Newswatch: Sanjay Kapoor on Team Anna & the fast co

18 Jan,2012

By Sanjay Kapoor

 

In January 2011, Anna Hazare was virtually unknown to Delhi’s self obsessed middle class. A year later, after he had unleashed a tumult against the government by sitting on a fast till the central government appointed an all powerful Jan Lokpal or ombudsman against corruption, and controlled all the headlines of the national media, Hazare is slowly slipping away from prime time news. What he and his verbose bunch of supporters have to figure out in the coming days is: what do you do when the gaze of the TV cameras shifts? How do you get them to look at you again?

 

These questions must be surely gnawing at an ailing Anna Hazare as he strenuously pedals on his stationary exercise bike to regain his health and also find a way out from this dead end. He must be wondering what really went wrong at his “fast fest” at MMRDA grounds of Mumbai, where he did not get the kind of fawning and gushy support of the people as he got in Delhi. Not only were the crowds thin, even the TV news channels, unlike in the past, refused to bloat their numbers. Delhi, surely, seemed a distant memory. What really went wrong for the anti-corruption movement that seemed to threaten the stability of UPA government?

 

Operating under the rubric of “India against Corruption’, Anna Hazare’s movement was crafted like the Arab Spring. The main pillars of his campaign were the media and the urban middle class. Interestingly, Team Anna seemed to follow the template put together by Belgrade-based Centre for Applied Non-violent Action and Strategies (www.canvasopedia.org), which seeks to provide consultancy to protests around the world. CANVAS takes the credit for training and supporting civil society activists in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Myanmar, amongst many other countries, for organising protests. CANVAS recommends non-violent interventions like fasts and suggests the use of media to disseminate a message that the “people see that there is something is wrong, and they are willing to do something about it”. Funded by US-based entities, much of the advice listed on its website finds an echo in what has been witnessed in the country in the last few months.

 

CANVAS suggestions are usually meant for authoritarian regimes where press is under state control and the only way to reach out to the masses is through social media like Facebook and Twitter; there is no such problem in India. In a noisy and chaotic democracy like ours with hundreds of privately owned news channels following each other’s “breaking news”, this was much easier. Team Anna and its patrons had to get one big media organisation on their side and rest was easy. Call them partners in a conspiracy hatched by patrons of Anna Hazare or a simple display of good reflexes in spotting a big story, the Bennett Coleman group showed great enthusiasm in building the narrative of how “a Gandhian left his village to save the republic from the corrupt”. In the cacophony and melee of TV news reporting there is no clarity of who ” broke the Anna Story” when he descended on Delhi to fast at Jantar Mantar last April, but it was a matter of time when all news channels went overboard in their coverage of his event. Clever camera angles plus filling up the TV screens of small snapshots of people assembling at different places helped in creating crowds when few existed. Truth was manipulated to build a feverish demand for the appointment of an unelected Lokpal to save the country from rampaging pindaris. It is quite unclear how media organisations may have benefited from wall-to-wall coverage of Anna Hazare’s fast at Jantar Mantar and later at the capital’s Ramlila Maidan, but news channel did not seem shy in expending their resources on it. Statistics show that there were 5592 pro-Anna and only 62 anti-Anna segments in the Jantar Mantar coverage. During the Ramlila ground fast it perhaps got worse. TV channels were unhesitatingly and unashamedly uncritical of the movement.

 

Television coverage is an extremely expensive business and most of the news channels would not have gone overboard in hysterically reporting on Anna’s campaign if there was no promise of gains – present or in the future. Who put up the money for the coverage of the campaign? There were rumours that a colossal corpus was created in Bangalore to fund the anti-corruption campaign. Hence Team Anna showed great reluctance to campaign against the disgraced former BJP chief minister BS Yeddyurappa of Karnataka. Rumours also abound that due to the high financial stakes the Anna story was pushed more by managers and editors than by reporters. Some of the reporters covering the fast were even heard complaining that they were under pressure to make the “Gandhian’s” agitation look pretty.

