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Visibility as a Trap in the Anna Hazare Campaign
The rapid escalation of the Anna Hazare campaign, aided by embracing the media as allies, compromised its political character in numerous ways. Political participation as a critique of the status quo has to exist both inside and outside the media spectacle. Visibility can be experienced as fulfilling, but when the image becomes the destination of politics, it is a trap.
eginning in December 2010, a wave of public protests travelled across the world, opening with the “Arab Spring” in the Maghreb and west Asia. Not long thereafter, the autumn of 2011 saw the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in New York spread rapidly across the US. In a gesture rich with historical irony, it claimed the “revolutionary Arab Spring” as its inspiration.1 The first set of movements sought regime change and lost thousands of lives in the process, possibly in vain.2 The second targeted public rage at the finance industry believed to be responsible for the economic recession, and despite highly sceptical news coverage spread to 100 cities within days.3 Book-ended by these movements, the Anna Hazare campaign in the summer of 2011 provides an interesting contrast. It combined extraordinary public fervour followed by corrosive wrangling amongst leaders, sweeping moral and political critique supplanted by implicit trust in political representation, and protest against corruption that saw so little opposition, it seemed everyone was on the same side. Affluent and educated classes could congratulate themselves that however corrupt, poor or unequal India might be, political expression is free. Free to do what? That might be the question.
Role of Media
Even if ruling party leaders were caught offguard by the strength of Anna Hazare’s popularity, it would be a mistake to equate their confusion with the response of the political system as a whole. The Hazare campaign may point to a bid by media corporations to act as political antennae, shock absorbers and conflict managers for Indian society, while staging criticism of the state. It is worth noting that the kind of criticism directed at the State is sweeping and impatient, and more confusing than clarifying. All politicians are under suspicion of being corrupt, while select
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Arvind Rajagopal (email@example.com) teaches media studies at New York University.
Economic & Political Weekly EPW
civil society figures are held up as redeeming. But the same level of attention is not paid to procedures whereby grievances can be adjudicated; to assume that a new law or a new leader can solve the problems is surely too optimistic. The media themselves have emerged as most important in fructifying this campaign, and most exempt from criticism. In this respect, the publicity given to Anna Hazare shows the adroitness of corporate India and their allies in government in responding to popular protest. This is only one sign that India is not yet a society where Big Brother is Watching You. But the spectacle of crowds of people from a wide range of backgrounds wearing “I am Anna” topis and T-shirts offers another way of reading: if we recall “Anna” means Big Brother, we may wonder if in this case Big Brother is You, Watching. In the second case too, I would say, not yet. Unlike George Orwell’s 1984 or fascist mass rallies in Nazi Germany, the centre of the spectacle in this case was a 74-yearold villager on an indefinite fast against corruption. Echoing a widespread belief that prevailing institutions are self-serving and unmindful of people’s welfare, Hazare was a reminder of the ethics that politics and government seemed to have turned their backs on. In an earlier era Prime Minister Indira Gandhi demanded a “committed judiciary”, and a “committed bureaucracy”, suggesting that national development required a surplus of effort from its workers. Essentially, civil servants had to be ready to sacrifice for the nation, and avoid self-seeking behaviour. On that occasion, the demand smacked of autocracy, since it implied Gandhi would decide what was needed for the nation, and not Parliament or government servants. Today it is the media that is in a position not only to make such a demand, but also to stage a convincing response to it. At a time when disclosures about the corruptions of power were larger, better documented, and more extensive in the loot they revealed than anything before in recent history, the emergence of a protest movement was not surprising. That it turned into a popular affirmation of national values, and a demonstration of an immense readiness to mobilise, thus restoring a degree of confidence in a sinking stock as it were, was due to the news media’s astute
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the English language media usually embraced the first position. not to a toppling of English language hegemony. the huge Lokpal mobilisation had a relatively small outcome. often found itself replicating colonial distrust of popular sentiment. Either they were seen as a threat to order to be contained by the law. Thus coverage of the movement was mainly in terms of a “with-us-oragainst-us” approach. Nor is the point to oppose real events against media artifice. An increasingly corporate and globalised media could celebrate mass agitation only in a more contained way. the latter displays an agenda-setting power that may actually be greater than it was hardly two decades ago. it has become clear that the entry of the masses on to the stage of history is both a real and a mediated event.6 the majority of which are Indian language. Although the television market now features about 800 channels. its tendency to reduce news of popular demonstrations. Indian language