collaborated. It was a Congress MP from Agra, Dau Dayal Khanna, who first raised the demand for ‘Ram Janmabhumi’ to be restored to Hindus. The Congress under Rajiv Gandhi opened Babri Masjid for Hindu worship while prohibiting it to Muslims. And the demolition occurred while P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Congress government watched. Essentially, when confronted with a revolt of “angry Hindus”, the government caved in. This was both a political and a technological issue.

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Anti-Muslim and pro-Hindu sentiments today are so prominent that it may seem as if Hindutva is the bedrock for the majority society. That is certainly the aim and the claim of those allied with the ruling party. But will this remain true if a different kind of media system replaced the existing one? What if the media circulated messages of peace and inclusion instead of what it does now? That is a hypothetical question, but it shows the extent to which we take the power of technology for granted. T.N. Seshan, the former Chief Election Commissioner, commenting on the rise of Hindutva, said in 1996 after he stepped down from office, that nothing had changed except the technology. He was of course an observer of politics for several decades.

Tele-epics such as “Ramayan” and “Mahabharat” were commissioned under the Congress. Arun Govil, who acted as Rama in the serial, was even brought in to help campaign for the Congress candidate in the Allahabad election when the serial was still on air. Clearly the Congress believed it would profit from the serial. What happened?

The Congress was in charge, but under its watch, the BJP rose. How did it happen? Media and politics were always intertwined, but the then-new media (television but also audio and video cassettes) allowed the challenger the advantage, especially with the symbol of Lord Rama. To adopt an explicitly devotional theme was against Hindutva practice until that time. The RSS chief M.S. Golwalkar stipulates in his writings that no religious symbol could unite Hindus, due to their divisions of creed and sect. A new national symbol was needed, and that was the bhagwa dhwaj , the saffron flag of the RSS, Golwalkar argued. But Ramayan ’s popularity persuaded the BJP [to believe] that a campaign centred on Rama could work.

So, in answer to your question, even BJP members were enjoying the Ramayan serial without thinking about any political implications, until quite late. It was only in June 1989, more than two years after the serial began, that the BJP declared Ram Janmabhoomi would become a national campaign issue. Jay Dubashi, who was an important policymaker for the BJP then, told me this: when party leaders asked why hardly any members were present at a national meeting held in Ahmedabad, they were told that the meeting had been scheduled at the same time as the Ramayan serial’s telecast on Sunday morning. It was then, Dubashi said, that the BJP realised there was an opportunity here that they should utilise.

You may say there is nothing wrong in practising the Hindu religion, and any attempt to equate it with supremacism is wrong. By this logic, the majority should prevail, and the demand to treat religious practice as private and keep public spaces neutral is simply irrelevant. But as [B.R.] Ambedkar pointed out, the political majority should not be defined in such a way that it becomes a permanent majority. The only way to ensure that is to support the conditions for a social and economic democracy, and thereby ensure that minorities can exist with dignity, and without repression. A political democracy cannot exist without social and economic democracy.

Is Hindutva the fundamental ideology of India? If it is so why did it take until the 1980s to propagate that ideology on TV although the RSS was established in 1925?

As late as the 1990s, when the RSS celebrated its anniversary in Nagpur on Vijayadasami day in mid-October, the crowds were found not at the RSS [headquarters] but at Dheekshabhoomi, also in Nagpur, where on the same day, Ambedkar had renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism in 1956. Outlook magazine had carried a story at the time, commenting on the small numbers at the RSS headquarters, compared to the popular enthusiasm for Ambedkar.

Hindutva, as you say, is an ideology, but if you look for texts explaining and elaborating on it, you must go to decades-old books by Golwalkar or V.D. Savarkar. Where are the thinkers who are renewing the ideas for subsequent generations? Rather than any rigorous theory or doctrine, we have revisionist history writing, arguing that everything that most of us were taught so far is false. If you try to respond to an argument by an advocate for Hindutva, countering their statements with evidence, they will often switch to another subject, or another grievance, asserting that proof is available even if it is not at hand. And they may regard the very gesture of intellectual disagreement as a symptom of a disturbing trend which only needs to be denounced, and not disproved.

