Guest post by LUSHKARY
Of all the things about my last workplace, being summoned by one of our editors to her cabin was one that I did not particularly like. The problem was that, unlike other parts of the office, in her cabin I could not even pretend to seem interested in what she had to say. My eyes would involuntarily travel to the soft-board above her desk and get fixated on a slightly hazy colour photograph of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. And if I shifted focus a bit towards the left, then I could also see another familiar figure standing next to Mr. Modi. That of the cabin’s proud occupant.
Now, it is not a hidden secret that the Indian business news community admires Mr. Modi. His biennial Vibrant Gujarat Summits, desi version of international pseudo-events like the Davos World Economic Forum, are a definite hit among business news hacks. How can you not be at a place where deals upwards of $452 billion get signed over just a couple of days?
Pinning a photograph of a person accused of leading a pogrom in your office – a place usually reserved for friends, family and gods – in my opinion, is a bit too much for anyone; leave alone an influential editor of a business news channel. Forget the overall orientation of the corporate news media with its various filters and biases – another editor doesn’t approve of old, dark, poor, inarticulate people on his show – the effect such gestures could have on cub reporters and newbie producers within the organisation are definitely worth worrying about.
Walk into any newsroom today, and you will find them overwhelmingly populated by very young people – including wet behind the ears interns – who are eager to impress the powers that be and determined to make it big on the small screen. Add to that the fear of joblessness, given the precarious nature of livelihood our times offer, and you get a newsperson who even when not asked to kneel starts crawling.
However, a caveat is in order here. As much as we may all disagree with what we see on our screens, it would be unfair to accuse the gen-next working in news channels of the lack of political engagement. I have worked with some really bright people in my six-years long (or, brief) career, who are full of radical ideas. But, curiously, none of their bright ideas ever reflect in their stories and features. Meet them outside after work and they will come across as altogether different people – full of latent rage against the ideological tyranny of their employers. Come morning, they could again be seen doing what is ‘expected’ of them instead of what they ‘want’ to do. They censor themselves much before the institutional checks begin to kick in. Nowhere does this Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde schism manifests itself more strongly than in the realm of the Internet. Log on to Twitter and you won’t have to wait for long before you get to see the leading lights of the news industry griping aloud about the limitations of the medium they work for.
Pierre Bourdieu describes this dichotomy quite well. In an interview to O Globo, a Rio de Janeiro newspaper, after the publication of the Portuguese translation of his powerful ‘On Television’, he says, “I don’t think the (TV) professionals are blind. I think they live in a state of dual consciousness: a practical view which leads them to get as much as they can, sometimes cynically, sometimes without realising it, out of the possibilities offered by the media tool at their disposal (I am talking about the most powerful of them); and a theoretical view, moralising and full of indulgence towards themselves, which leads them to deny publicly what they do, to mask it and even mask it from themselves.”
So, when a special show on the Vibrant Gujarat 2011 went on-air in January this year – a gushing, no-hold-barred celebration of the event and the persona behind it, the same editor called the producer of the show and asked: ‘don’t you think we overdid it?’
Simplistic formulations tend to work well with Big Media – easy to consume, even easier to regurgitate. Like Mr. Modi’s conservative ‘development’ rhetoric, India Against Corruption’s (IAC) narrowly defined idea of corruption and ill-conceived campaign to get their version of the Lokpal Bill ratified by the parliament also found much favour with news editors – unprecedented coverage was accorded to this campaign. The initial class composition of the campaign only sweetened the deal.
More or less at the same time, one could see workers flashing placards reading “Media Se Baat Karaao” at the Maruti Suzuki India Ltd.’s (MSIL) Manesar plant during their protracted struggle to form a union. Big Media did come forward to talk. But instead of talking ‘with’ them, it talked ‘at’ them. Even when it talked ‘about’ them, it did so is disparaging terms.
It was not really a coincidence to see the dominant actors in both the discourses and media outlets invoking similar metaphors; employing the language of pathology and epidemiology to describe what are essentially socio-political phenomena – ‘cancer of corruption’ and ‘labour contagion’, for instance. In both the cases, it was being suggested that the national body politic is in some sort of death grip of fast spreading diseases, where a few malignant elements are debilitating a healthy whole.