media have a tradition of embracing popular agitation dating back to the freedom struggle. for example. India’s largest media conglomerate. region. most notably. but that struggle was a momentous project of regime change. in this connection. or they were regarded as a positive expression. From the reports following the campaign’s conclusion. No relief was offered for the unaffordably high cost of living. as a sign of “the people” and as a statement that “the people” want what “we” want. At least from the time of the October Revolution. No corrupt politicians were pinpointed. that the 20th century was an era where vol xlvI no 47 EPW Economic & Political Weekly 20 .4 Some comparison with popular agitations of the past will provide a perspective on this subject. according to media industry observers. The media’s collective endorsement of mass agitation in this case was something new. gender. the force of Times Now TV. discreetly signalled in the nomenclature “civil society”. to questions of law and order. Normally this is the kind of message we expect from political leaders. The Anna Hazare campaign was remarkable in that. which was an agitation promoted from within the Hindi press. Unusually in this case. whether of worker unrest or of religiously motivated campaigns. at the expense of understanding why such movements occur and what they aim to achieve. The ceaseless reiteration of this theme across their numerous news organs left other news media scrambling to follow suit. It is symptomatic of the pattern of media growth in the era of liberalisation that. the English media adopted the perspective of colonial rulers. religion. the spectacle of popular mobilisation november 19. But this is indeed a small victory for a mobilisation so impressive that Anna Hazare had to avow that he had no plans to overthrow the government. this one destroyed nothing. although that was the stimulus for the movement. The Hazare campaign’s success suggested that even if the government was dysfunctional. and sought to introduce legislation that Parliament had resisted for decades. across the language media.COMMENTARY management. 2011 became a thing of unqualified virtue. The condition of it being so regarded however was that it made no demands in the name of any specific groups based on caste. This was deliberate. the nationalist press could see popular mobilisation as a pure virtue. It proved that the media could help move people onto the streets for a cause. Questions about the middle class limitations of the movement were more often raised in English language news shows on TV. the growth of satellite TV news channels. has been impressive indeed. not accidental. Instead we were given the promise of a new bureaucracy to examine bureaucratic corruption. unlike the state. news reporters downplayed criticism of a grassroots campaign. Mass Media? For the media. and the Indian language media the second. The media’s construct of “civil society” does not look so innocent in this light. By contrast. This is not to deny the idealism involved in this phenomenon. in fact. to be treated with respect. the English language media defined the contours of the coverage this time. with the Times Group taking the lead. What exactly will emerge amidst the government’s attempts to undermine and create rifts within the Anna Hazare team. One of the key factors that distinguished the staging of the Hazare campaign from the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992 was the massive expansion of the media in the interim. Consider for example. In the past. As Aruna Roy has noted. much less punished. aggressively defined Anna Hazare as a man of the people. Thus. Civil society. this time the media applied it to the observer. Anna Hazare’s was perhaps the first mass campaign after 1947 where English and vernacular media came together so visibly. it is clear that the two were closely linked from the outset. and resisted for good reasons by much of the English language press. It is a symptom of our times that instead. although that was a major motive for the agitation. requires clarification however. was assumed to be free of corruption. This is a sign that the expansion of the visual media has led. Unlike that campaign. The Indian media have historically responded in one of two ways to popular agitations and campaigns. this message was choreographed by the corporate news media. and that the India growth story had a real future. as if one could distinguish between them so neatly. that mirrored the collective imaginary. etc. And in post-Independence times the Englishlanguage media. while the Indian language is now many times larger than the English language segment. It should be noted though that the Hindi channels adopted a more positive attitude on the whole than the English language media. therefore. instead of applying a wholly positive or negative response to the agitation. while Hindi media signalled a more consistently positive appraisal of the agitation. Susan BuckMorss has pointed out. popular democracy was alive and well. which provided space for criticism even if their overall thrust was promotional. the popular mobilisation was a sign of their own success and not only of Anna Hazare’s. During the anti-colonial struggle. which has no Indian language counterpart. it is in fact a fantasy arising from the elite and projected onto the masses.5 Compared to Ram Janmabhoomi. Welding a Split Public Together What took shape with the Hazare campaign was perhaps the largest orchestrated media campaign since Ram Janmabhoomi. but to a new mode of legitimising its agenda-setting role. and show they were on the right side. and distrusted the public expressions of ordinary people. The Times Group. in its struggle to adhere to secular values. is hard to say. What kind of media was at work here.
