Edited and updated version of the post.
I had the great fortune to be invited as an audience member to a live interaction with Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani last evening, televised live on Aaj Tak. I say “great fortune” because despite the fact that I walked out of this “interaction” in speechless disgust around an hour into the programme, I probably learned more about the state of politics and media in this country in one evening than I could have from years of academic study. And the irrelevance of academics was exactly what was on display last evening, never mind that the topic of the interaction was the state of higher education in the country.
I reached the venue – the auditorium of Khalsa College, Delhi University – at about 5.15 pm for a 5.30 pm programme. The mood was surprisingly charged, even electric for what I imagined would be a sober discussion on somewhat boring topics like syllabus formation, university infrastructure, promotions and pensions, the points system, and most importantly, the changes proposed under the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS). The auditorium was already packed – not so much with teachers and students – but with a large number of ABVP activists, BJP volunteers, and committed party supporters from within and outside the University. Nothing wrong with having a politically committed section dominating the audience of course. But if the resultant mix is innocently termed “the public” – the term the anchor used was “janta” – then that constitutes the first point of deception. I took a seat in the second row as instructed, surrounded by triumphant, pumped-up BJP supporters shaking hands with each other, suddenly feeling small and irrelevant, having come prepared with questions on Delhi University. At one point, turning to speak to the person next to me, I encountered a gentleman who introduced himself only as a “social worker” and asked me to elaborate on the problems with the university. As I began to list them however, he cut me short with a wave of a hand to say the government will prevail over all of them, and turned back to gaze admiringly at the life-sized posters of Modi all around us. I realised the person knew absolutely nothing about the University or teaching as a profession, and couldn’t care less.
Two anchors from Aaj Tak – Anjana Om Kashyap and Ashok Singhal – were on stage, interacting intermittently with the audience. At one point, Kashyap turned to the audience and said she was aware that there were many eminent professors in the first two rows who had been invited by Aaj Tak, but that she would begin the interaction with the Minister first with general questions on politics, and then move on to the topic of the evening – higher education. Nobody seemed happy with this, but having little choice, we vaguely nodded our assent. In walked Irani, striding up confidently on to the stage. Without so much as acknowledging the audience or making eye contact, she began to banter with the anchors, saying she only had half an hour and had not agreed to two hours, etc. While this time bargaining was going on, the crowd began to settle down somewhat, and the cameras began to roll. As planned and announced, Kashyap began with politics, asking Irani about her Twitter war with Rahul Gandhi and with her frequent visits to Amethi. As far as I or anybody who cares deeply about what is happening to Delhi University and other universities in the country was concerned, THAT WAS THE END OF THE EVENING.
What is amazing is how reasonable television watchers at home would think the problem in last evening’s programme, and how it slipped into complete mayhem within the first few minutes, lay with the anchor’s questions. True, Kashyap (or more precisely, the person she reports to at Aaj Tak) was obviously courting TRPs by asking Irani about Rahul Gandhi. True, the question asked by Singhal to Irani was tastelessly posed. But in themselves, these are not unusual questions for a political news programme – Ms so-and-so Minister, why are you sparring with the opposition leader instead of focusing on your ministry, what did the Prime Minister see in you when he made you Minister…etc. They are neither innocent questions, but equally not outrageous either.
What nobody who was not physically present there, and NOT already a committed BJP supporter could not see was how Irani turned the show into a gigantic public spectacle from the first second onwards. I was torn between horror and awe at Irani’s consummate control of the medium called television. Not to mention having an audience practically prostrating themselves at her feet, mostly party workers or supporters watching ‘their’ minister turn the evening into a victory rally for the BJP. What the sympathetic television cameras will NEVER show was how Irani violated every rule of a debate, cutting short the questioner from the first question onwards, abusing her obvious authority as Minister and as chief guest to insult the anchors, to take the debate to the salivating audience, often literally by getting up from her seat and walking up to the edge of the stage in the manner of circus masters and rock star emcees, to elicit the loud cheers and claps that drowned out the question almost every single time, to focus on irrelevant details in every critical question as a way to avoid answering altogether, to never allow any serious and critical issue facing higher education to arise by filibustering about minor issues at length (again, overstepping her time limit with impunity) and overall, to make the entire evening a successful pre-poll, and possibly pre-Cabinet shuffle publicity exercise for herself and for the PM…by the way, for those gormless youtube commentators in the above video who believe Aaj Tak is a “Congressi” channel, the stage was surrounded by massive backlit cutouts of Modi that could put Jayalalithaa to shame. The cutouts featured our current Prime Minister in a variety of headgear including a spiffy sombrero hat and shades. For a quick primer on Modi’s headgear-love, you could turn to one of the many blogs that chart his birth as a new style icon.
