By Swapan Dasgupta
From a purely news point of view, there were three facets of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s annual Vijayadashami speech in Nagpur last Friday.
First, the Sarsanghachalak extended his full endorsement of the Narendra Modi government, thereby dispelling fears that the coming days could see a repeat of the Prime Minister-RSS tensions that had marked the previous NDA government of Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Secondly, the RSS expressed its scepticism over the ability of the West to mount a successful opposition to the new Khilafatist state now operating on the borders of Iraq and Syria. This is significant insofar as it negates conspiracy theories of any proposed grand Christian-Jewish-Hindu alliance against radical Islamism.
Finally, the RSS chief was extremely harsh in his opposition to the global economic designs of a rising China. In suggesting that Indian consumers should shun cheap Chinese imports he actually questioned the rationale of the economic cooperation that China’s President Xi Jinping offered during his visit to Delhi last month.
It speaks volumes for the priorities of India’s media and political class that the substantive features of the RSS chief’s marg darshan was overwhelmed by a silly controversy over whether or not Doordarshan should have facilitated a live telecast from Nagpur.
Earlier, controversies centred on the news coverage of the state-run broadcaster were always about non-coverage. From the 1970s to the late-1990s, when DD and All India Radio enjoyed a monopoly of the electronic media, opposition parties used to complain routinely about being blacked out on TV and radio. Even as late as 2013, the Aam Aadmi Party expressed indignation that the state media pretended the new outfit didn’t exist—although the lavish (and, occasionally, disproportionate) coverage in the non-state media more than compensated for this loss.
This is probably a rare occasion when a number of political parties and a section of the intellectual class have ganged up to protest against the fact that an event was covered. In its defence DD has argued that coverage was justified on account of its news value. For once—considering how much irrelevant non-news sarkari events it covers—the state broadcaster is right. In today’s political environment the RSS is important because it enjoys a special relationship with the ruling party at the Centre. What the Sarsanghachalak says could potentially offer insights or have a bearing on the thinking of a large section of the BJP that was nurtured in the Sangh.
The hoary debate over whether the RSS is a religious, socio-cultural or quasi-political organisation is interesting. However, the news value of this year’s Vijayadashami speech is on account of its possible political implications. Almost every second day a newspaper or a TV channel contains some remark—invariably outrageous—by a member of some RSS-affiliated organisation indicating a mismatch with government thinking on the subject. Earlier, the VHP’s Pravin Togadia was a great favourite. These days, Dina Nath Batra, the doughty crusader for educational cleansing, has been milked for his forthright views. Should the TV channels, most of which held studio discussions on DD’s coverage of the Nagpur address, now ask themselves whether their coverage of what they construe are RSS views are illegitimate?
In an astonishing comment in its news report on the controversy, Times of India wrote that “Even universal concerns like terror, when spoken about by RSS, acquire a sensitive edge.” The paper appeared to agree with the “political class and social commentators” in calling the telecast “a dangerous trend of state patronage of majoritarian politics.” The implication is clear: the “public broadcaster” must black out the RSS because its ethos is unacceptable to a few the Praetorian guards of public taste. In other words, the job of a public broadcaster is to exorcise anything remotely controversial and beam scintillating news of ministers speaking inanities at seminars and babus opening branches of nationalised banks. The issue of whether or not DD and AIR should compete with other channels for the news space is a disputed one. But the suggestion that India has somehow got contaminated because someone saw Mohan Bhagwat holding forth on DD News is laughable. But more pernicious is the suggestion that the RSS ought to be blacked out because some “social commentators” think it to be a personification of “majoritarian politics.”
I recall that when the victorious Narendra Modi travelled to Varanasi and attended a puja at the Vishwanath Mandir and the Ganga aarti, many private channels had live broadcasts and covered the ceremonies in minute detail. At that time too many social commentators voiced their displeasure over cultural majoritarianism. Maybe it was the same logic that prompted the politically correct organisers of Delhi’s oldest Dusserah celebrations at the Ram Lila maidan to break with tradition and not invite Narendra Modi for the event. The organisers invited Sonia Gandhi to do the honours because, presumably, she is not the personification of “majoritarian politics.”
For a very long time, a coterie has set themselves up as the guardians of public taste and public information. Their writ, of course, doesn’t run because neither religiosity nor political thinking can be regulated. But they have succeeded in creating a gulf between a sanitised, indeed contrived, “official” India and the people’s India. It is time these barriers were broken and India is given the necessary to re-acquire its real personality. That implies that any individual or organisation carrying the ‘Hindu’ tag shouldn’t be automatically be deemed untouchable.
Sunday Pioneer, October 5, 2014