Media makes personalities. It also breaks them. These last two weeks have been an illustration of how this happens and the ‘personality’ is Anna Hazare. More than the print, it is 24-hour news television that is principally responsible today for the creation of public personalities who become larger than life. Take Anna Hazare. Until earlier this year, he was barely known even in his home state of Maharashtra although he had campaigned for many years against corruption and taken on some powerful politicians. Today he is known all over India. And that is because television decided to adopt him, making him into an icon. He fit right into the imagery needed to run the anti-corruption story. The key word, in fact, is “story”. When you have to tell a story, you need a hero. And Hazare was that hero.
A part of the iconography was to convert a social activist into a “Gandhian”. Anyone who has known Anna Hazare’s work, and some of the tactics he has used such as those to curb alcoholism in Ralegaon Siddhi, would know that there is nothing “Gandhian” about them. Indeed, I doubt if Hazare referred to himself as a Gandhian before the media decided to attach that epithet to his name. The “Gandhian” tactic he did use, well before the Lokpal campaign this year, was that of non-violent protests, including hunger fasts, to highlight corruption in Maharashtra. His attire, including the khadi topi, is what men in Maharashtra’s villages wear. It has nothing to do with being “Gandhian”.
From the beginning of this year, ever since the Lokpal Bill became prominent, the Gandhian epithet was fixed to Hazare. He did nothing to deny it, nor did his acolytes. Hence, in the minds of the millions who were treated to the non-stop television coverage of the protests in Ramlila Maidan, there was no separating Hazare and Gandhi. In case you were in doubt, there was a huge image of Gandhi on the stage, which was always in soft focus whenever the camera focused on Hazare.
And now, in the last two weeks, it would appear that some in the media are trying to remind people that Hazare is not quite the “Gandhian” they had projected him to be. In his exclusive interview to Srinivasan Jain on NDTV, Hazare went into great detail to explain why he felt justified in tying alcoholics to a pole and thrashing them. He saw nothing wrong with that. After all mothers also beat their children sometimes, he said. Jain appeared to be egging Hazare on to explain his clearly non-Gandhian tactic in more explicit terms. And Hazare enthusiastically obliged.
As a result, the interview became the centre of several talk shows where Hazare’s take was criticized but also energetically defended by the telegenic Shazia Ilmi who is part of “Team Anna”. Having worked as a TV anchor, she knows how to use the medium. She never loses her cool, nor does she let anyone get away with even a stray remark. She is combative but smiles all the time; a great ambassador for Team Anna. In the discussion on Hazare’s non-Gandhian tactics, Ilmi claimed that the men who had been thrashed were actually grateful to Anna! NDTV has yet to independently verify this statement and inform its viewers. But apart from Ilmi, others on the panel also understood the basis of Hazare’s opposition to alcoholism. Several people acknowledged that alcoholism was a real problem that poor women, in particular, had to deal with. However, no one endorsed the Hazare tactic for curbing alcoholism.
As if this was not enough, Hazare obliged the media by making an off-the-cuff comment when asked what he thought about Sharad Pawar being slapped by a man in the crowd who was incensed about corruption and rising prices. Why only one, asked Hazare. Predictably, this went viral on television, giving more grist to the mill of those searching for subjects for talk shows. People tweeted, commented, condemned before Hazare put out a written statement condemning violence. And the redoubtable Shazia Ilmi once again came to her mentor’s defence, pointing out that his remark was a casual one and that “the slap” was in fact indicative of the anger and frustration felt by ordinary people about the people in power. But by virtue of repetition, something television is particularly good at, the damage had been done. And even though Hazare probably reflected the general lack of sympathy for the political class, for those who had decided he was a wise elder, this remark did not play out too well. So the persona the media had built came down one more notch.
None of this will have any impact on the Hazare loyalists. But it could influence the fence-sitters, people who are still not quite sure what Hazare is all about and whether “Team Anna” has anything in common beyond its determined campaign to get the government to pass the Lokpal Bill.
However, the very fact that journalists felt they had to get Hazare’s opinion on “the slap” brings out another aspect of the creation and destruction of media-created personalities. Having first raised them to a pedestal, the media then decides that they are repositories of all wisdom. So whether they have an opinion, or know anything about the issue, these individuals are asked to state an opinion on everything under the sun. The “sound byte” builds and destroys individuals. No one advises them that perhaps they should say they have nothing to say instead of being lured into stating an opinion.
The problem, of course, is that the media makes people larger than life and very soon, they too begin to believe that what they think counts. It is the rare individual who has the honesty to tell persistent media that they should go elsewhere for an opinion. So thanks to the media, we now have “opinion-makers” who include public relations men, best-selling authors, actors and even beauty queens who are asked their opinion on anything - from Kashmir to Telengana to the latest craze, “Kolaveri di”.