 

Pains were taken to make the movement look non-political, but it became clear at Ramlila Maidan and later that the spine to the movement was provided by the front organisations of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Crowds and news coverage is seldom spontaneous. It takes a lot of effort to get people out for protests. Contractors are used to ferry crowds for the rallies and PR companies are deployed to organise press coverage. On both counts RSS front organisations display great competence. They have enormous capacity to bring in their supporters and also organise favourable media support. Earlier anti-corruption agitations, like the one led by Jayaprakash Narayan in the ’70s and later by VP Singh in the ’80s succeeded due to the support extended by the RSS.

 

At the Ramlila ground there was plenty of evidence of the presence of RSS front organisations, but most of the media outlets were reluctant to talk about it. The camera and the focus remained on a fasting Anna Hazare and his lieutenants like Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi, rather than those who were baying for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi’s heads. The ground was full of posters and hoardings to show how corrupt and anti-national the Congress party was. Team Anna and its supporters used the democratic space to demand an entity that was not only against the Constitution but also fascist in character. Quite evidently, such a demand met the approval of those who hate politics and want India to become a hard state.

 

Anna Hazare became the darling for many of those around the country that saw politics and Parliament as a waste of time. And the way the visual media backed him and his call, it seemed only a question of time before the country got their version of Jan Lokpal, which would have been accountable to none.

 

Lack of firmness and conviction displayed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his ministers in handling the agitation contributed in reinforcing this impression. Besides the TV channels, newspapers too gave the impression that the Ramlila ground was India’s Tahrir moment and the government would have to give way on the Jan Lokpal bill. Times of India carried a banner headline suggesting it to be another “August Kranti”. Hindi newspapers also went hysterical. Their reporting was little different from the kind on display when the Babri Masjid was brought down by hysterical mobs in Ayodhya many years ago. There were only very few publications that did not go overboard and were critical of the undemocratic noises and demands that were being made from Ramlila ground.

 

Parliament acquitted itself through reasoned debate and conveying the sense of the house on the Lokpal issue allowing Anna Hazare to end his fast.

 

Subsequent media scrutiny, both by foreign and national media, showed Anna Hazare and his team members in their true colours. Hazare was really a village tyrant who believed in tying the drunk to trees if they consumed alcohol. He also believed in giving capital punishment to those who were found guilty of corruption.

 

Kiran Bedi was discovered to be fudging travel bills on many of her visits. There were also allegations that were brought out by the media about short-changing the Delhi Police on the issue of providing computer education to the children of constables. Arvind Kejriwal, the brain behind the movement, too, was found to have messed up in a showdown with his previous employer, the income tax department.

 

As the true picture of these crusaders came out in the open, the government, it seems got into the act and began to reach out to some media houses. It is not clear what quid pro quos were worked out, but when Hazare sat in Mumbai, there was a sea-change in the gaze of the cameras and the way his fast was reported. For a movement that drew strength from crowds and media coverage feeding on each other, Mumbai was a big dampener. Worse, Anna, who looked a champion in Delhi, fasting for almost a fortnight, could not last more than a day. All the rumours about how electrolytes sustained him in Delhi returned when his fast collapsed.

 

Team Anna claims to be at the crossroad of their movement. Their cluelessness and confusion would deepen if the Congress party does well in the assembly elections. And if it does not, then they will be back on the streets claiming victory in their defeat. This time, though, there would be no ambivalence about whom Anna is hunting with.

 

Sanjay Kapoor is the Editor of Delhi based Hardnews Magazine.

 

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One response to “Newswatch: Sanjay Kapoor on Team Anna & the fast co”

  1. Guest says:

    Pity that Sanjay Kapoor pretends to know everything. That the Government did strike a deal with media houses is perhaps a slip of tongue. One needs to give full marks to Anna and the team for raising the issue of corruption and in redefining democracy and the role of people’s representatives in parliamentary democracy. It is difficult to argue against most points raised by members of Team Anna. Mr Kapoor -a beneficiary of the present corrupt system would do anything to reduce JP or VP Singh led movements as merely RSS backed movements without broad based support from people at large. May I remind Mr. Kapoor that both these movements unseated the authoritarian/corrupt/arrogant Congress regimes from power which could not have been possible without mass support for these two movements. As a ‘loyal’ political analyst, Mr Kapoor can only see any anti congress movement as RSS sponsored.

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