This is a style of argument tailor-made for mass society, where membership is asserted by having opinions, even if one has only a hazy idea for the reasons why. The costs of disagreement or rejection are simply too steep anyway, and when one is confronted with a firehose gushing out information that offer different variations on the same themes, why not accept it? The test is of course whether people will continue to accept it when it hurts their own interests to do so. Today when the shrinkage of the Indian economy is occurring due to bad policy decisions, whether people will continue to swallow what they are told to, and how long they will do so, remains to be seen.

Gamification of media

In India, the television is becoming a propaganda instrument of the government. Do you agree?

We are at a peculiar moment in politics, and we can get some clues by looking outside the country. The problems we face are not unique to India in all respects. Western democracies used to be the reference point for advocates of liberalism. For example, the political scientist Rajni Kothari used to argue that India under the Congress had a Westminster model of government. Today whether in the United Kingdom or the U.S., we witness the gamification of politics. The game industry is today the biggest segment by far in the media and entertainment industry; it is many times the size of the film and TV sectors for example. Consequent on its huge size is its impact, which is becoming hard to ignore.

The referential ground of liberalism is no longer available to orient ourselves. We can analyse what is happening in the West to get our bearings even for a reset of liberal benchmarks in the Indian context. Today, if an appeal seems popular, it can become a political platform. And if it is fuelled by feelings of discrimination and victimhood, as almost every political platform is today, then any inconvenient fact is dubbed as fake news. The person who popularised the term was also the biggest purveyor of fake news, namely Donald Trump. In the U.K., Brexit won the vote based on fake news. In the parliamentary model of politics, facts and arguments are supposed to matter. In the gamified model of politics, the game offers its own reward, even if victory is the aim. Nowadays political campaigns provide a packaged experience for their audiences, with their own insignia, heroes and villains, avatars and so on to identify with. Maybe none of this is completely new, but what was previously unsystematic has become more planned and professionally managed, and unpaid volunteers are numerous.

Today we have social media, which has changed the situation. Older media have to be faster and show they are closer to people. Are you taking these changes into account?

Thank you, yes. ‘Media’ is a catch-all term and encompasses many different things. For example, there used to be a distinction between big media and little media, that is, between mass media out of reach of ordinary people’s inputs, and small media that were more local and accessible. The latter had a far lower threshold of entry—in principle, almost anyone could become a media producer. During the Congress monopoly over the airwaves, for example, the VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad] propaganda circulated via audio and video tapes. Of course, the Congress gave the BJP what is in retrospect the great gift of the Hindu tele-epics, which catalysed Hindutva and allowed it to conceive of a nationwide programme in the late 1980s.

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Today the distinction is between mass media and social media, where similarly there is a high and a low threshold of entry respectively. But now the two can be coordinated and joined into a weapon of a kind we have not seen before in politics. Not only are few people spared, their feelings and imaginations are also conscripted into the game, along with their cognitive faculties. Whereas previously politics was a low involvement exercise for the majority in India. There is a Tamil saying, Ramar aanda enna, Ravanan aanda enna ? What does it matter whether Rama rules or Ravana? One can still hear this saying, but I think much less than before.

Why is it that non-Hindutva ideologies are not able to make their presence in the TV in India?

They exist; one must know where to go. is very good, as are and There are many such sites. On YouTube you can find Satya Hindi, 4pm News, and Ajit Anjum, to name only a few. and Ravish Kumar are there., founded by P. Sainath, is also there. The farmers’ struggle in Punjab generated a wealth of efforts, including songs and news videos, that gained an international audience.

For nearly all of them, funding is a challenge. If they are commercial enterprises, then subscriptions are lacking, and ad revenue is difficult to get. If they are NGOs, and thus non-profit, then the scrutiny is even greater, as though anyone working in the public interest must be regarded with maximum suspicion. They could be a Trojan horse for Christian missionaries or Islamist outfits, after all. For-profit entities have it comparatively easy. But to survive they often have to accept the terms of the prevailing competition for audiences, which may mean outdoing others in their aggressive rhetoric. This is a race to the bottom and leads to diminishing returns for most of them. Without some backing, few media organs can offer a product that stands apart and increases the perspectives available to the public.

