Shrinking spaces, new places
CALL it the 43 paise syndrome.
Editors of large dailies explain it this way: their newspapers cost around six rupees a copy to produce but are sold at a sixth of that sum. Of the one rupee each copy is sold for, 57 paise goes to hawkers, distributors et al. So the publication gets just 43 paise for each copy worth six rupees. The higher the circulation the greater the financial gap.
It is advertising revenue that covers the remaining five rupees fifty seven paise – and adds much more to make up the profits. So the ad department is at least six times more important than editorial. The lesson the editors have drawn: they, their staff, their news gathering talent, everything to do with editorial content is worth 43 paise. Their spaces have shrunk and they have to know their place. Which is so far below the advertising department in the pecking order that stepping out of line invites being stamped on and squished. You stick to the service entrance and consider yourself lucky not to be in the cellar.
That self-image defines small, stifling limits outside which editors won’t venture. There are obvious flaws in such an outlook. Still, the acceptance of this ‘law’ within the fraternity implies real shifts in power. The clout of the older editors, in this view, belonged to a past when newspapers drew the bulk of their money from circulation. Since profits were tied to how well the paper sold in this imagined Golden Age, owners treated their editors with great respect. If the editorial content was good, the paper sold well. Editors were respected. Everyone was happy. It was as close to newsprint nirvana as you could get.
This is a seductive though misleading view, since it does have serious elements of truth. However, ‘respect’ for editors, whatever that means, also derives from many other factors. It happens, for instance, when their newspapers stand for something. When publications are tied to values, however modest, that go beyond profit. When they take at least some positions that do not result in direct gain for their companies, their banks or other interests. Often, when they stand up to power.
Many editors of stature in this country and elsewhere do not necessarily edit large dailies. (Several have run or are running small, struggling journals.) They have also earned respect for another, simple reason. They sell their labour, not their souls. Nor was it the case that those who edited high circulation papers in the past always enjoyed a high standing. And if papers could be sold without news and editorial content, it would have happened by now, with half a dozen chains in this country leading the charge. Even the most hardline proprietors know – never mind what they say – that we haven’t quite got there yet.
Still, editors have largely accepted their worth as 43 paise and there is less debate over this today than ten years ago. There’s little debate over everything in the papers. The Times of India, for instance, has ordered its correspondents to cover the coming elections ‘bearing the entertainment and personality angles in mind.’ It isn’t just newsprint space that has vanished though. Many spaces are shrinking in public discourse, even as a few new ones open. Kargil shows us that brilliantly. Where’s the challenge to some very dangerous forms of jingoism even among those who ought to know better?
It was over ten days before anyone of standing condemned the Shiv Sena’s attack on Dilip Kumar. And even then the criticism was sotto voce. The actor himself said that what hurt most was the silence of his fellow stars. Most of them anyway were too busy working out how to cash in on Kargil. So how could they address what must rank as one of the most despicable of patriotism-tests in recent memory? Quite a few of them were dancing at Smita Thackeray’s fund-raising concert for Kargil even as the Shiv Sena baited Dilip Kumar. Publications that seem to live for the coverage of celebrities, especially those of the film world, reacted very warily.
As always, there were admirable exceptions to the Kargil cult. There were a few, fine, questioning reports in print, television and other forums. But the big picture was dismal.
It was some weeks before a newspaper found that charges of ‘unpatriotic’ behaviour against Abul Hassan Ali Nadwa had been concocted. He was said to have told ‘a huge gathering’ of his followers on 13 June that they should not pray for Indian soldiers in Kargil. ‘Ali Mian’, as he is known, was in fact bedridden after a paralytic stroke months ago. He can barely speak, let alone walk. And he has not made a public appearance since March.
It was after nearly two months of hostilities that the first notes of criticism surfaced in the media on the jingoism within it. In some journals, this contrasted strangely with the remaining pages that still blazed away along the very lines that dismayed the critics. As for the Net, that miracle liberating force of modern mythology, the less said about the visceral hate campaigns that captured its discourse, the better. Sure, it can do much better. It just didn’t!
