By Swapan Dasgupta
Late afternoon last Friday, I switched on the TV to a ‘national’ channel, hoping to catch up on what has been happening in India, if not the world, before stepping out for dinner. Imagine my utter astonishment when I found the entire focus of nearly all the English-language channels on the traffic in Delhi.
The news readers solemnly informed viewers—the few that have the TV on in the late afternoons—that a combination of some 25,000 marriages and a huge cultural festival being organised by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living would mean hideous traffic jams in Delhi. The tone was distinctly alarmist, as if to suggest that all decent folk should remain sane by remaining indoors. And then the focus shifted to the AOL event where the Prime Minister was due to speak. Here the suggestion was that the lifestyle guru’s cultural jamboree would result in the total destruction of Delhi’s already fragile environment. Reading between the lines, the impression was unmistakeable: the Hindu hordes were holding the Capital to ransom with their environmental vandalism and their opulent weddings.
It’s not that I dislike local news or have joined the band of climate change sceptics who assault the sensibilities of Green fundamentalist. What seemed bizarre to me was the generous top billing accorded to the traffic situation in Delhi. While we may have definite views on what should or should not be done to maintain the health of our rivers, I find it hard to believe that the AOL lot are single-mindedly out to destroy what nature has bequeathed to India. More important, I find it curious that our TV producers believe that a small controversy in Delhi would be of paramount interest to the English-knowing viewers in India’s other cities and towns.
Over the years and increasingly in the past six months, the important distinction between what is Delhi and what is nation is being effortlessly obliterated.
As a rule, I like to glance at the morning newspapers in any city I am visiting, to gauge the local preoccupations. I was consequently astounded when, on a recent visit to Kolkata, I found the entire first page of editorial content (thanks to advertisements, that is alas no longer page one) of the city’s main English newspaper devoted to a slightly tendentious coverage of the events in Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. True, there is a body of JNU alumnus resident in Kolkata who follow the happenings of their alma mater. But had anything so earth shattering happened that day to warrant the entire first page to be devoted to JNU?
The distortion began for a purely economic reason. Cash-strapped news channels in particular began to increase their coverage of Delhi and the National Capital region because it was relatively cheaper. It is expensive, to say the least, to despatch Outside Broadcast vans and reporters to remote areas of India to chase an interesting story. It is far better to merely look at what is happening at the channel’s doorstep and project it as truly ‘national’. This incidentally also works to the benefit of the media savvy Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi that, apart from punching above its weight, also sees itself as the true ‘national’ alternative to the Narendra Modi government. An expedient combination of cost cutting and political partisanship has, therefore reshaped the hierarchy of news. Earlier, the belief was that all politics is local; now that principle is being rewritten to imply that Delhi is always national.
The shift has led to unintended consequences. Earlier this month after the JNU student’s union president Kanhaiya Kumar was grudgingly granted bail by a Magistrate’s Court, he returned to JNU as an all-conquering hero. After the exhilarating bout of ‘revolutionary’ slogans and excitable speeches, shown live on TV, we had the comic spectacle of the student leader being interviewed by nearly all the channels. This by itself is unexceptionable but what was laughable was the depiction of the articulate, rabble rousing Kanhaiya Kumar as a political philosopher with a ranking next to Plato or even Lenin. I don’t know whether this rather excessive elevation of the young man with JNU as his near-permanent address will result in Modi getting frazzled, losing his political touch and securing the BJP’s return to the opposition benches in Parliament. However, it has secured the construction of a make-believe world where politics can be played in the safe zones of the campus and the TV studios.
The centrality of Delhi in this political course has, quite predictably, led to the mainstreaming of ridiculous fringe tendencies. It has also led to the media believing it is now in the vanguard of change. A casual perusal of the social media reveals that anchors and reporters are less interested in covering news than in proffering their views in 140 characters.
This was also the reason why Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s event took such a media beating. The AOL icon was portrayed as a dodgy godman because the battle had been elevated into a crusade against Hindu supporters of the PM. I daresay if the event on the Yamuna banks had been organised by an avowedly minority faith group, the media wouldn’t have turned Green guardians. They didn’t even turn guardians of the law when there was an assertion of religious power in Malda district earlier this year. Was that lapse merely a result of distance—Malda is located out of motorable distance from Delhi? Or was it because in today’s environment, all politics has to promote the desecration of an elected government? I guess asking such irritating questions just won’t do: it punctures the bubble in which some people are living.
Sunday Pioneer, March 13, 2016