When Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan launched his movement in the mid seventies ,India had only one television channel. Only seven Indian cities had access to the terrestrial channel, Doordarshan. Approximately 15 to 20 per cent of the country’s population owned television sets which beamed just this government controlled channel, and only for limited hours.
In 2011 there are over 600 channels available on TV sets in India and more than 135 million households own a TV set.
The 97- hour- old fast by campaigner Anna Hazare in the heart of the nation’s capital, Jantar Mantar, was a magnet to which the 24x7 news channels were drawn. The result: entire television studios descended from their air-conditioned interiors to Ground Zero to beam what the media saw as the first civil society uprising in the age of satellite television. For the entire period the Live Outdoor Broadcast (OB) vans jostled for parking slots to document and beam every move by the 73-year-old- fasting leader that brought the government to a virtual halt.
Anna Hazare’s fast soon assumed the larger than life title “India Against Corruption” and channels vied with one another to cover the Anna Mania unleashed in Delhi and other Indian metropolitan cities. The Battle for the Eyeballs was frank and naked. They competed with each other on SMS polls urging people to write in and support the “Mother of all Campaigns” and each channel thought it fit to appropriate the movement itself with captions like “XXXXX TV channel’s Crusade Against Corruption”.
Twenty-year-old reporters and thirty year old anchors who were yet to be born during the emergency years and JP’s movement or even during the political campaign against Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress party on the Bofors issue, were witnessing for the first time in their television careers what they quickly dubbed as a “people’s movement”. There was no editorial dissent on how it should be covered. There was a TINA (there is no alternative) factor to it and everyone had to come to the Jantar Mantar party. And for most TV reporters trapped in their middle- class- hesitant-to-travel to- India’s- interiors to cover people’s movements, this was a convenient coverage...at best half an hour by car from their studios to the Indian “Tahrir Square”. Anchors too didn’t mind sweating it out with talk shows on location if it meant retaining the eyeballs. A People’s Movement demanded People’s Reporters and Anchors. Distance from Battleground would be frowned upon.
Times Now had programme slugs which read ”Non Stop Broadcast-India’s crusade against Corruption”, “Anna’s Fast-India’s March” “India in One Voice”, etc. Anchor Arnab Goswami was endorsing the movement : “Timing is right and the cause is Noble”. Rahul Kanwal of Headlines Today was saying:”Rich people are here..poor people are here- it is an outpouring of anger”.
CNN IBN channel was running a slug – “Citizens Against Corruption- IBN”. ”This is the New India.. this is youth power ..from Jamia to JNU they are all here, they want change ,but they don’t know how to bring it about ” endorsed Rajdeep Sardesai. Soon after when he indulged in a little bit of cynicism :”When the IPL starts tomorrow and the cameras leave this place what will happen to the movement?” ,he was provided a counter appeal from the crowds and Arvind Kejriwal – “You must promise us that you will not leave us Rajdeep!” This prompted the usual Rajdeep response :” Aaap rahenge to hum bhi rahenge!!” The comment won him brownie points instantly and was greeted by an appreciative uproar. Television Relish Moments . Most channels endorsed the campaign and anchors openly urged people to come and join Anna’s campaign. Anchors and reporters had become campaigners and activists- a tribe they normally like to bait otherwise.
The mood was clearly populist as celebrities vied with one another to rub shoulders with Anna. On talk shows author Chetan Bhagat was brandishing a tattoo on his arm which read ”Mera Neta Chor hain”
Hindi channels had taken the rhetoric to expected metaphors. Live India TV had slogans-- “Kaliyug main jab phaili bhrastachar, Anna ne chedi jung “, “Bharat Mata ki chaan main-Anna khade maidan main”. Star News had patriotic music track laid behind all slogans and sloganeering – “Woh himmat kare- jo himmat na hare”.
In the evenings the tunes got more romantic - Candlelight vigils added the perfect ambience near India Gate in Delhi and other cities in India. It inspired sound tracks from “Rang De Basanti” and the “We Shall Overcome” sung in Hindi-“Hum Honge kamyab..” There was rock groups like Thermal and a Quarter dedicating tracks to the campaign for the more well heeled youth.
Fresh from the euphoric coverage of the World Cup win for India, cricket language was difficult to avoid-- “The first wicket has fallen!” to describe Sharad Pawar’s exit from the committee. Later there was direct apologies to cricketers saying “Sorry, we cannot cover the IPL this time..we have to be with Anna” “Sachin, Dhoni come and join Anna !” etc etc.
One youth being interviewed on a channel in Jantar Mantar said “I was watching TV at home and I was told why watch TV come and join the campaign...so I came to Delhi”. Good decision ! Because now he was ON TV !!
The media heat peaked so much that Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni and Ghulam Nabi Azad reportedly met channel heads to ostensibly to brief them about the government’s action. But any babe-in-the-woods would know that the meeting would have held out a veiled appeal to lower the tempo of coverage.
The media heat did get to the government once again . Anna’s fast was confined to just 97 hours and cut short before the weekend brought thousands more into the Nation’s Capital. It is time to sit back and now think :what were the lessons in it for the government, the activists and for us in the media.
Does the media now truly acknowledge the power of civil society and its questioning of the existing electoral system ? Does it recognise its own power to be a catalyst for positive change ? If so, will it go beyond this four- day agitation and look at targeting the real symptoms and campaign for electoral reforms , the crux of the Lok Pal Bill ? Will it also invest in sustained coverage from the field of the different grass roots movements where India’s poorest are fighting to retain their tiny pieces of land from en masse Corporate takeover? Will it invest in high voltage coverage on the corruption in the Public Distribution System (PDS) that allows grain meant for the poor to pass in the hands of blackmarketers, while the poor go to bed hungry every night ? The list is long, dear fellow journalists.