TV gets bored of Anna series
Is it my imagination or are television anchors becoming increasingly ambivalent in their attitudes to Anna Hazare and his movement?
When Hazare first staged an event at Jantar Mantar, the media were enthusiastic participants in the adventure. Hazare and his cohorts were described as Team Anna as though they were some girls volleyball side in need of popular encouragement. Though Hazare’s antecedents were unknown to most viewers of English TV channels (except perhaps in Maharashtra where viewers knew Hazare in his pre-Kejriwal/Kiran Bedi avatar), the TV channels ensured that he became a national figure in a matter of days.
The reasons were not far to seek. Hazare’s success stemmed from his evocation and articulation of middle-class anger at the rot in our political system. Because the electoral process did not capture middle-class aspirations, Hazare found another way of giving voice to the demands and frustrations of educated Indians.
And of course, news TV is an essentially middle-class medium. The same electorally dispossessed people who cheered Hazare’s movement on were the ones who gave television its largest audience. So, while TV anchors were content to comment on politicians with detachment, they treated the Hazare movement as something more personal, much closer to the hearts of their viewers.
Then, there was the element of mutual need. Even if you deny the politicians’ claim that the Hazare movement is largely a media creation, you cannot dispute that the reason it has found so much support in urban India is because of media exposure. Hazare’s people have recognised this from the start. They have handled the media with an aplomb that would do credit to large corporations, knowing how to time their statements and when to organise their live events (usually just when the news broadcasts are beginning each evening so that the channels have to cut away live to catch the news). Even when Hazare gave a dozen so-called exclusive interviews a fortnight ago, he took care to ensure that every channel received its fair quota of Anna-speak.
The channels have loved being manipulated. News TV in India is all about so-called breaking news, about crashing into scheduled programming so that you can go live to some allegedly dramatic event, about spectacles involving thousands (shot in very tight frames to make them look like lakhs) and about discussion shows where people shout at each other.
The Hazare offering was irresistible. Not only did it offer drama, spectacle and conflict served up in a TV-friendly manner, but it also played to the essential prejudice of the TV-viewing classes: all politicians are crooks.
But now, there are signs that the channels are becoming a little warier. There were a few disquieting moments during Hazare’s day of exclusive interviews to every channel under the sun. For instance, when Rahul Kanwal (whose interview with Hazare was easily the best of the lot, partly because Kanwal is bilingual) asked Hazare about Narendra Modi and his failure to appoint a Lokayukta, the Great Reformer ducked the question. Kanwal persisted. Hazare evaded yet again. There were other such moments in all the other interviews.
On Tuesday, 4 October, this scenario played itself out all over again. Hazare did his usual this-is-an-exclusive interview number with every TV news channel. His purpose was to declare that he would urge voters to oppose the Congress candidate in the election in Hisar and that he would repeat this message in the Assembly elections in UP. If the Congress agreed to support his version of the Lokpal Bill and to pass it in the winter session, he declared, he might withdraw this threat.
For once, interviewers were openly sceptical. Had he not promised to give the government a chance when he ended his fast? What had provoked this new round of threats? Had he not declared that elections in India were a farce and that he himself would lose his deposit if he stood as a candidate? Why the sudden desire to intervene in the electoral process he had once so publicly disdained?
More to the point: was he now playing party politics? On the major channels, he faced some tough questions. Both Kanwal and Rajdeep Sardesai confronted him with the contradictions in his stand. Was he saying that his draft of the Lokpal Bill was so important that he would urge voters to throw out a Congress candidate even if the other candidates were actively corrupt? And why pick on the Congress, anyway? Haryana politics is notoriously corrupt. Why intervene on the side of political parties that have no reputation for integrity? And when it comes to UP, both Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati have publicly opposed the Hazare movement and what they see as its unrepresentative character. Why oppose the Congress and not oppose them?
These were good questions but as he went from channel to channel it rapidly became clear that Hazare had no intention of answering them. He resorted to folksy, commonsensical formulations and repeated the same lines over and over again (about how it had taken the Lokpal Bill so many years to be passed and that, therefore, this proved that the Congress was A Very Bad Party – quite ignoring the fact that for part of this time the BJP had also been in power).
I do not question Hazare’s sincerity. I have followed his career in Maharashtra over the last two decades and have always regarded him as a remarkable person. Nor do I dispute that his campaign against corruption played an important role in giving expression to middle-class anger and frustrations.
But here’s the thing: Hazare derives his strength from being above party politics. The moment he steps into that cesspool of rivalries and battles, he risks entering the very filth that he has so loudly derided. Moreover, he leaves his middle-class supporters confused. If politics is so bad, then why is he fighting a party political battle?
The Hazare camp is nothing if not shrewd and media-savvy. By now, they must have worked out that their man cut a very sorry figure in his latest round of ‘exclusive interviews’. They must know that it is time for a course correction and some tweaking of positions.
My guess is that the next time Hazare appears live and exclusive on 200 different channels at exactly the same time, he will have changed his tune. Otherwise, this could be the beginning of the end of his love affair with TV channels.