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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.

COMMENTARY

Visibility as a Trap in the Anna Hazare Campaign

Arvind Rajagopal

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

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.

Arvind Rajagopal (ar67@nyu.edu) teaches media studies at New York University.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
november 19, 2011

B
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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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

COMMENTARY

management. The Hazare campaign’s success suggested that even if the government was dysfunctional, popular democracy was alive and well, and that the India growth story had a real future. Normally this is the kind of message we expect from political leaders. It is a symptom of our times that instead, this message was choreographed by the corporate news media.

Welding a Split Public Together

What took shape with the Hazare campaign was perhaps the largest orchestrated media campaign since Ram Janmabhoomi. Unlike that campaign, this one destroyed nothing, and sought to introduce legislation that Parliament had r esisted for decades. One of the key factors that distinguished the staging of the H azare campaign from the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992 was the massive expansion of the media in the interim, most notably, the growth of satellite TV news channels.4 Some comparison with popular agitations of the past will provide a perspective on this subject.

The Indian media have historically responded in one of two ways to popular agitations and campaigns. Either they were seen as a threat to order to be contained by the law, or they were regarded as a positive expression, to be treated with respect. In the past, the English language media usually embraced the first position, and the Indian language media the second.

Anna Hazare’s was perhaps the first mass campaign after 1947 where English and vernacular media came together so visibly. Thus, instead of applying a wholly positive or negative response to the agitation, this time the media applied it to the observer. Thus coverage of the movement was mainly in terms of a “with-us-oragainst-us” approach. It should be noted though that the Hindi channels adopted a more positive attitude on the whole than the English language media, which provided space for criticism even if their overall thrust was promotional. Questions about the middle class limitations of the movement were more often raised in English language news shows on TV, for example, while Hindi media signalled a more consistently positive appraisal of the agitation.

Indian language media have a tradition of embracing popular agitation dating back to the freedom struggle. By contrast, the English media adopted the perspective of colonial rulers, and distrusted the public expressions of ordinary people. And in post-Independence times the Englishlanguage media, in its struggle to adhere to secular values, often found itself replicating colonial distrust of popular sentiment. Consider for example, its tendency to reduce news of popular demonstrations, whether of worker unrest or of religiously motivated campaigns, to questions of law and order, at the expense of understanding why such movements occur and what they aim to achieve.

The media’s collective endorsement of mass agitation in this case was something new, therefore. What kind of media was at work here, that mirrored the collective imaginary, requires clarification however. Unusually in this case, news reporters downplayed criticism of a grassroots campaign. This was deliberate, not accidental. The Times Group, India’s largest media conglomerate, aggressively defined Anna Hazare as a man of the people. The ceaseless reiteration of this theme across their numerous news organs left other news media scrambling to follow suit, and show they were on the right side.5

Compared to Ram Janmabhoomi, which was an agitation promoted from within the Hindi press, and resisted for good reasons by much of the English language press, the English language media defined the contours of the coverage this time, with the Times Group taking the lead, according to media industry observers. It is symptomatic of the pattern of media growth in the era of liberalisation that, while the Indian language is now many times larger than the English language segment, the latter displays an agenda-setting power that may actually be greater than it was hardly two decades ago. Although the television market now features about 800 channels,6 the majority of which are Indian language, the force of Times Now TV, which has no Indian language counterpart, has been impressive indeed. This is a sign that the expansion of the visual media has led, not to a toppling of English language hegemony, but to a new mode of legitimising its agenda- setting role.

The Anna Hazare campaign was remarkable in that, across the language m edia, the spectacle of popular mobilisation

november 19, 2011

became a thing of unqualified virtue, discreetly signalled in the nomenclature “civil society”. Civil society, unlike the state, was assumed to be free of corruption, as if one could distinguish between them so neatly. The condition of it being so regarded however was that it made no demands in the name of any specific groups based on caste, gender, religion, region, etc.

During the anti-colonial struggle, the nationalist press could see popular mobilisation as a pure virtue, but that struggle was a momentous project of regime change. An increasingly corporate and globalised media could celebrate mass agi tation only in a more contained way, as a sign of “the people” and as a statement that “the people” want what “we” want. The media’s construct of “civil society” does not look so innocent in this light; it is in fact a fantasy arising from the elite and projected onto the masses.

As Aruna Roy has noted, the huge Lokpal mobilisation had a relatively small outcome. No corrupt politicians were pinpointed, much less punished, although that was the stimulus for the movement. No relief was offered for the unaffordably high cost of living, although that was a major motive for the agitation. Instead we were given the promise of a new bureaucracy to examine bureaucratic corruption. What exactly will emerge amidst the government’s attempts to undermine and c reate rifts within the Anna Hazare team, is hard to say. 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.

Mass Media?

For the media, the popular mobilisation was a sign of their own success and not only of Anna Hazare’s. From the reports following the campaign’s conclusion, in fact, it is clear that the two were closely linked from the outset. It proved that the media could help move people onto the streets for a cause.

This is not to deny the idealism involved in this phenomenon. Nor is the point to oppose real events against media artifice. At least from the time of the October Revolution, it has become clear that the entry of the masses on to the stage of history is both a real and a mediated event. Susan Buck-Morss has pointed out, in this connection, that the 20th century was an era where

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COMMENTARY

real politics and mediated visions of collective futures became inextricably intertwined, notably in the battle between capitalism and communism. India was no exception. Gandhi’s Salt March was a public procession that grew and grew, 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. Collective imagination requires the work of media, human as well as technological. Grass-roots work and public rallies, the press and the cinema, and today, electronic media are all involved in staging “the people” as a collective force and as a (possible) counter-public.

