Posts Tagged ‘spectacle’

Am I still Anna when nobody is watching? (Arvind Rajagopal)

In Perspective on September 8, 2011 at 7:56 am

From: The Hindu

September 7, 2011

Am I still Anna when nobody is watching?

by Arvind Rajagopal

The Hindu Team Anna (from left) Kiran Bedi, Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan at a press conference in New Delhi. File photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Team Anna both galvanised people and captivated the news industry, in two closely related but distinct strategies.

India is not yet a society where Big Brother is Watching You. However, the mass spectacle of people wearing “I am Anna” topis and T-shirts signals a new phase of politics. If we recall “Anna” means Big Brother, we may wonder if in this case Big Brother is You, Watching.

In the second case too, I would say, not yet. Unlike George Orwell’s 1984 or Fascist mass rallies in Nazi Germany, the centre of the spectacle in this case was a 74-year-old villager on an indefinite fast against corruption. Echoing a widespread belief that prevailing institutions are self-serving and heedless of people’s welfare, Hazare was a reminder of the ethics that politics and government had forgotten.

Team Anna both galvanised people and captivated the news industry, in two closely related but distinct strategies. What took shape was perhaps the largest orchestrated media campaign since Ram Janmabhoomi. Unlike that campaign, this one destroyed nothing, and actually sought to introduce legislation that Parliament has resisted for decades. What distinguishes the staging of contemporary events from December 1992 is the massive expansion of the media, and most notably, the growth of satellite TV news channels. Celebration should therefore be tempered with critical reflection. Let me explain why.

The Indian media respond in one of two ways to popular agitations and campaigns. Either they are a threat to order and must be contained by the law — or they are an expression of the national spirit and must be encouraged. In the past, the English language media usually embraced the first position, and the Indian language media the second.

Anna Hazare’s is perhaps the first mass campaign after 1947 where English and vernacular media have come together so visibly. Thus instead of applying a wholly positive or negative response to the agitation, this time the media applied it to the observer. Thus coverage of the movement was mainly in terms of a ‘with-us-or-against-us’ approach. It should be noted though that the Hindi channels adopted a more positive attitude on the whole than the English language media, who were more critical. Questions about the middle class limitations of the movement were mainly confined to the English media, for example.

Indian language media have a tradition of embracing popular agitation dating back to the freedom struggle. The English media adopted the perspective of colonial rulers, and distrusted the public expressions of ordinary people, by contrast. And in post-independence times the English-language media, in their struggle to adhere to secular values, often found itself replicating colonial distrust of popular sentiment.

The media’s collective and on the whole enthusiastic endorsement of mass agitation thus inaugurates a distinct phase of Indian politics. The entry of the masses on to the stage of history is a discourse of democracy, but it is also a mediated event. Gandhiji’s Salt March was a public procession that grew and grew, joining a staple of everyday life with the idea of making a new nation. Political participation has to be imagined as well as enacted. Collective imagination requires the work of media, human as well as technological. Grass-roots work and public rallies, the press and the cinema, and, today, electronic media are all involved.

But if we consider the extent to which today’s media are corporatised and oligopolist in structure, and indifferent to people’s suffering on so many fronts, we should ask: why did this event in particular generate so much commercial media promotion?

In the Anna Hazare campaign, the spectacle of popular mobilisation was seen to be a thing of virtue. And the more mobilisation, it was assumed, the more virtuous civil society was.

During the anti-colonial struggle, the nationalist press could see popular mobilisation as a pure virtue. Why would an increasingly corporate and globalised media celebrate mass agitation in the same way, regardless of the outcome?

As Aruna Roy has noted, the huge Lokpal mobilisation has had a relatively small outcome. No corrupt politicians were pinpointed, much less punished, although that was the stimulus for the movement. No relief was offered for the unaffordably high cost of living, although that was a major motive for the support. Instead we have the promise of a new bureaucracy to examine bureaucratic corruption. This is a small victory for a movement so large: Anna Hazare had to persuade the government that he did not plan to overthrow it.

The media rightly feel they helped to make this victory. For them, the popular mobilisation is a sign of their own success and not only of Anna Hazare’s. It shows they can move people, and bring them out onto the streets and the maidan. They can enlarge crowds for a cause.

I don’t want to deny that there is idealism amongst media personnel. But the fundamental business of television is to get people to watch television, and of the press to get people to read the press. Sixty per cent of India’s households now have television. Watching TV and being on TV acquired a greater overlap during this campaign than ever before. It points to a new kind of media awareness. Images of their actions are reflected back to people, who then act in a more camera-friendly way. Media images are part of their own political répertoire, which means that media become to some extent the destination of political action too. This is what the French Situationist Guy Debord called the Society of the Spectacle. We aim to watch and be watched. It is a mode of social regulation, and of conducting business.