Anyway, that was it – that was the backdrop of a discussion on higher education in a Delhi University college auditorium. Five gigantic cutouts of the Prime Minister in a variety of headgear, and the HRD Minister raising and lowering the fanboy audience’s temperature like a master conductor. Not a single substantial discussion on education took place. What we got instead were juicy tidbits of the Ministry’s self-proclaimed achievements in e-learning, raps on the knuckles to all and sundry asking uncomfortable questions, supremely timed alternations between petulant and imperious tones, and mastery over rhetoric and innuendo. All of this building up to a crescendo of sympathetic outrage amongst the audience in which Singhal’s question nearly got him beaten up by the end of the show.
I don’t know if all of this was planned or just a series of heaven-sent providences for the ruling party that a debate on higher education could become an evening of collective triumph for the cadre. The opening gambit of the show’s producers – the reference to Rahul Gandhi – could not have been better suited to the tones of high moral outrage that Irani adopted from that moment on. The anchors made a valiant attempt to bring the discussion back to national politics as it were, but Irani was not going to let this chance go – she had them by the collar with her abundant bahu-beti charm and mastery of the kind of pointless, party-centric polemic that marks all so-called ‘debate’ in India. To give just one example, at one point, Kashyap, having been shut up for the nth time by Irani, said in a moment of inspiration, “Smriti ji, aap itni aggressive kyun ho jaati hain, kya isliye ki aapke party ke andar aapko apni haisiyat ke liye liye ladna padta hai“? (Why do you get so aggressive, Smriti ji, is it because you have to constantly fight for your identity and space within the party”?) Again, below the belt, but no worse than a hundred other questions to politicians on news television. The response from Irani however, brought back all bad school teachers to my mind. She thundered, “Anjana ji, kya aap BJP mein hain?” (“Anjana ji, are you in the BJP?”)- repeatedly – four or five times. Then she put the ordinary television anchor in her place yet more – “kya aap BJP ki national executive mein hain“? (“Are you in the BJP’s national executive?”) When Anjana said “nahin” (no), Irani said, “tho phir aapko kaise pataa ki party ke andar kya hota hai“? (“Then how do you know what is happening within the party?”) Thereby destroying the idea called media-as-source-of-political-news for ever, and gaining even more adoration from her ardent supporters. Being the seasoned politician that she is, Irani wasted no opportunity for populism either – when questioned about facilities for the disabled by a blind student of the university, she said I will go with you tomorrow morning to the college authorities and sort this out. The populism of course stood in naked contrast to her refusal to address long standing and structural grievances of teachers and students in the University.
This form of politics apparently works – make the public feel your power and your distance from them as much as they feel your occasional benevolence – your noblesse oblige. This morning, when I reported for exam duty at the University, the teachers at the table next to me were commenting admiringly, “Dekhiye, jo Smriti ji kehti hain, woh kar ke dikhati hain, pahunch gayi aaj woh uss blind student ke paas“. (See, Smriti ji does what she promises, she reached the blind student this morning.”) A clueless sort intervened, “Bas, abhi hamare paanch saal ke ruke hue promotion ko bhi dekh lein” (Now it would be nice if she could also sort out my promotion that has been stuck for five years”) Despite the fact that the stagnation in promotions is endemic in the University and everybody knows this, the admiring teachers scolded the “clueless” one, “Minister ji ne kahaa na, ki woh welfare par hastkshep karengi, par University ke niji maamlon mein dakhal nahi de sakti“. (Didn’t the Minister say she would intervene only in welfare matters, not in the private affairs of the University?”). All this respect for the autonomy of the University when the government is all set to frame the syllabus and attendant service conditions for all Universities under the disastrous CBCS. The Ministry believes it has the expertise and jurisdiction to tell the 500-odd universities in India what to teach in every single classroom, how many hours each teacher must spend in college and in what precise manner, and how to evaluate students, but that it must respect the “autonomy” of the University (read: VC) when it comes to stagnant promotions, lack of decent facilities for teaching, forget research, and the hundred other daily ignominies that have become part and parcel of a lecturer’s job today.
If this is politics-by-television ratings, Irani is already reigning monarch. If this politics-by-television ratings is the substitute for politics-by-silence-and-stealth by the previous regime, then God help us all. If we were looking for any more evidence that higher visibility need not mean higher transparency or better debate, we need look no further.