Newspapers have also taken to carrying ‘certified’ critics; those who will make mild noises of protest but won’t go ‘too far’ outside a manufactured consensus. The media never discussed the fate of the widows and children of over 1100 IPKF soldiers who died in Sri Lanka. Or those scores of soldiers whose limbs were blown away by mines in the same conflict. But that wasn’t India’s first ‘televised war’. This one is. It was only in the last phases that reports on the veterans of 1971 began to find some space. On the IPKF there is still silence.
It was bizarre to watch Kargil widows asked to face the camera and mouth brave words about sending the babes in their wombs to the front. (They should be grown in time for the next conflict.) In all likelihood, several of these unfortunate women, a year from now, will be struggling with the local bureaucracy to get pension and other funds released. Many will be facing rejection from their in-laws. (The media will at best do the ‘where-are-they-now’ stories.) But when it mattered, you could get no more than the smallest whiff of this reality amidst all that chest-thumping jingoism.
Any such discussion would be unpatriotic. ‘How can you raise questions when the boys are dying at the front?’ No space for discussion on the colossal goof-up that landed us in the situation where those boys had to die. No space for questions on the first suicide missions in the early days. Missions undertaken because the bjp government was in a panic over the political fallout at home with elections just months away. So ill-shod, poorly-equipped, young men had to charge up those peaks to their death. Nearly everyone with any information and a forum to express it in knows that the early assaults were almost in the kamikaze class. Virtually no one – again with admirable exceptions – dwelt on this at all. Not from ignorance, but by choice. There’s a kind of self-shrinkage, a voluntary surrender of space.
On tv during the early days of the hostilities, the stories that got much play, after the conflict itself, were largely on how the markets were being affected. Then came the ‘you-have-to-be-there-to-understand-it’ school of journalism from Kargil. Breathless stuff, but a contradiction in terms. The job of journalists is to tell the story for those who aren’t there. Not to become the story themselves.
Even within the media, ‘self criticism’ – with a couple of bright exceptions – was limited. Some of it was despicable. There’s been a bit written about the ‘insensitivity’ of a correspondent that supposedly led to the death of four soldiers. Since this charge was never formally made by anyone, it can’t be replied to. Which makes it grossly unfair. A charge to which there is no right of reply but which crucifies the individual. And those who make it don’t question the insensitivity of this government. One whose bungling had a hand in the deaths of far more than four soldiers.
But apart from a personal attack on the correspondent, there could be another angle to it too. The story of the journalist’s ‘crime’ itself seems to have been fabricated. Yet, it gave the army another lever to use on an already compliant media. After that, anyone stepping mildly out of line would fear a similar smear.
Maybe this is also a way of evading large collective failures. Of both the elite and their user-friendly media. But it sends out danger signals. In this case, the unproven charge was criminal insensitivity. In others, it is a lack of patriotism. The chattering classes are storming the ‘letters to the editor’ columns. Their invective not only attacks those who question, but demands they be silenced.
At the same time, the call for a nuclear attack on Pakistan in the RSS mouthpiece Panchjanya has been played down. Here is one of the most frightening of developments – a call from the official organ of the ruling parivar. Very little discussion.
There is no questioning of the Mumbai film world’s cynical plans to turn the carnage into cash. Nor of newspapers with stories headlined: ‘Sensex peaks on Kargil, will it cross Everest?’ Corporates are no less deeply into the game. Aren’t they being ‘generous’ with funds for the soldiers? Never mind that the sums are not a speck on the multi-billion bonanza gifted by the BJP regime to a handful of private telecom operators.
Anyone wanting a television debate on this would likely have to find a sponsor. Perhaps Adidas or Nike. (‘Democratic debate, brought to you, courtesy…’) The commercial breaks would make an odd contrast with the shoes the soldiers were wearing during those first runs up the peaks. It would also be apt. Much of the coverage boils down to the elite celebrating, with befitting passion, the sacrifices of the poor. And doing so from positions of relative safety and security. Many jawans are essentially peasants in uniform. They reflect the poverty and insecurity that grip their villages. And joining the armed forces is one of their limited job options. But say this and you face a protest over patriotism all over again. Never mind that the genuine, and supremely sad, sacrifice of these soldiers will soon be on the back burner as they yield space to the Sensex Maniacs.