Today we have not only TV, but also cellphones and email, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. Mass events like the drive for the Lokpal Bill accumulate huge amounts of attention, which is quantified for revenue generation. They are also means for discharging popular energy, leaving only memories behind. That is the risk we have to be vigilant about. To the extent that media mobilise constituencies, they are fluid and volatile. Static builds up in media circuits and is released. People congregate and then disperse.

One might look to evidence of such performative politics in the August Kranti of 1942, a model for the recent movement, albeit with marked difference. Gandhiji was not only the leader of the earlier campaign; he was a model for volunteers’ behaviour. Abstinence, frugality, and moral character were inculcated; to this extent people sought to emulate Gandhiji in their own lives. Civil disobedience carried risks, of penalisation by employers, and of imprisonment. Political dissidence took courage, and involved a public stance against the government. While courage and dedication were not absent in the Lokpal campaign, its technologically mediated form made Anna Hazare’s austerity and frugality a spectacle for contemplation and empathy. It appeared that it was enough to say, “I am Anna.” Herein lay its middle class character. The virtues that seemed essential in the earlier moment became more of an option in the recent event.

Even if we say we are all Anna, the question is — and then what? How do we get beyond the easy self-congratulation of that statement? Political participation has to exist both inside and outside the media spectacle. Commercial media will move on to the next new thing, at least for a while. It is necessary to stay with the issue even when the spotlights are switched off. That would mean rethinking what kinds of politics are possible in such a context.

(Arvind Rajagopal is Professor of Media Studies and Sociology at New York University. His latest book, After Decolonization, is under contract with Duke University Press.)


Perils of Anna’s success (Praful Bidwai)

In Commentary, Uncategorized on August 22, 2011 at 6:34 pm

From: prafulbidwai.org

Frontline, April 23-May 6, 2011
Frontline Column: Beyond the Obvious

by Praful Bidwai

Hazare’s success in mobilising the normally apolitical middle class speaks of a strong revulsion against corruption and shows up huge flaws in the system. But it can also harm democratic politics.

** ** ** ** **

Anna Hazare has achieved what no political movement, campaign or party has accomplished in decades: namely, ensure the capitulation of the government on an important policy agenda. It is only very rarely that governments in India yield so completely on issues such as corruption and laws to curb and punish it. I cannot recall a single occasion since the mid-1970s when this has happened. The United Progressive Alliance was no exception to this. Indeed, it doggedly resisted even the demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee on the 2G telecom scam and allowed a whole session of Parliament to be gutted—until it finally conceded the demand.

Hazare mobilised and energised the Twitter and Facebook-loving upper layers of the middle class and dragged behind himself the media, in particular 24-hour television channels, to a point where anchors became zealous advocates of his cause.

Through his indefinite fast on the Lokpal Bill issue, Hazare has emerged as a parallel national power centre. The fast conjured up a virtual spectacle—much like the Cricket World Cup. The government probably decided that it would be far too risky to let his campaign grow any further lest it be infiltrated, exploited or captured by its political opponents, or lead to an uncontrollable situation. On Day 4 of the fast, it conceded the demand for a joint committee for drafting the Lokpal Bill, with equal representation from government and civil society nominees.

This too is totally unprecedented. Typically, the government limits civil society representation in any advisory or consultative committee to a small proportion of the total.

Hopefully, the committee will produce a Bill that is far worthier than the officially drafted legislation, which protects corruption in a number of ways. It restricts complaints to the Lokpal to those that have been routed through the Speaker of the Lok Sabha or the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. It exempts civil servants from the Lokpal’s purview.

The Bill gives the Lokpal no powers of prosecution and makes his/her decisions purely recommendatory, thus giving the government the freedom to decide whether to act on them or not. It also limits investigation into past corruption cases to only two years. It is not difficult to improve upon the Bill. The drafting committee can be expected to produce a legislation that gives the fight against corruption some real strength.

That said, the whole manner in which Anna Hazare and his group ran their campaign, the group’s composition, and part of its larger agenda raise uncomfortable questions. Contrary to media claims, the campaign was not spontaneous, but carefully planned and well organised. It was planned at least two months in advance to begin on April 5. A participant, who was interviewed on television, confirmed this, including the date. So did the networks run by yoga guru Baba Ramdev and Art of Living leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The organisers used a toll-free number in Mumbai and managed social networks to enthuse people to join Hazare’s fast or express solidarity with it through candlelight vigils in numerous cities.

The campaign’s organisers made their first attempt to focus on the issue of corruption one-and-a-half years ago, when they lobbied for Kiran Bedi, a former Indian Police Service officer, to be appointed as the Chief Information Commissioner after the end of Wajahat Habibullah’s tenure. They launched “India Against Corruption” and held two rallies in Delhi. One of them was held at Jantar Mantar in November last. Ramdev’s Aastha channel gave these extensive publicity. But these did not attract much public attention.