We know that media and politics shape each other, but their interaction has been so transformative in the last three decades that popular understanding has lagged behind. We are in the midst of a counter-revolution carried out in the name of the people, and in the process, we might say India has been rebranded, or the “India brand” has been re-signified, to stand for a different set of ideas and values from before. I’ll list a few points to illustrate the changes and challenges in this situation.

New model for media

First, big tech companies have evolved a new model for media, where regardless of the truth or falsehood of an item, if there is user uptake, it is pushed and made to circulate more. How could this evolve in the U.S., which was supposed to be the bastion of journalism? Because these businesses rejected the idea that they were media entities serving the public and presented themselves instead as politically neutral technology companies. They claimed to be using algorithms, that is, purely mathematical models, and not editorial judgment. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 stated: no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

This effectively shielded tech companies from liability in the interest of maximising the volume of information offered to the public. They assumed that political diversity went along with information volume, which we know today is not a necessary outcome. This American legislative protection has had worldwide effect, since big tech companies have gone global and have quickly become monopolists on a scale that exists in no other market sector.

Second, if fake news can thereby circulate with impunity, the sophistication of technological developments today allows not only for micro-targeting and varying of messages. More important, it allows the simulation of an entire ecosystem of information, with many variations on a few themes, appearing from diverse locations and sources, each of which seems to confirm all the others. Now traditionally, all our attention, as readers or viewers, is directed at evaluating the message, and deciding whether it seems plausible, whether it is in a newspaper we are used to, or a TV channel. The need to evaluate the whole ecosystem containing varied sources simply does not occur to us.

Also read: Market, Morals and the Media

Alongside, the tech companies have evolved a host of metrics, such as information cascade, rate of virality, frequency of visibility, and so on. The audience is only the raw material in a process of maximising virality here. It is in no position to be the judge. In fact, it risks becoming the victim.

Third, these developments can allow the model of the caretaker state or the welfare state to morph into the predator state. Where colonial-era laws still form much of the basis of the legal system, such as in India, reasons of state can routinely bypass democratic rights. Although in 2017 the Indian Supreme Court ruled that there was a constitutional right to privacy, privacy continues to be violated on an industrial scale, and it is all apparently legal. No data protection laws exist, and no data protection agency has as yet been created. We are often told, whether by [Mukesh] Ambani or the Prime Minister, that data are the new oil. The use of the metaphor of fossil fuel, whose burning powers the economy, should lead us to pose the question how does that benefit the people whose data are used in this way? The BJP has an IT cell for each seat it contests, with data from Aadhaar cards (itself the largest data source in the world, with 1.3 billion records) and other sources, that no competitor has access to. If even in these conditions, the BJP sometimes loses elections, we can only consider what the outcome might be with a more level playing field.

Fourth, if the gamification of politics is a model taking shape in the U.S., in India, there is a much older idea of lila , illusion, which can be used to reinforce orthodoxy and justify authority. Political enlightenment has come haltingly and over several centuries in India. The philosopher Jonardon Ganeri has noted that Indian philosophers in the 17th century created or experienced an age of reason, but unlike European philosophers, their attention went to language rather than to the external world as such. In other words, they took what could be called the postmodern turn first, and before the West, but the drive for scientific reasoning did not spread beyond philosophical debates as such. There was no zeal for social reform unlike in the West, where educated middle classes were excluded from an aristocratic power structure. And in the West, everyday life was extensively restructured by industrial and mercantile capitalism, whereas the spread of capitalism in the Indian context was much more buffered by feudal and other economies. Traditional prestige economies underwent symbolic reformulation, allowing tradition to appear like a waning feature in its rejection, for instance, of the idea of human equality. But these traditional prestige economies are being reactivated, at least as ideas to be venerated.

In other words, the game model of politics is all-too-assimilable in the Indian context, where Hindu wisdom can be invoked to surpass or bypass any rational argument, and where the very idea of the theological-political can be subject to the play of electoral forces. I am not ending on a pessimistic note. My aim is rather to ask for an analysis of things that are often merely condemned. If the opposition is playing a game, what game will beat theirs is the question.

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