Fifty shades of saffron

BY PADMAJA SHAW| IN Media Practice | 14/10/2015
After each attack on free speech, the television channels choose to rant and bring in a chorus of Parivar apologists to fully justify their politics.
PADMAJA SHAW says TV actually provides a bully pulpit to them and exaggerates their influence

Saffron plurality: Three out of four panelists are from the same ideological spectrum 


It is mesmerising to watch the waltz the media is leading with the right-wing political formation in power in India.

The ‘presidential-style’ coverage given to Candidate Modi before the 2014 election and the antagonism towards any political formation that had been moderate or welfarist in the Indian political economy till then – such as the Congress or the  Left - are a matter of record.

The media went out of its way to find charisma, oratory and great administrative skills, despite several major blunders in history and facts made by the Candidate, and held up, in contrast, the incompetence of Dr Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi. The primary criticism of Dr Singh and Rahul Gandhi was that they either would not or could not speak. We were persuaded to buy the car based on the sound of its horn.

"The Parivar can provide the gamut of navarasas (nine ‘rasas’ or emotional states) that the infotainment oriented 24x7 media hanker after on an hourly basis. "


It is well-known that some groups in the Hindutva Parivar specialise in terror tactics; some run educational institutions and mass mobilisation programmes; there’s an economic wing which monitors popular left-critique of the economy and co-opts its terminology, recasting it in more saleable ‘nationalist’ terms; there is a women’s wing; there is a political front; and there is an ideological overseer which ensures that all the groups operate in sync.

The Parivar can provide the gamut of navarasas (nine ‘rasas’ or emotional states) that the infotainment oriented 24x7 media hanker after on an hourly basis. They can give you terror; they can provide philosophy; they can give you religious discourse; they can give you yoga and cures; they can also give you cutting edge technology by embracing Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Now, we see a political climate that is turning the tide. The media, barring a few who never fell for the trap, are desperate to retrieve their credibility without losing face. But it is not going to be easy as the Sangh Parivar is more nimble than the media. One suspects that media houses are not equipped to deal with the multi-pronged assault of the Parivar, given their news values and the kind of news they choose to sell. Some may attribute it to the ownership of media houses, others to the money that can be made and others still to sheer incompetence.

But what finally shows up on television screens has been interesting to watch. Media debates of late have featured several guests from the Parivar umbrella, yielding most of the space to shades of opinion from the same groups which serves to create a false sense of plurality while ensuring that other ideological opinions find little space.

Whether it is Lalit Modi, Dadri, or Vyapam, the television screens tend to have several voices from the extended Parivar - from the RSS, the BJP, the Shiv Sena and others like Rahul Easwar and journalists Ashok Malik, Swapan Dasgupta and  Chandan Mitra.

The latest are the cases of the Dadri lynching and the attack on Sudheendra Kulkarni by the Shiv Sena. Anchors on leading channels like NDTV and India Today (and some others who are beyond the pale of reason) lined up spokespersons and senior people from the RSS, the Shiv Sena and the BJP to enlighten us about their views on the desirability of lynching and inking as a political strategy.

Predictably, the BJP dissociates itself as a political party, the RSS adopts the classic propaganda tone of disinterested deliberation, and the Shiv Sena promises to deliver justice in its own style.

In this spectacle, we see the Parivar successfully occupying the entire spectrum of opinion. Some of them sound moderate, some are aggressive and some detached as observers.

Someone like Sudheendra Kulkarni, who joined the BJP well after the Babri Masjid demolition, became a spokesperson, wrote speeches for the leaders and was complicit in the logic of communal political mobilisation, is made to appear like a victim and a champion of free speech by senior journalists such as Rajdeep Sardesai and Nidhi Razdan. What they failed to ask Kulkarni was why he endorsed such politics all these years before he himself became a target.

The current Shiv Sena-BJP flap could well be designed to show the BJP as a moderate political force as the multi-stage polling unfolds across Bihar. It is likely that the entire period leading up to the elections in Bihar will be used to keep the Sangh politics in the public eye, if not directly in Bihar, at least somewhere in India.

In the debate on the Dadri lynching, Sudhanshu Mittal of the BJP stumped  Sardesai by accusing him of communalising the debate because he invited Asaduddin Owaisi to the show! Years of messing around at the grassroots is not communalism. If a counterpoint is presented in the media discourse, that is communalism. If Congress spokespersons are present, the anchors feel compelled to hit them with the Emergency, primarily because of the false equivalences that the anchors themselves constantly draw between various events in history.

"It is baffling to see the media suddenly portray Sudheendra Kulkarni as a champion of free speech "


The media are worried about political correctness that prevents them from taking a fairer position about the Emergency. While the political turmoil that necessitated the Emergency was Indira Gandhi's unwillingness to accept the Allahabad court judgment and to relinquish power, to begin with she was targeted because of her welfare policies that resulted in the nationalisation of banks, providing finances for small and medium industries, and the abolition of privy purses. And the Congress did not espouse a blatantly communal agenda.

It is a matter of recorded history that it was, at the core, a right-wing enterprise that successfully mounted a nationwide attack on Indira Gandhi’s government. It was unfortunate that the then Prime Minister curtailed all civil liberties and took the opportunity to suppress both the right-wing and the left-wing forces opposed to her that led to her massive defeat at the 1977 elections. This also laid a firm foundation for the right-wing, which had been in the political wilderness after Gandhiji’s assassination, to regroup into a more strategically designed political formation.

It is baffling to see the media suddenly portray Sudheendra Kulkarni as a champion of free speech. And uncritically report L.K. Advani’s statements about growing intolerance in India, forgetting that it is the Advani doctrine of mob mobilisation that is at work today.

The attacks are always in mobs and when large scale horrors are committed by mobs, no one can ever be convicted. An innovation of the present political bosses is the targeted assassinations that follow mob frenzy and threats delivered through the new digital devices.

After each attack on free speech, the television channels choose to rant and bring in a chorus of Parivar apologists to fully justify their politics. This sense of ‘fair play’ that the media displays actually provides a bully pulpit to the members of these organizations. The media space that is provided to their opinions, often justifying crime and threats of violence, gives the groups political legitimacy and mislead  the public about the power they wield.

The media industry desires a liberalised economy with lower taxes, less regulation and more freedom to operate. Their belief that the right wing, with its muscular disregard for welfare and socialist politics, will somehow respect civil liberties and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms is naïve at best.

A predatory economy that deprives people of basic needs cannot ensure humane politics. Keeping people distracted with divisive agendas is a necessity to push through corporate-friendly policies. And not just in India.


Padmaja  Shaw is a media scholar, columnist, broadcast journalism trainer, and a retired professor of journalism.




The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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