That is when the organisers decided to rope in Anna Hazare. The key organisers included Kiran Bedi, NGO Parivartan’s Arvind Kejriwal, and Ramdev, and secondarily, Rashtriya Lok Dal MP Mahmud Madani, the Delhi diocese’s Archbishop Vincent Concessao and Swami Agnivesh. Hazare has established himself as a crusader against corruption in Maharashtra, having forced some corrupt ministers to resign. With his image as a Gandhian who has a Spartan lifestyle and a high moral stature, Hazare clicked instantly.

“India Against Corruption” took off in a big way. Over 4 million Twitter messages were mobilised. So were a few hundred to several hundred citizen volunteers, including high-profile Bollywood figures like Aamir Khan, Shabana Azmi, Tom Alter and Anupam Kher. Many of the slogans of the campaign, including the branding of all 543 Lok Sabha MPs as “thieves” and defenders of corruption, betray well-entrenched middle class prejudices.

This is the same social stratum, the top 15 percent of the population, which rarely votes in elections, and has contempt not just for politicians, but for the political process of democracy itself. This elite does not experience corruption or is at its receiving end in the way the bulk of the poor are. But it has convinced itself that corruption is the primary drag on India’s progress towards Great Powerhood.

In many ways, it is the same social group that had led the anti-Mandal and anti-affirmative action agitations of the past. This class is fiercely individualistic and by and large believes the poor are what they are because they, unlike itself, are not enterprising enough. It was no surprise that some staunchly elitist organisations like the Delhi Medical Association and Residents’ Welfare Associations—notorious for its anti-poor stance during the demolition drive in Delhi—turned up enthusiastically to back Hazare.

The antecedents of some of the key individuals are open to question. Ramdev, for instance, works closely with RSS pracharak KN Govindacharya in the Bharat Swabhiman movement and is himself close to the Sangh ideology. Bedi scarcely hides her ambition to play a larger-than-life role in social and political affairs. Ravi Shankar too propagates deeply conservative ideas. Hazare himself is politically naïve and adheres to a crude, chauvinist form of nationalism—as his lurid and outsized depiction of Bharat Mata on a map of India and his glorification of Shivaji suggest.

Hazare claims to be a Gandhian, but told his admirers that it is not enough to gaol the corrupt; they must be hanged. He said: “You might wonder how a Gandhian like me is talking about violent methods like hanging, but in today’s context, the need is not of Mahatma Gandhi but of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.”

The Hazare campaign poses other problems too. Its own draft Lokpal Bill will concentrate too much power in the hands of one person, without the checks and balances that are central to democracy. The accumulation of boundless privileges and placing of all kinds of agencies under the Lokpal would violate the principle of separation of powers. He/she will be more like the cartoon strip hero Judge Dredd, who dispenses instant justice while riding an enormously powerful motorcycle.

The Lokpal’s appointment is to be recommended by all manner of people, including Nobel Prize winners of Indian origin, recipients of the Indian government’s Padma awards, and yes, Magsaysay prize winners, a category to which some of the campaign’s leaders belong. None of them, barring the Lok Sabha Speaker, is an elected representative of the people, with legitimacy deriving from the election.

However, this is part of a larger obsession of the campaign: it claims to speak in the name of the people. Civil society organisations are self-created, voluntary and self-appointed. They cannot lay claim to democratic legitimacy based on the principle of representation or accountability. They must not arrogate this role to themselves.

Various political parties, especially the Nationalist Congress—whose president Sharad Pawar Hazare has long targeted, and who resigned from the Group of Ministers on corruption—and the Samajwadi Party have criticised Hazare’s campaign on this ground and for interfering with the legitimate function of Parliament to enact laws. Yet others have condemned its arrogance and its bypassing of the political institutions of democracy on the ground that India has a functioning democracy.

This point is only partly valid. India’s political system is marked by numerous failures and inability to deal with major issues of concern to the people, including predatory neoliberal policies, dysfunctional public service delivery, and widespread corruption. Our political parties do not respond to this dysfunctional state of affairs and have failed to mobilise the public on relevant issues. People like Hazare have stepped into the vacuum. Their agenda is problematic and can lead to dangerous forms of vigilantism. Nothing will stop the likes of Hazare, and more dangerous, Ramdev, from branding specific individuals corrupt and demanding their resignation by applying the pressure of middle-class mobilisation and by exploiting the elite’s distrust of politics itself.

Hazare has already undercut the National Advisory Council which was debating an alternative Lokpal Bill. The NAC enjoys legitimacy because it was appointed by an elected government. Other institutions too could soon be weakened or bypassed.

Yet, so long as the political class continues to malfunction and refuses to address issues of urgent relevance to the people, such movements will grow, jolt the system, and create parallel power centres, which regrettably are accountable to nobody.

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