The media has to take much of the responsibility for transforming two ordinary people into the nation’s new ‘saviours’

Rajesh Khanna may have immortalised a few lines that are easily recalled by everyone — “Pushpa, I hate tears” — but he will certainly not be remembered for his political speeches. Yet, one particular speech stands out in my memory. It was reported in the papers and it has stayed in my memory even though years have passed.

In the speech, made in Calcutta during the 1989 general elections when he was campaigning for the Congress, the actor likened political power to a matchbox. “When you place it in the hands of a mother,” he told the crowd, “she uses it to light the kitchen fire and feed her children. But when in the hands of a child, the same matchbox can even burn down a house.” The Congress, he said, was the responsible mother who deserved to the keep matchbox.

To my young mind — I was only 19 then — the analogy sounded rather lame, even absurd. I felt sorry for Rajesh Khanna for talking about little matchboxes, when seasoned politicians of the time were talking about big guns — the Swedish Bofors that was to fell Rajiv Gandhi’s government.

Today I have come to realise the symbolic importance of the matchbox. Rajesh Khanna was clearly ahead of his times; only that Delhi, unlike Bombay, never acknowledged his genius.

In an age when a television camera wields the real power — the gadget can transform a politician into a pauper and a pauper into a politician in no time; if nothing else, it guarantees you 15 minutes of fame — you can see how similar it is to the matchbox. When in the right hands, it can educate, entertain, enlighten. When on the wrong shoulders, it can excite, provoke and even set homes on fire.

Move pays off

Do we even realise how little we work our minds these days when it comes to analysing events around us? We feed on the frenzy whipped up by news channels; and, when caught in a verbal duel between distinguished panellists with colliding views, we are so confused that we end up adopting the voice and the demeanour of the excited news anchor. Since TV news is 24/7, you are never ever given a chance to let your own thoughts precipitate: the animated anchor is always breathing down your neck, telling you what to think.

Amid such cacophony, listening to a yoga guru can be a pleasant distraction. I gave up watching TV news long ago, ever since the channels discovered the art of breaking news, but I always loved watching the telecast of Baba Ramdev’s yoga camps, even though he would keep demonstrating the same set of postures and breathing exercises day after day, month after month.

Here was a man — a hitherto unheard-of swami in a country that boasts of larger-than-life gurus — who got the entire country practising pranayama. Even on trains and in public parks you could see people sitting upright and either exhaling forcefully or breathing through alternate nostrils. The talkative swami had brought about a yoga revolution, something that serious, larger-than-life gurus could not succeed in doing in their own country even though they are worshipped in the West. All this thanks to TV.

If “Aastha” — the channel which telecast Ramdev’s camps — alone could make him a demigod for middle-class India, imagine what the combined might of the various news channels could do to his status? The thought is most likely to have crossed the yogi’s mind when he suddenly decided to switch gears — from talking about regaining one’s health to regaining the nation’s lost wealth.

His move paid off. Overnight, he was propelled from the 6 a.m. slot to primetime; if you were to watch TV news the morning after police dispersed his protest meeting at Ramlila grounds in June last year, you would believe that nothing else newsworthy happened in the country of one billion on that particular day.

By then, TV had already made Anna Hazare a household name. Until the time he sat on a fast demanding introduction of the Lokpal Bill, which he believes will rid India of corruption, not many knew who Anna was. And then they all knew who he was and many rose in his support. But life for them soon returned to normal when they realised they had greater day-to-day problems to deal with — dug-up roads and traffic jams and payment of EMIs — than worry about a law which would come with its share of inbuilt loopholes and may not be of any use to them.

Anna Hazare, buoyed by the unexpected support, sought to prolong his 15 minutes of fame by threatening to continue with his fasts. But the public seems to have lost interest in his crusade, which perhaps explains why he and his team decided unilaterally to end their recent hunger strike without any government representative begging them to do so.

Anna Hazare is 75; Baba Ramdev is an accomplished yogi. They should know that corruption is a malaise that cannot be cured overnight — certainly not from the top. Corruption is a disease that needs to be addressed from the bottom.

A journey

I am reminded of a train journey I undertook from Chennai to Hyderabad some years ago. My co-passengers in the coupe were a small family — a man, woman and their child. Soon after they finished having dinner, the man was about to throw the plastic boxes out of the window when the child — a girl about five-years-old — stopped him.

“No appa,” she admonished her father, “My teacher tells me not to throw out things like that. Please put them in the bin.” The man, deeply embarrassed but bearing a proud smile, set out in search of a bin.

That’s where nation-building begins: the school. You cannot set right the character of a nation through legislation. A piece of legislation can only punish the guilty — if at all one is found guilty — but if you are really striving for a corruption-free society, you’ll have to begin at the grassroots level. A place where there are no television cameras.

What would happen if there are no TV cameras? Would Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev still be interested in ridding the country of corruption? Would you still have a bunch of hoodlums raiding pubs and slapping young women in the name of Indian culture? That’s a question you will have to ponder upon — and answer.

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