Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Your Mama! Or The Blitzerization Of Indian TV

By Trevor Selvam

In the past two weeks, I have viewed three shows on NDTV 24/7 and one on CNN-IBN live. On one NDTV show, the moderator was Mr. Vikram Chandra and the other one had the ubiquitous Ms. Barkha Dutt. The CNN-IBN show was moderated by Ms Sagarika Ghose. All three of the shows had to do with Naxalites or Maoists. The NDTV shows had the emblematic war-drum like sound effects and graphic interplay that aped the “War on Terror” style of the Fox/CNN networks. The lead caption of the “Maoist Muddle”, the talk show hosted by Ms. Dutt, had an old Western badlands style letter font in use, which would swish back and forth, when Ms. Dutt took a break. (No! they did not play the theme tune from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Appaloosa).

Ms. Ghosh’s moderation was subdued in comparison and I would say, more interested in extracting a minimum possible new thought process in this discussion. However, the two guests on this show, Mr. Gautam Navlakha of the EPW and Mr. Swapan Dasgupta of trash-the-left-any-which-way-you-can fame, took off their gloves in no time and while Mr. Navlakha could have restrained himself a wee bit, I could understand the anger he felt with the asinine, Rush Limbaugh-esque harangue of Mr. Dasgupta. A third guest, Mr. Sudipta Chackravarti, writer of the book Red Sun, attempted to steer a safer line between the absurdly nonsensical right wing cant of Dasgupta and the enraged decency of Navlakha and got nowhere in terms of contributing to the discussion. While this particular show did make an attempt at clean lines and decency in terms of format, the NDTV show, as usual, was like a Vegas-style slot machine/ video game box circus with Ms. Dutt rushing around town-hall style, impatient as hell, and making shallow summaries from time to time. Mr Vikram Chandra used his stationary command centre approach to parse everyone’s unfinished thoughts, by interrupting them and making sweeping summaries and essentially telling off those who wanted to raise larger issues. Barkha Dutt’s pancake makeup and potty-designer clothes added further vacuous glitter and frenzy to the otherwise polyvinyl theatre that she now stages frequently. I think Ms. Dutt has run out of the chutzpah that characterized her initial foray into cable news and live reporting. She has bought into the ethos that employs her i.e be true to the status quo definition of the nation, no matter what, uphold some sanctimonious interpretations of “terror, violence and democracy” and mendaciously ignore the institutionalized violence that characterizes the Indian state and all its institutions, especially the police. I am sure the fact that there are at least one hundred criminals sitting in the Indian Parliament, does not seem to have any impact whatsoever on all these apologists in her show, regarding the greatness of “the world’s largest democracy.” One of the goofy guests in the show, named Tavleen Singh, gave an “Arey Baba!” style shpeel on how great it is to be part of Indian democracy and not be part of Pakistan or China. No jingoism there! And these are experts on “the greatest threat to Indian democracy”?

What is wrong with these shows?

They all pander to a sensationalist, alarmist and finally a fabricated version of the facts on the ground to start with. In their rush to compete with each other they also use melodramatic terminology to describe events. During a Chukka Bundh or a Rail Roko (stopping trains during a general strike in an area, for example West Mednipur) , some channels in no time started referring to it as a “Train Hijack”. Chukka Bandh has been going on for ages. In fact in India it happens almost every day. People vent their anger by stopping trains. A hijack is something else and as a result in no time people are talking about the Taleban and prisoner swaps etc. Arnab Goswami’s Foxy network (Times Now) goes over the deep edge with Goswami almost leaking sputum from the sides of his mouth, calling the Lalgarh PCPA, a “ terrorist” outfit repeatedly during his so-called moderation of events. He invites people to speak and then trashes them continuously, hogging the limelight himself and repeatedly changing his “one basic question” several times. Santhals and tribals with traditional weaponry are called “armed Maoists and terrorists.” Even the CNN and BBC prefer to use words like militants, referring to these same incidents. Goswami, of course, is universally recognized in India as the yellowest of all TV moderators.

