Team Anna both galvanised people and captivated the news industry, in two closely related but distinct strategies.
India is not yet a society where Big Brother is Watching You. However, the mass spectacle of people wearing “I am Anna” topis and T-shirts signals a new phase of politics. 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-year-old villager on an indefinite fast against corruption. Echoing a widespread belief that prevailing institutions are self-serving and heedless of people's welfare, Hazare was a reminder of the ethics that politics and government had forgotten.
Team Anna both galvanised people and captivated the news industry, in two closely related but distinct strategies. What took shape was perhaps the largest orchestrated media campaign since Ram Janmabhoomi. Unlike that campaign, this one destroyed nothing, and actually sought to introduce legislation that Parliament has resisted for decades. What distinguishes the staging of contemporary events from December 1992 is the massive expansion of the media, and most notably, the growth of satellite TV news channels. Celebration should therefore be tempered with critical reflection. Let me explain why.
The Indian media respond in one of two ways to popular agitations and campaigns. Either they are a threat to order and must be contained by the law — or they are an expression of the national spirit and must be encouraged. In the past, the English language media usually embraced the first position, and the Indian language media the second.
Anna Hazare's is perhaps the first mass campaign after 1947 where English and vernacular media have come 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-or-against-us' approach. It should be noted though that the Hindi channels adopted a more positive attitude on the whole than the English language media, who were more critical. Questions about the middle class limitations of the movement were mainly confined to the English media, for example.
Indian language media have a tradition of embracing popular agitation dating back to the freedom struggle. The English media adopted the perspective of colonial rulers, and distrusted the public expressions of ordinary people, by contrast. And in post-independence times the English-language media, in their struggle to adhere to secular values, often found itself replicating colonial distrust of popular sentiment.
The media's collective and on the whole enthusiastic endorsement of mass agitation thus inaugurates a distinct phase of Indian politics. The entry of the masses on to the stage of history is a discourse of democracy, but it is also a mediated event. Gandhiji'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. Political participation has 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.
But if we consider the extent to which today's media are corporatised and oligopolist in structure, and indifferent to people's suffering on so many fronts, we should ask: why did this event in particular generate so much commercial media promotion?
In the Anna Hazare campaign, the spectacle of popular mobilisation was seen to be a thing of virtue. And the more mobilisation, it was assumed, the more virtuous civil society was.
During the anti-colonial struggle, the nationalist press could see popular mobilisation as a pure virtue. Why would an increasingly corporate and globalised media celebrate mass agitation in the same way, regardless of the outcome?
As Aruna Roy has noted, the huge Lokpal mobilisation has 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 support. Instead we have the promise of a new bureaucracy to examine bureaucratic corruption. This is a small victory for a movement so large: Anna Hazare had to persuade the government that he did not plan to overthrow it.
The media rightly feel they helped to make this victory. For them, the popular mobilisation is a sign of their own success and not only of Anna Hazare's. It shows they can move people, and bring them out onto the streets and the maidan. They can enlarge crowds for a cause.
I don't want to deny that there is idealism amongst media personnel. But the fundamental business of television is to get people to watch television, and of the press to get people to read the press. 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 points to a new kind of media awareness. Images of their actions are reflected back to people, who then act in a more camera-friendly way. Media images are part of their own political répertoire, which means that media become to some extent the destination of political action too. This is what the French Situationist Guy Debord called the Society of the Spectacle. We aim to watch and be watched. It is a mode of social regulation, and of conducting business.
Today we have not only TV, but also cellphones 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 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.
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. Gandhiji 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 Gandhiji 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.
Even if we say we are all Anna, the question is — and then what? How do we get beyond the easy self-congratulation of that statement? Political participation has to exist both inside and outside the media spectacle. Commercial media will move on to the next new thing, at least for a while. It is necessary to stay with the issue even when the spotlights are switched off. That would mean rethinking what kinds of politics are possible in such a context.
(Arvind Rajagopal is Professor of Media Studies and Sociology at New York University. His latest book, After Decolonization, is under contract with Duke University Press.)