The Hindi media have seen humongous growth, but seem perilously close to entering a phase of ‘refeudalisation.’
“Far too many people — especially those with great expertise in one area — are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas, or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge. But taking pride in their ignorance is self-defeating,” wrote Peter Drucker.
Drucker is a guru to many who run businesses in India, including the Indian language media which constitute a fast-growing sector. But almost all of India’s print media mandarins, trained at top business schools and hired at salaries that far exceed those paid to editors, hardly try to familiarise themselves with the socio-economic intricacies of the Indian markets through vernacular publications. They would rather put their faith entirely on reports prepared by foreign rating agencies, to which the Hindi belt is the largest homogenised market in the country, period. These, 11 of India’s most populous States, from the central Himalayan States of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand to Bihar and Jharkhand in the east, involve many variables. They face many pulls and pressures, and have cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity. But these are seldom factored into media-planning exercises. This is but hubris.
India’s earliest English language dailies, some of them closely modelled on their British counterparts, were launched for the “cultured” classes. For most of the readers and the editorial decision-makers of many of these English dailies, the only reality was the city, and the only viable working systems were those created by the British media. When India won its freedom, all eminent politicians, from Congressmen to the Muslim ‘Leaguees’ to the Communists, were united by the English language despite the love for Gandhiji and the people’s languages most of them professed. After 1947, in both India and Pakistan, the English newspapers began to be referred to as the ‘national’ dailies, despite the fact that they often catered to less than 10 per cent of the population. For over half a century the branding helped them collect the largest shares of advertising revenues.
The growth of the vernacular press, especially the Hindi press, in India was to follow another, somewhat Habermasian trajectory. In 1845, Raja Shiv Prasad Sitara-e-Hind, the ruler of Varanasi, launched the Hindi daily Banaras Akhbar. It was soon followed by Raja Lakshman Singh’s Praja Hitaishi (1861), Raja Rampal Singh’s (of Kalakankar) Hindusthan (1883), and Maharaja Srilal Baldev Singh Joo’s (of Rewa) Bharat Bhrata (1887). Raja Rampal Singh chose a bright young law student by name Madan Mohan Malviya to head his paper, but ensured that his name (Atra Bhavan Sada Samar Vijayi, Maharaja Ram Singh Joo) was printed below the masthead as that of the Chief Editor. Malviya quit two years later, angered by the unprofessional conduct of the Raja who was mostly vacationing in London.
By the early 20th century, change was in the air. In 1920, the Hindi daily Rajasthan Kesri was banned in Udaipur State after it sharply criticised the feudal classes for their lavish lifestyles that contrasted with the poverty of their subjects. And by 1936, Madan Mohan Malviya, who had had a nasty run-in with the feudal press earlier, emerged as a notable follower of Gandhiji. He prevailed upon the owners of Hindustan Times to launch a Hindi daily to serve the common man. This kick-started a second phase — that of a gradual democratisation of the Hindi media.
Rupert Murdoch once said that it is incredibly hard to make oneself believe that other people exist in the same way that we do. The greatest challenge before journalism in any democracy is to convince people of this fundamental truth. During the phase that began in the 1940s, editors and journalists of the vernacular press, mostly recruited from small towns and semi-rural areas, had somehow grasped this fact instinctively. Together with their avid new readers, the Hindi journalists underwent a unique expansion of the heart and mind as they began to report and write and absorb the fascinating reality of India beyond its big cities and the party headquarters offices. Their writings may have been less polished, their dailies less well-produced, but it was as though India had at last learnt to speak for itself. It is this aspect of the vernacular media, including in Hindi, which one finds the most beautiful and endearingly human. And with this, the Hindi newspapers, as in the case of their Tamil, Telugu, Kannada or Bengali counterparts, managed to create a republic for the humblest readers sitting far away in Samastipur or Farrukhabad or Almora.
As the idea of the inviolable human dignity of news became central, a new public language for democratic discourse was created effortlessly. And when in 1979 the first National Readership Survey revealed that the vernacular papers, particularly those in Hindi, now commanded several times the readership of the English newspapers, it did not surprise the readers or journalists of the vernacular press.
Between 2002 and 2005, a new Cinderella story was written. Readership in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand recorded a phenomenal annual growth of 14 per cent. Over two-thirds of these readers were based in small towns and rural areas. Despite continuous political turbulence, poverty, rise in crime and a near-breakdown of law and order, or perhaps because of these, the poor but news-hungry readers in Bihar were ready to spend Rs. 5 a copy for a slim Hindi newspaper, almost three times the price of the (considerably fatter) English dailies.
Today, according to the Indian Readership Survey, 2009 (Round 1), the list of India’s top 10 dailies has only Indian language newspapers, and six of them are in Hindi. India’s largest-selling English daily, The Times of India, now stands outside of the Big 10, at No. 11. And, according to IRS 2008 (Round 2), its total sales (133.4 lakh copies a day) is but a fraction of the vast numbers sold by the top four Hindi dailies: Dainik Jagran (557.4 lakh), Dainik Bhaskar (338.3 lakh), Amar Ujala (293.8 lakh) and Hindustan (266.3 lakh).
But ironically, with such humongous growth the Hindi media seem perilously close to entering the Habermasian third phase of ‘refeudalisation.’ During this phase, Habermas had predicted, the state and the corporates would seize control of the lucrative media businesses and the public sphere would degenerate — till the media become a mass ‘product’ and the reader a mindless consumer driven by advertisers’ choices, not his or her own. This is not a very pleasant thought. But given India’s half-open markets, the vernacular media’s wide readership base, and the fact that journalists are also informed consumers, perhaps we will ultimately have an unfinished revolution of sorts where the informed consumers and the system will beat back the predatory market forces again and again. In the Habermasian Kali Yuga, do not be surprised to see print media readers being subtly assisted by the state when they demand a more professional dissemination of news.
There are two reasons for this: one, the print media are infinitely less of a threat to the ruling class compared to the increasingly ratings-driven, ‘breaking news’-seeking, visual media. And since your enemy’s enemy is your best friend, the ruling class will not allow market forces to starve the print media at the expense of the visual media.
The second reason has rather insidious implications. Over the last few years, as disposable incomes in small-town India have risen, the wall that stood between English and vernacular publications has begun to crumble. After almost all the editors of English dailies, like the Hindi media barons before them, have turned owner-editors, they have quickly sensed the advantage in forming protective guilds across regions. Unbelievably, new bands of brotherhood are being formed by the marketing managers in order to formulate strategies, sign ‘no poaching’ pacts, and share information about the best clients and the cleverest (although they are often the most unprofessional) practices. Media barons are no longer dismissive of their vernacular publications, and the Hindi owner-editors are also coming out of their small, simple and static world and sending their sons to Wharton or the Indian Institutes of Management. The vernacular readers may have grown up on a diet of only language papers, but they now send their children to English-medium schools. The brave new bi-lingual households of the future are the new focus area. That is where the action is.
(Mrinal Pande is a senior Hindi journalist and writer. This is the first of a two-part article.)