Constructing a false reality?
  malini parthasarathy

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THE year 2004 will obviously be remembered most for the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections which saw a startling turnaround in the political context as the Congress-led UPA replaced the BJP-led NDA. But the most striking aspect of this turnaround and one with far-reaching implications, was the shattering of the myth assiduously promoted by Hindu nationalists that their campaign for a Hindu India was conquering more and more political ground. The heavily loaded construct that Hindutva signified had assumed a larger than life dimension, dwarfing all other elements of India’s political discourse and public agenda. It entailed a high-voltage campaign which unfolded over a decade, increasing in its intensity, with the sole aim of enshrining a Hindu nationalist ethos of governance. This assertion of majoritarian dominance, abrasive and bruising in its exclusionary focus but with an undeniable allure to large sections of India’s upper castes and its newly articulate middle classes, had presented the most potent challenge to what was until now a settled idiom of governance of this heterogeneous nation.

For the last decade or so, the determined campaigners for Hindu nationalism had battered the public arena with their loud declarations that inevitably, Hindutva would be consecrated as the national ethos. It was only a matter of time, they said. The confidence of these self-proclaimed arbiters of India’s national destiny helped them seize the centre-stage of the political discourse, with the result that the entire public agenda appeared to be polarised around their claims and demands. So strong was the ideological sway of the Hindu nationalist propaganda in the public arena, due in large part to the lack of intelligent appraisal on the part of the media, that vast sections of the Indian public genuinely began to believe that the enshrining of a Hindu governing ethos was just around the corner and that the Indian nation state was on the brink of a major mid-life ideological transformation.

In this context, it was a surprising twist in the tale to have the BJP-led NDA suddenly ousted from power, plunging the Hindu nationalist project in uncertainty. Suddenly, as never had seemed to be the case in the last decade or so, the meticulously orchestrated campaign to persuade Indians that the linear progression of their whole history was only pointing to the climactic moment of the Indian nation state finally connecting with its Hindu essence, seemed to have melted into thin air.



Reinforcing the strong sense that something deeper was at work beneath the regime change, was the evaporation of the potency and the imminence of the demand for a majoritarian national ethos. Nothing illustrated this more vividly than the fact that the seemingly invincible and unassailable icons of the Hindutva movement appeared to be losing their lustre. It was both ironic and an indication of the ephemerality of political charisma that Atal Behari Vajpayee, until yesterday hailed as a legend and placed in the league of Jawaharlal Nehru, seemed now a shrunken figure, bewildered by his sudden irrelevance in the new scheme of things. Uma Bharati, the firebrand sanyasi, the BJP’s political mascot who had humbled the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, was now seen as a cantankerous and testy dissident who had to be taught a lesson.

Another symbolic blow to the neatly arranged tableau of Hindutva icons was the dramatic turn of events in Tamil Nadu involving the Shankaracharya of Kanchi. The sordid and chilling stories that rung out in the Tamil Nadu courtrooms grimly stripped the former eminence grise of the NDA regime, a man whose enormous personal political power had seemed curiously out of step with his spiritual calling, of all his moral authority and credibility. In an ironic coincidence, these different icons and figureheads, proudly held up by Hindu nationalists as examples of a more Hindu-oriented national culture, had suddenly lost their political weight in the new environment.

In part, the ‘fall from grace’ of these former icons may be ascribed to the fact that in a changed political environment, they represent yesterday’s symbols, perhaps inevitably out of place in a political culture which emphasises a different set of social and political values. But that is only half the story. The question must be asked and particularly of ourselves, as to how and why it was so easy for these icons to tumble and lose our collective regard? Further: is it really possible for a phenomenon such as Hindu majoritarianism, which until last year’s parliamentary elections was seen as the most potent and formidable challenge to our sense of nationhood, with scores of analysts and commentators scrambling to explain its persistent appeal to so many, to suddenly peter out and lose all momentum?