Public space is being overrun by the private. Spaces have shrunk as monopoly has grown; as religious chauvinism has struck deeper roots; with market fundamentalism ruling the globe; as every section of the elite gets co-opted into the ‘make money now’ game; as the disconnect between mass media and mass reality deepens; and with every human activity having to be justified on a commercial basis.
Since 1991, we’ve excelled at scotching debate on the economy, on the directions India began taking in a big way that year. Perhaps no other stream of discourse has seen its space shrink so swiftly. From ’91, the ‘debate’ was on whether the ‘reforms’ were going fast, far and deep enough. No questioning of the direction itself was allowed. Editorials hooted down critics of the exercise. They were ‘fossils’. ‘Unchain’ the top strata. Let there be ‘growth’ by any means. The benefits will trickle down to the hoi polloi. That the ‘trickle down’ theory stands discredited in every single society it has visited did not matter. If you shouted down the critics loudly enough, it worked. Not only this theory, but the supremacy of the ‘reforms’ was firmly established.
Speaking of fossils, remember Narasimha Rao? When he first took over, he was described as ‘a stopgap pm’. Or just as a ‘yawn’. A person warming the seat for someone more dynamic like Sharad Pawar. Only weeks later the media hailed him as ‘the greatest prime minister since Lal Bahadur Shastri.’ What had happened? Simple: he had put in place a set of policies that went way beyond the wildest dreams of the corporate media. After that he was unassailable. India’s greatest ever scam couldn’t undo that. Nor even the Babri Masjid demolition. The press described it as the ‘greatest crime in independent India.’ But it did not call for Rao to step down.
The government itself was shown to have survived in Parliament by purchasing the JMM votes. Sleaze was its signature tune. The urea scam involved Rao’s family directly. But that was okay. The tide had turned. Every corrupt third rater climbed the new reforms bandwagon knowing this gave him or her if not a Teflon coating, then a newsprint one. And since anyone belonging to the top ten per cent of Indian society was raking it in as never before, questions were out.
The years after ’91 saw hunger-related deaths resurface in parts of the country. That, on a scale unknown since Independence. A very large number of these were in places like Melghat in ‘rich’ states like Maharashtra. Hundreds have died of hunger-linked causes not far from the wealthy city of Mumbai. For all the debate there’s been on it at the elite level, you would think these were the most commonplace of occurrences.
The suicide deaths of nearly 400 cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh failed to make the covers of most major magazines in this country. Tata’s small car, however, did that easily. And repeatedly. When the farmers’ deaths got covered in some depth, it was months after the disaster. (The Wall Street Journal gave the story more space than any major Indian daily.)
None of this stopped us from celebrating 50 years of freedom while ducking a real look at the failures of those years. Pepsi probably spent the most money in that period outside of government. Its Shah Rukh Khan ad milking azaadi cost crores. So did the ‘official’ celebrations. And many others. The event management industry had arrived. Most Indians themselves took the jubilee with admirable balance: with neither mindless gushing nor monotonous groaning. The gushing was reserved for the media and the elite. Newspapers spoke happily of the ‘feel good factor’. Once again, this was linked to the ‘maturity’ that came with the reforms.
Reforms once also meant land reform. Social reform. Here, it meant an orgy of accumulation at the top, misery at the bottom. A deepening of disparity. Even The World Bank said on record in June this year that rural poverty in South Asia had worsened. You can debate the reasons till you are blue in the face, but hear this. It’s direct from the supreme church of the Gospel of Growth: ‘…recent data on rural wages in India suggest a stagnation,’ says the Bank. ‘In India, by the late nineties (1997), an estimated 340 million people were living in poverty, up from an estimated 300 million in the late 1980s.’ The future, ahead, does not look good.
So much for the reforms. But where’s the debate?