India was no exception.com/2011/09/ teekhi-baatibn7prabhu-chawla-with. a model for the recent movement. it is a trap. so 800 cannot be taken as definitive at the time of writing. disclosures by Arvind Kejriwal about his casting Hazare as a suitable role model for the agitation he had planned. from victims of industrial disasters in Bhopal and elsewhere. http://www.livemint. but also cell phones and email. Middle Class Character One might look to evidence of such performative politics in the August Kranti of 1942. and moral character were inculcated. it is obviously too soon to tell what outcomes if any will follow the movement.7 Visibility can be experienced as fulfilling. But to the extent that every effort was made to render participation easier.31%. and today. It pointed to a kind of media awareness that had not been so prominent before.com/blogs/ dailychart/2011/07/arab-spring-death-toll At the time of writing. 3 4 5 6 7 november 19. Sixty per cent of India’s households now have television. frugality. http://www. according to TAM Media Research. followed by NDTV 24×7 (22. Static builds up in media circuits and is released. notably in the battle between capitalism and communism. with 37. and so on. Political participation as a critique of the status quo has to exist both inside and outside the media spectacle. Such action is political only by virtue of a struggle to bring into perception what is otherwise excluded from view. together with the Tea Party movement maybe taken to have defined the boundaries of public sentiment on the role of government vis-à-vis the economy. however. The genre share of English news channels increased during this time from to 0. Gandhi was not only the leader of the earlier campaign. we can neither dismiss it completely. Notes 1 2 “Occupy Wall Street”. to this extent people sought to emulate Gandhi in their own lives. aided by embracing the media as allies. Images of their actions were reflected back to people.blogspot. 25 August 2011. 13 July 2011. but when the image becomes the destination of politics. So Far”.” by Abhilasha Ojha and Anushree Chandran. compromised their political character in numerous ways. they are fluid and volatile. and of the press to get people to read it. and its deflation of popular power outside the image. “Teekhi Baat”. The Economist. the revelations that have followed the Ramlila maidan agitation about extensive planning and coordination with PR personnel from the media industry. That is. 14 July 2011. See “Anna Hazare Drives Up News Viewership.org/blogs/adbusters-blog/ occupywallstreet. leaving only memories behind. By contrast. there are in fact numerous struggles that attract little advocacy from the major media. on its inflation of the value of the people as spectacle. albeit with marked difference. I&B Minister Ambika Soni interviewed by Prabhu Chawla on IBN-7. To the extent that media mobilise constituencies. which is quantified for revenue Economic & Political Weekly EPW generation.9% in the period 6-13 August to 11. and accusations about some of the members of the Anna Hazare group.economist.html.” Herein lay its middle class character. Twitter. Says [Union Law Minister Salman] Khurshid. of penalisation by employers. Media images were part of their own political repertoire. The fundamental business of television is to get people to watch it. October-November 2011. more public and visible. As it happens. Indeed. People congregate and then disperse. the rapid escalation of the protests. Grass-roots work and public rallies. India’s apparently pacific response to its escalating corruption scandals did not look so distinguished. from human rights demands in the north-east and in Kashmir. to themselves and to others. the Hazare campaign was political. See however the following news report: “Team Anna’s Use of Social Media Caught Us Unawares. Gandhi’s Salt March was a public procession that grew and grew. the role of social media was crucial. nor endorse it without qualification as political in the best sense of the word. 17 September 2011. electronic media are all involved in staging “the people” as a collective force and as a (possible) counter-public. Hannah Arendt has observed that political action requires the visibility of those who act. Today we have not only TV. “I am Anna. As well. It remains to be seen whether the Lokpal Bill will not be added to India’s distinguished list of progressive legislation that is defeated by ineffective implementation. However.7%). and the legislation was achieved with far less fanfare than has attended the barest preliminaries of the Lokpal Bill proposals. The virtues that seemed essential in the earlier moment became more of an option in the recent event. Facebook. this was an orchestrated spectacle. and many others. Accessed 19 October 2011. Mass events like the drive for the Lokpal Bill accumulate huge amounts of attention. Meanwhile there is reason to be sceptical about the agitation’s outcomes. Accessed 4 November 2011. the Right to Information Act emerged from a grass-roots rural movement. com. joining a staple of everyday life with the idea of making a new nation: Gandhi saw that political participation had to be imagined as well as enacted. Times Now TV was by far the most watched satellite news channel in English in the week following Anna’s inauguration of his fast on 16 August. An interim estimate in the summer of 2011 was 2594.2%) and CNN-IBN (20.” Indian Express. although reports about its uses are mainly anecdotal at present. who then acted in a more camera-friendly way. To the extent that one saw events organised around ordinary people expressing critical views on public affairs. 19 October 2011. It appeared that it was enough to say. Watching TV and being on TV acquired a greater overlap during this campaign than ever before. human as well as technological. have left many wondering what exactly it was that they had been so enthused about. There is a lesson here on the co-opting power of the mass media. long viewed as lacking in democratic traditions. vol xlvI no 47 When popular struggles were spreading across Arab countries. They are also means for discharging popular energy. he was a model for volunteers’ behaviour. Livemint.COMMENTARY real politics and mediated visions of collective futures became inextricably intertwined. the Occupy Wall Street movement.html. As we know. The genre share of Hindi news channels increased from 5. http://www. The exact number of channels cited even by the I&B minister varies from week to week. the French Situationist Guy Debord theorised such an outcome in his Society of the Spectacle (1967). Given that the agenda for the presidential elections of 2012 remains to be clearly defined. Civil disobedience carried risks. and involved a public stance against the government.html. which meant that media became to some extent the destination of political action too. Collective imagination requires the work of media. Abstinence. to anti-nuclear agitations in Jaitapur and Koodankulam.8% viewership or 12 million viewers. com/blogs/dailychart/2011/07/arab-springdeath-tollhttp://www. and Maoist insurgency in tribal lands. But consider what it means for people to be together in a public space. That is the risk we have to be vigilant about.economist. 2011 21 . p 6. com/2011/08/25235016/Anna-Hazare-drives-upnews-vie.54% from 0. Adbusters Blog. See “The Price of Protest. http://prabhuchawla.02% in the period 13-20 August.adbusters. Political dissidence took courage. its technologically mediated form made Anna Hazare’s austerity and frugality a spectacle for contemplation and empathy. While courage and dedication were not absent in the Lokpal campaign. the press and the cinema. and of imprisonment.