Finding answers to this set of questions would require us to introspect honestly on the role that the media and sections of civil society played in relation to the phenomenon of Hindu majoritarianism. It must be acknowledged that there was a good deal of overestimation of the Hindutva phenomenon by excited media practitioners, a disinclination to ask hard questions and to critically examine the factual authenticity of the themes and issues inspired by Hindu nationalist leaders and campaigners. There has been a tendency to accept unquestioningly the terms of debate as set by BJP and Sangh Parivar leaders, regardless of whether these conflicted with the existing norms of the Indian democratic framework.

The media’s approach to the Ayodhya issue is a case in point. There were few hard questions asked as to the validity of the political framework that the BJP had set for the Ayodhya dispute, as for example its argument for a temple at the disputed Babri Masjid site, an overtly political demand emanating from one group which was being encouraged by the mainstream political parties for their own electoral compulsions. Instead of stepping back and examining the genesis of the new demand in the larger context of India’s existing political and constitutional scheme, many in the media were quick to provide space for what was a blatantly sectarian impulse, even proceeding to give this a veneer of respectability. What is discernible is that the media more often than not, has unwittingly absorbed the elements of the political agenda and debate as set out by the Hindu nationalist groups, with the unhappy effect of presenting a picture of trends in Indian civil society, that might not really reflect the authentic ground reality.

The media and sections of civil society, particularly the upper reaches of the Hindu middle classes, gradually began to buy into the notion that Hindu majoritarianism was taking deep root in the Indian psyche and that the silent majority of Indians were desirous of a national identity that reflected a Hindu cultural essence. There was a patent failure on the part of many newspapers and television channels to distinguish between the hard facts showing the voters as having a different set of concerns and the wishful fantasies promoted by the Hindu nationalist campaigners that portrayed the voters as being giddily sold on the fanciful dreams of an ‘India Shining’.



A disinclination to go against what was perceived as a swell of popular sentiment led to the unwitting conscription of many media analysts in the project to promote Hindu majoritarianism. Thus when the Lok Sabha election results were described by the media as a ‘stunning upset’ and a ‘shock defeat’ for the BJP, it was more of a reflection of how unprepared it was for this result, a clear reflection of the media disconnect from the ground reality that the voters were guided by a different set of concerns. Many media practitioners and analysts had become accustomed to projecting the leaders of the BJP and other Hindu nationalist figureheads as national icons, regardless of whether these individuals in reality had contributed to the sense of national wellbeing or not.



The very fact that we were so wrong in estimating the persuasive appeal of the Hindu majoritarian political campaign, overestimating what we saw as a collective yearning for a new national cultural ethos and underestimating the ordinary Indian’s disinterest in labels and identities – should make us pause. We need to look into our analyses of the last five years when Hindu nationalism had undeniable political hegemony, and see where our attempts to depict the reality faltered.

To begin with: the case of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Few would dispute his moderation, his undeniable personal affability, the sincerity of his intentions to bring about peace with Pakistan, or to put India on the fast track to economic prosperity. But there was little to suggest that he had an approach different from other Hindu majoritarianists in regard to the core issue of national identity and the perception that minorities had to live in a ‘Hindu India’. It was Vajpayee who, despite being the prime minister of this secularism-affirming republic and not any trishul-wielding Hindu extremist, had helped undermine the sense of collective horror over the burning of the Australian missionary, Graham Staines by suggesting a week later a national debate on the matter of forced conversions.

It was that same Vajpayee who, after the trauma of the bloodbath in Gujarat in early 2002, in a partisan vein had pointed an accusing finger at the Muslim community, hinting darkly that the ghastly pogrom against Muslims was a consequence of the Godhra incident. He had gone on to excoriate the Muslim community for not being able to live in peace with others. ‘Wherever such Muslims live, they tend not to live in coexistence with others, not to mingle with others; and instead of propagating their ideas in a peaceful manner, they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats.’