Other spaces at the top shrank when we went nuclear in May 1998. The jingoism in the press was almost without precedent. Front-page editorials rejoiced at the end of years of mindless ‘self-denial’. The security experts told us that India once again ‘stood tall’. Intellectualised insanity at one end of that spectrum was matched by the Hindutva Right’s more direct lunacy at the other. The VHP launched a yatra to take the sacred radioactive sands of Pokhran to the doorsteps of the devout. A time for prayers and blessings. Nuclear nirvana in ten easy aartis. Once again, the mass mood did not reflect this. The polls that followed devastated the BJP.
Kargil itself has blown any validity the nuclear myth might have had. What did not happen in the past 28 years began less than 365 days after going nuclear. But while there are exceptions, this is mostly not reflected in public discourse in the elite domain.
What about other spheres in that domain? The idea of education as a sweatshop sector no longer excites the debate it used to. Self-deception prevails. On the one hand, magazines run cover stories on the ten best schools or colleges in the country; on the other, the space for a real learning – for an education – within these has shrunk. The worship of commerce has to have its impact. Excellence, for the ‘top institutions’ seems to mean the opening of a business school. That’s the great goal in ‘education’.
This mindset long ago fractured the liberal arts. Now, even science faculties in many colleges are shutting down. (Though when you recall that your minister for education is a professor of science who believes there were nuclear weapons in the time of Ram, you wonder if this is not a good thing.) Not surprisingly, there is little debate on so worthless a person sitting on so vital a portfolio. And after a bit of a scorching over the Saraswati Vandana mess, its been business as usual.
But it isn’t just the BJP. Their escapades in education do breach the border between the merely bizarre and the nearly insane. (Three pages for Hedgewar in a textbook chapter on the freedom struggle.) For the Congress, though, business as usual has usually meant business. In Maharashtra, Patan-grao Kadam was linked to 55 private ‘educational’ institutions while still education minister in the late ’80s. A small conflict of interest there, but what the heck? The debate that occurred at all arose not from any investigation. It came because of an advertisement taken out by Kadam’s friends in a newspaper extolling his ‘patron’ status with the Flying Fifty Five. That gave the game away.
It seemed quite okay to Maharashtra’s elite that such educational ‘chains’ should exist. (The reforms began in that state a decade before they took off elsewhere in the country.) Some of these run medical colleges without anatomy theatres. The capitation fees they charge totals countless crores each year. But so many of the Beautiful People make money out of these rip-offs that it shields them from public debate.
Long ago we replaced the highly educated with the expensively educated. Now it’s the era of the expensively uneducated. The crud. Even the rare bright technocrat has given way to the aggressive technocrud. The process is less surprising than the lack of debate over it. We began the ’90s by crowning Harshad Mehta and his species as the ‘role model’ for our youth. The covers of our most powerful publications asserted that. The scam dimmed his personal star, but his line of stardom remains irresistible. The debate forced on us when he blew a hole the size of Antarctica in the markets is dead. And Mehta is now an honoured columnist in the press.
With every section of the elite raking in revenue from some dirty deal, conspiracies of silence are logical. So is a consequent loss of public debate on these vital issues. With even the President having doubts about the deal, the telecom scam should have produced greater outrage. It hasn’t. Many important people are making money out of it.
Across the country, major issues of public interest are under-debated. The ruin of the public distribution system. Rural poverty. Urban housing. Or maybe transportation policy. In Mumbai, the race to put up 52 flyovers has no precedent in history. With some having space for shopping malls beneath them, they reek of wrongdoing. And involve money on a scale perhaps unimaginable in the rest of the nation. Yet, in real terms, the debate on this has been mostly on technical issues.
It isn’t just fear, though that is a factor, which produces silence and loss of space. Often sound commercial instincts are also involved. Newspapers violating the terms of their land leases can’t really talk back to those in power. When Udhav Thackeray held his photo exhibition earlier this year, you couldn’t bung a brick at the show without striking a senior Mumbai editor. (The Times troupe was there in strength.) Then they flocked in droves to Raj Thackeray’s exhibition of cartoons as well. They went as ‘honoured guests’ at the height of public outrage against the Sena. That is, after the destruction of the bcci office by that party’s hit squads. After all the humiliation heaped on him last year, M.F. Husain too, was an ‘honoured special guest’ at these shows.