Whether it is the narrowly defined idea of corruption by IAC – glaringly leaving out the private sector where corruption is rampant – or the myth of ‘Indian Growth Story’ being disrupted by labour action, the electronic news media tend to privilege one political subject over the other; the tax paying citizen who deserves better governance (or, rather less governance), a consumer who deserves delivery of cars on time, an investor who deserves better return on his investment over the one whose basic rights are being blatantly trampled. While red carpets are rolled out to welcome industry lobby veterans into the realm of politics (I am, of course, referring here to Amit Mitra, Ex-Secretary General of Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and incumbent Finance Minister of West Bengal), red flags of the politicised workers’ union are ‘invisibilsed’.
The state is fast being pushed (or, is perhaps receding on its own accord) to the margins of public sphere, which is turn being colonised by the Big Media and, by extension, corporate interests. If you cannot find a place in the imagination of Big Media, you cannot find a place in the state’s imagination also. Actually, state itself has increasingly begun to articulate itself through the Big Media. It has become commonplace for political actors to conform to the codes of mainstream media. When the ‘silent’ Prime Minister is pushed to break his silence he does so only before some of the most prominent news editors of the country.
Can we then say that Big Media is not merely a gate-keeper of agendas, but has also come to occupy all that lies beyond the gates?
This week’s issue of The Economist notes, in a special report of Indian business, that big business groups have begun to resemble ‘mini-states in their own right’. New York Times, just a few months ago, in its report form Gurgaon, the El Dorado of Haryana, reported: “economic growth is often the product of a private sector improvising to overcome the inadequacies of the government.” The report goes on to mention that to function there, companies have had to install huge captive power generators, dig bore-wells, employ bus and car fleets to ferry their employees and hire armies of private security guards, that, incidentally, outnumber the town’s police force by a factor of four.
Elsewhere, companies like Infosys are running in-house training departments that can give even some of the best universities of the country a run for their money. They say, in India the problem is not of unemployment, the problem is of ‘unemployability’.
Right on cue, we come face to face with mainstream media mouthing the corporate agenda. Two decades after India embarked on the path of economic liberalisation, chants of ‘policy paralysis’ and ‘second wave of reforms’ are again at a fever pitch. We are constantly being told that the first generation reforms have run out of steam. A fresh infusion of cheaper capital, increased and flexible labour supply and infrastructure creation is required to set India on a growth path again.
If mainstream media are pushing the ‘development agenda’ at the behest of finance capital then state is merely charged with clearing the path to let this agenda have a free run. Far from being a guardian, the state has metamorphosed into a watchman. It likes to keep an account of people, number them, fix their identities; for how do you acquire land for a factory when you do not even know who owns it in the first place?
To go back to the body politic analogy, state is now the scalpel-wielding surgeon who is charged with exorcising the body of malignant elements.
Even after enjoying the state patronage in Haryana via its labour department – it For instance, forbid MSIL workers from gossiping and singing – and the police force, MSIL in September suggested that it might not setup its proposed Rs 18,000 Crore third plant – after Gurgaon and Manesar – in Haryana. Gujarat has been identified as a tentative location. Why, it is not hard to see. RC Bhargava, Chairman, MSIL, talking about Mr. Modi’s invitation to MSIL to a salivating business news channel said: “I think that is a different approach (Mr Modi’s) to what we have heard in the other places where there is more of regulation and less of facilitation and I think that’s one thing that goes in favour of Gujarat.”
MSIL could not have found a better and more experienced surgeon than Mr. Modi anywhere else to purge itself if its blighted parts. One of the reasons he is able to attract finance capital and earn Big Media’s love is that he fully shares their fear of small numbers. Numbers are an obsession with him too. Small numbers that are raising slogans at MSIL, Manesar and those who are trying to occupy the various hideouts of global finance capital. Small numbers that cameras are finding hard to fit into their limited frames. Small numbers that are capable of overthrowing dictators and despots.
In the meanwhile, I have quit my job. I have chosen not to be a part of the big. I am with the small.