On each such occasion that Vajpayee strayed into this contentious territory, the media did dutifully register the partisan tenor and sectarian implications of these remarks and editorials were written pointing out the untenability of this approach on the part of the prime minister. But surprisingly, none of all this added up to casting a shadow on the image being assiduously projected of Vajpayee as a national leader with a healing touch and as a moderate in the BJP. Significant sections of the media continued to unquestioningly subscribe to the high-profile, high-decibel nationwide campaign claiming that Vajpayee was India’s ‘tallest leader’, a statesman in the mould of Jawaharlal Nehru, even that he was a closet secularist, a dove among the hawks, a ‘Vikas Purush’ to Advani’s stern persona of a ‘Loh Purush’.



What accounted for the media’s willingness to buy into this hype, regardless of whether or not it was an accurate representation of Vajpayee’s real political intentions and personal attitudes? It must be recognised that this iconic build-up of Vajpayee led the media to hasty and absurd conclusions. Newspapers and television channels argued that with a strong leader like Vajpayee being projected, the NDA would coast to victory in the Lok Sabha elections, even as the BJP’s campaign managers expressed satisfaction that with the foreign-born Sonia Gandhi leading the Opposition charge, there was a ‘leadership vacuum’ on the other side which would drive the electorate into the NDA’s corner. The ‘Vajpayee factor’, as it was dubbed, did not have the political weight ascribed to it by an over-eager media which had clearly overlooked the signals from the ground.



The second aspect of this tragic misreading of the signals from the ground was that the agenda and themes articulated by the Hindu nationalist idealogues were uncritically adopted and echoed in media assessments of those particular political situations with the result that the implications and the political understanding of those contexts were grossly distorted.

Take for example the Gujarat Assembly elections in December 2002. The incongruous victory of Narendra Modi after thousands had been slaughtered in chilling blood-soaked orgies of violence earlier in the year rattled the national media that was hard-pressed to find explanations for this strange culmination. Thus many in the media and in intellectual circles found it difficult to hold their ground and continued to insist that electoral success did not represent a vindication of the Modi regime’s genocidal binge. Instead, the Modi victory led to another bout of theorising and speculation in the media, mostly to the effect that the moment had come to acknowledge that Indian political parties, particularly the Congress, would have to ‘update’ its political vision to accommodate the new political reality of the new cultural consciousness of Hindus.

For instance, the Times of India in its editorial of 16 December 2002, analysing the Gujarat Assembly result proclaimed: ‘…the mandate given to "Modi-ism" must be democratically acknowledged…’ While taking care to say the results were not to be construed as a vindication of the Modi record in office or the BJP at the national level, the editorial paid a back-handed tribute to Modi’s leadership. ‘Gujarat 2002 is a victory for "Hindu Hriday Samrat" Narendra Modi’s politics of polarisation.’ The editorial noted that the Bajrang Dal candidate who won from Godhra had said that this was a victory for Hindutva. ‘Indeed it is,’ the editorial said but also distanced itself from endorsing the ‘Gujarat experiment’.



But more interesting was the conclusion of the Times editorial which critically and dismissively noted the Congress party’s dismal performance in these polls. ‘Clearly, the party has to go to the drawing board all over again, to come up with a political vision that is more in tune with its historical ethos and that of the country.’ What was meant by the reference to a ‘historical ethos’ was not spelt out but it was evident that the newspaper, as also other media organisations, had begun to believe that the Gujarat results reflected a deep-seated and long-term trend of increasing Hindu assertiveness.

The tendency to echo whatever were the themes and issues highlighted by the Hindu nationalists and to vest these with credibility, had the media placing undue editorial emphasis on these ‘problems’, as though these were critical points in the national discourse, requiring urgent redressal. The BJP’s contentious suggestion that forced conversions was an issue of national concern was picked up uncritically by the press. Substantial newspaper space and a generous amount of airtime was given to this issue – a theme which was at best a specious argument being made for political ends. Suddenly, the country was subjected to a stream of articles and arguments in the national and local media on the subject of Christian conversions.