But consider what it means for people to be together in a public space. Hannah Arendt has observed that political action requires the visibility of those who act, to themselves and to others. Such action is political only by virtue of a struggle to bring into perception what is otherwise excluded from view. To the extent that one saw events organised around ordinary people expressing critical views on public affairs, the Hazare campaign was political. But to the extent that every e ffort was made to render participation easier, more public and visible, this was an orchestrated spectacle. That is, we can neither dismiss it completely, nor endorse it without qualification as political in the best sense of the word.

Meanwhile there is reason to be sceptical about the agitation’s outcomes. The fundamental business of television is to get people to watch it, and of the press to get people to read it. Sixty per cent of India’s households now have television. Watching TV and being on TV acquired a greater overlap during this campaign than ever before. It pointed to a kind of media awareness that had not been so prominent before. Images of their actions were reflected back to people, who then acted in a more camera-friendly way. Media images were part of their own political repertoire, which meant that media became to some extent the destination of political action too.

Today we have not only TV, but also cell phones and email, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. Mass events like the drive for the Lokpal Bill accumulate huge amounts of attention, which is quantified for revenue

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
november 19, 2011

generation. They are also means for discharging popular energy, leaving only memories behind. That is the risk we have to be vigilant about. To the extent that media mobilise constituencies, they are fluid and volatile. Static builds up in media circuits and is released. People congregate and then disperse.

Middle Class Character

One might look to evidence of such performative politics in the August Kranti of 1942, a model for the recent movement, albeit with marked difference. Gandhi was not only the leader of the earlier campaign, he was a model for volunteers’ behaviour. Abstinence, frugality, and moral character were inculcated; to this extent people sought to emulate Gandhi in their own lives. Civil disobedience carried risks, of penalisation by employers, and of imprisonment. Political dissidence took courage, and involved a public stance against the government. While courage and dedication were not absent in the Lokpal campaign, its technologically mediated form made Anna Hazare’s austerity and frugality a spectacle for contemplation and empathy. It appeared that it was enough to say, “I am Anna.” Herein lay its middle class character. The virtues that seemed essential in the earlier moment became more of an option in the recent event. Indeed, the revelations that have followed the Ramlila maidan agitation about extensive planning and coordination with PR personnel from the media industry, disclosures by Arvind Kejriwal about his casting Hazare as a suitable role model for the agitation he had planned, and accusations about some of the members of the Anna Hazare group, have left many wondering what exactly it was that they had been so enthused about. By contrast, the Right to Information Act emer ged from a grass-roots rural movement, and the legislation was achieved with far less fanfare than has attended the barest preliminaries of the Lokpal Bill proposals. There is a lesson here on the co-opting power of the mass media, on its inflation of the value of the people as spectacle, and its deflation of popular power outside the image. As it happens, the French Situationist Guy Debord theorised such an outcome in his Society of the Spectacle (1967).

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When popular struggles were spreading across Arab countries, long viewed as lacking in democratic traditions, India’s apparently pacific response to its escalating corruption scandals did not look so distinguished. However, the rapid escalation of the protests, aided by embracing the media as a llies, compromised their political character in numerous ways. Political participation as a critique of the status quo has to exist both inside and outside the media spectacle.7 Visibility can be experienced as fulfilling, but when the image becomes the destination of politics, it is a trap. 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.

Notes

1 “Occupy Wall Street”, Adbusters Blog, 13 July 2011, http://www.adbusters.org/blogs/adbusters-blog/ occupywallstreet.html.

2 An interim estimate in the summer of 2011 was 2594. See “The Price of Protest, So Far”, The Economist, 14 July 2011. http://www.economist. com/blogs/dailychart/2011/07/arab-springdeath-tollhttp://www.economist.com/blogs/ dailychart/2011/07/arab-spring-death-toll

3 At the time of writing, October-November 2011, it is obviously too soon to tell what outcomes if any will follow the movement. Given that the agenda for the presidential elections of 2012 remains to be clearly defined, however, the Occupy Wall Street movement, 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.

4 As well, the role of social media was crucial, although reports about its uses are mainly anecdotal at present. See however the following news report: “Team Anna’s Use of Social Media Caught Us Unawares, Says [Union Law Minister Salman] Khurshid,” Indian Express, 19 October 2011, p 6.

5 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, with 37.8% viewership or 12 million viewers, followed by NDTV 24×7 (22.2%) and CNN-IBN (20.7%). The genre share of Hindi news channels increased from 5.9% in the period 6-13 August to 11.02% in the period 13-20 August, according to TAM Media Research. The genre share of English news channels increased during this time from to 0.54% from 0.31%. See “Anna Hazare Drives Up News Viewership,” by Abhilasha Ojha and Anushree Chandran, Livemint. com, 25 August 2011. http://www.livemint. com/2011/08/25235016/Anna-Hazare-drives-upnews-vie.html. Accessed 19 October 2011.

6 I&B Minister Ambika Soni interviewed by Prabhu Chawla on IBN-7, “Teekhi Baat”, 17 September 2011. http://prabhuchawla.blogspot.com/2011/09/ teekhi-baatibn7prabhu-chawla-with.html. Accessed 4 November 2011. The exact number of channels cited even by the I&B minister varies from week to week, so 800 cannot be taken as definitive at the time of writing.

7 As we know, there are in fact numerous struggles that attract little advocacy from the major media, from human rights demands in the north-east and in Kashmir, and Maoist insurgency in tribal lands, from victims of industrial disasters in Bhopal and elsewhere, to anti-nuclear agitations in Jaitapur and Koodankulam, and many others.

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