In 1997, Loksatta editor Aroon Tikekar was attacked by name in a Saamna (Sena mouthpiece) editorial. Bal Thackeray himself likely wrote that. So Tikekar was in big danger. It was a month before The Indian Express group mentioned the threat. And during that time the paper never told readers its building swarmed with police ‘protecting’ him. That time, the truth did not involve us all. The Times ran a big supplement celebrating Thackeray’s 70th birthday. Yet in no other state in recent years have so many newspaper offices been ransacked. So many journalists physically attacked. Mostly, their papers have been muted in their criticism or just silent.
The swift mafiaization of Mumbai is daily reflected in the media all right. Reports on it are legion. But the linkages of that process can’t be followed up too often. Reporters who try that, and such still exist, could be pulled up by their own publications. A devastating recent story on serious land regulation violations of Chief Minister Narayan Rane has just vanished from the pages. We’re here to make money out of your reports, not report on the making of money. Thanks very much.
And no matter how great a cricketer you are, if your ‘academy’ runs on public land, you are unlikely to speak up. Remember the silence of the greats when the BCCI office was vandalised. But silence was not all they stopped with. Ajit Wadekar shared a platform with Bal Thackeray on his birthday. That was just days after the latter’s ‘boys’ had damaged the 1983 World Cup trophy. Sunil Gavaskar wriggled in agony when asked about the bcci incident on television. But he remained silent.
The Beautiful People are far too compromised to speak up with any authority. To criticise power in any meaningful way. Traditional spaces and forums at the elite level are shrinking. Any battle against it must begin by recognising that. Restoring public space is not going to be easy. But there’s a side we don’t try to look at enough. The fact that there is less debate in these forums does not mean an absence of debate itself.
We live in an age far more radical than many imagine. Hundreds of millions in this country are asserting their rights as never before. The last 15 years have seen tribal and Dalit assertion on a scale yet to be gauged, let alone understood. The Dalit upsurge has altered the politics of Uttar Pradesh irreversibly. And perhaps that of Tamil Nadu also. It is making dents elsewhere as well. In Andhra, the state assembly had its first debate on untouchability in decades. That, after a powerful movement against casteism forced the government on the defensive.
Tremendous new social energies are on the loose. They are chaotic but they are there. Fierce power battles are emerging at the panchayat level. Even this mere form of democracy has set off a backlash from the entrenched privilege of centuries. Still, millions seek human dignity against awesome odds. Struggles over common property resources are rocking the countryside. Battles over land are on in over three-quarters of the country. That these are poorly reported does not mean they are not on. But it does mean that forums which could once have discussed their implications are not doing so. They are busy making themselves irrelevant to mass aspirations.
Millions are not merely refusing to play the game by the old rules. They are simply not playing the old game at all. There is no institution that is not under challenge. Many are actually in the process of meltdown. This panics those who see no ‘solutions’. (Which means that the Beautiful People are finding their solutions tossed aside with contempt). Consequently, large chunks of the country are getting harder to govern. With all the negatives these processes entail, they also mean that rights and freedoms are being not only asserted but debated and redefined.
An incredible churning is under-way in India, but your media are unable to tell you about it. This is the space that the small journals, the local newspapers, have straddled in the past and which they can occupy again. The big press and other media, too, will be forced (not in the least by commercial considerations) to cover them as well. But that will likely be a case of too little too late. And what sort of a vision can they provide of what’s happening? One thing the big media are doing is abdicating vital spaces. How those can be accessed, the way those issues can be channelled, how they can be worked in the public interest – that’s another debate altogether. But those of us interested in the rights, dignity, freedoms and entitlements of hundreds of millions of Indians can work on it. After all, we know one thing at least.
They are worth a damn sight more than 43 paise.