Looking back at the content that filled newspapers during the height of the BJP’s sway, it might appear that little else was happening in an India reeling from a barrage of propaganda assault by overzealous Christian missionaries even as Muslim terrorists were sneaking up to plant bombs in public spaces. Why did the media allow itself to be manipulated to highlight the stereotypes and false constructs deliberately floated in order to advance the cause of Hindu majoritarianism? Instead of an independent scrutiny of the claims being made by the Hindu nationalist propagandists, many major publications and television channels were mindlessly coopted into painting a picture of Indian society well on its way to becoming a Hindu one, purging itself of the ‘alien elements’. This uncritical assimilation of political propaganda cut the media off from the actual political and social reality, so different in its contours.

Sometimes the eagerness to adopt the terms of reference for the political agenda as set by the ruling BJP led the media to absurd and hasty political theorising and wrong judgments. When the BJP won, spectacularly, the elections to the state assemblies in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, knocking out high-profile Congress leaders such as Digvijay Singh and Ashok Gehlot, the media jumped to the conclusion that the BJP’s election campaigns in these states which confined themselves to critiques of the incumbent regimes based on their governing performance, signalled that the BJP was now moving away from Hindutva and had come into its own as a ‘mature party of the Right’ rather than the bigoted sectarian group that it had originally been perceived as.

For instance, the Indian Express gushed in an editorial shortly after the election victories, on 5 December 2003: ‘It is blindingly clear that these elections were not won on the temple or any other hoary things… The BJP that has won three of the four states is a more professional organisation, more attuned to the changing lay of the land and flexible enough to alter its strategy accordingly. It is a party that is becoming more mainstream every day and accommodating – yes, more like what the Congress once used to be. Basically, there is a new voter out there who is more demanding, more assertive in the demand for bread and butter and flyovers. The BJP needs to remain the organisation that can silence its rabble-rousers to hear this voter.’



The trouble with this sort of editorial reflection was its shortsightedness. That same ‘new voter’ seemed to express a different political preference when the Lok Sabha elections took place a few months later and the same media then changed its mind and decided that it was ‘bread and butter’ issues that had thrown the BJP out and brought in a new set of rulers. Just as that particular editorial musing was so wrong on the idea that the BJP could effectively capture the loyalties of those looking for succour in the matter of livelihood and economic betterment, so too on the matter of Hindutva.

The defeat in the Lok Sabha elections had the BJP fleeing back to its Hindutva wellspring and, as has now been demonstrated, the BJP has acknowledged that it needs to remain anchored to its political vision of a ‘Hindu’ India. At the BJP national executive meeting in late November in Ranchi, its new president, L.K. Advani made clear that this was the direction in which the BJP would be heading. ‘Friends, the time has come to proclaim, and proclaim with all the courage of our conviction, that India is secular principally because of its Hindu ethos. Remove the Hindu ethos and there will be no India left.’

What all this highlights is this: the media cannot afford to be conscripted in a discourse that has as its primary end the advancement of the interests of a particular political group. In the last five years, large sections of the media not only absorbed uncritically the themes and issues thrown out by the Hindu nationalists aiming to increase their own space in the public arena but also appeared to have so disconnected themselves from the truth that at the ground level there was disenchantment and disillusionment with what was seen as empty political rhetoric. Thus the media and the middle classes who were caught up in these spurious dreams were thrown off balance by the BJP’s defeat in the 2004 elections. They, after all, believed that the political space vacated by the Congress and other secular groups was still tightly within their grip.

The tragic irony was that it was the media which had seemed to vacate its space in abandoning its traditional role as a vigilant observer in the democratic process. Its failure to scrupulously ensure that its reporting and analysis distinguished between the wishful and fanciful thinking of self-serving propagandists and the actual ground realities, resulted in the construction of a false picture of the ordinary Indian’s political and social priorities. We cannot afford to make this kind of mistake again if we intend to reclaim our space as a credible inter-locutor in the democratic process.