The primary problem, as I had stated elsewhere in a previous essay, is that these Indian TV channels have not gone through the stage of development that American radio and TV shows had gone through—of nuanced, thoughtful interdictions---that preceded the Wolf-Blitzerization of Cable news. The Bill Moyers and the Amy Goodmans of PBS, NPR and Democracy Now! have for a long period of time upheld decent, selfless, incisive, conclusive interviews and glamour, glitz and circus acts have not been their bag. A tradition exists in American radio and to a certain extent in Public TV that preceded Time-Warner’s onslaught on the mind waves. India’s Doordarshan, staid and unexciting as it often may seem, does not follow this bombastic TV style that Barkha Dutt and Vikram Chandra espouse. But, Indian TV has missed out on the tradition of the thoughtful radio show. It has taken a leap into the nightmare Vegas style, as far as intellectual cadence goes. Pretty much like the fact that India also skipped over (for the most part) the laying down of optical fibre-glass high speed lines and jumped into the wi-fi data card and satellite disc technology, at least in some regions. Convenient, but unnatural, in some respects. There is thus a missing link in India’s media development. It is not a matter of quickly leap-frogging into the newest technology; it is very simply a question of missing out on a stage of incipient intellectual development. And that stage requires some genuflection on what it is to be a real democracy. Having elections every five years or having law courts and elected officials (even without criminal records) amounts to drawing lane markers on Indian city roads. Nobody takes it seriously or avails of it with pride. It is like an attempt at showcasing the trappings of democracy. As simple as that. When Mr. Chidambaran cajoles the country’s intellectuals and so does the West Bengal government officials, suggesting that any sympathy for the Naxalites amounts to seditious behaviour, it is the beginning of a McCarthyite era of “Un-Indian” activities. In that sense the Americanization of the Indian polity has been seamless since the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is no wonder that the Indian state, once a champion of non-alignment and independent post-colonial political direction, has done a fantastic somersault into the lap of the United States. It is unthinkable that the same forces that have just decided to “phase out ”of Iraq, have now arrived in India and are engaging in what a US commander described, only a few hours ago on NDTV, “the most advanced counter-insurgency operations” with Stryker tanks and various elements of the US Army, Airborne and Cavalry divisions and paratrooper wings, right next to New Delhi! Does Barkha Dutt care? Does Vikram Chandra give two hoots that American boots that were kicked out of Vietnam and are being kicked out elsewhere and especially out of Latin America, are now stomping around in this country? When Barkha Dutt and Vikram Chandra and others invite Indian intellectuals, historians, economists and political scientists who wish to raise some fundamental issues about Indian democracy, they are swept away by the undignified hollerings of the loafers they also invite. So first rule: Do not invite more than three people, at a time. Let them speak to a very specific and elevated concept about the actual workings of Indian democracy. Let them conclude and do not bust them up, half way, with your own impatient and argumentative vox populi style journalism. If you need to invite other people, arrange for a Part 2 of the same debate, with others.

What are some other reasons?

Aside from the two or three people at a time that PBS and National Public Radio invite, the calibre of the people invited also happen to be those with extraordinary historical acumen and analytical skills.

Mr. Chandra, amongst the hordes he invites, brings in loafer-type MPs from the BJP and CPM to trot out their standard rhetoric on behalf of “Indian parliamentary democracy, law and order, national security and non-violence”. The BJP fellow keeps ranting hysterically about how “criminal” the Maoists are with their barrel of the gun power politics and the wily CPI(M) fellow (typical of the Bengal CPIM) snidely jibes away, with a crooked smile on his lips, at the Maoists for not “following the example of the Nepali Maoists.” Also invited are a Maoist sympathizing poet, a Gandhian activist, another EPW editor, a retired police officer (who turns out to be quite sane, decent and at least logical, despite his law and order leanings). Surprisingly, there is also a young Congress MP from Andhra, who is quite lucid that the Naxalite problem cannot be a resolved by guns and choppers, when for sixty two years the State has been absent in the lives of the Adivasis. Anyone who is decent (and the Congress MP who seems very much like one) and waits his turn, does not get the chance to lay down the facts. He or she is either shouted down or stopped short by Chandra or Dutt. Such a procession of flag bearers and party hacks and straight laced law and order folks can never provide education to the masses, who expect to imbibe something from these shows. It ends up being a five-a-side indoor football mêlée and opinions, ideas are never developed. People go home, convinced that India is a flourishing but troubled democracy, Naxalites are violent idealists backed by foreigners and terrorists, that wealth will trickle down someday to the poor if law and order is maintained and the ultimate profanity ---that if Maoists participated in the democratic process (as some other Naxalites seem to be) then they could also have their day under the sun! All these sacred Indian cows are then chewed vociferously and then spat out like pan-masala on the walls of Indian media, for the next half hour in rapid-fire mode. By the time we are two minutes into these so-called forums, not a single assertion is made about the actual facts. There is no discussion on what constitutes “development”, no discussion on institutionalized violence, no discussion the existing statutes of the Indian constitution and how they remain unfulfilled after 60 years, no discussion on the role of the Indian Police force, dubbed as the world’s worst law-breaking and human rights violating outfit, no discussion on the charter rights of the aboriginal people of India, no discussion on the megalomaniac plans of P. Chidambaran to relocate 85% of India’s population into urban centres, no discussion on the devastating and stultifying environmental impact of damming India’s rivers and attempting to join them up (another Chidambaran hair-brained plan) and no discussion on the twenty five years of systematic development work in the Dandakaranya, which the Naxalites have engaged in from using shifting crop agriculture, innovative irrigation, land distribution, mobile educational projects, health clinics, where for 62 years the GOI has done zip. Mr. Chandra demonstrates clearly that he is not a moderator, not a listener, that he has come made up his mind and injects silly conclusions each time the bell rings for an ad and Barkha Dutt does the same with a proto yank mannerism-- “Don’t go away.” In reality, it is time to switch off. But I keep my patience till the end and until the swishing militarist/western sound effects that keep happening every few seconds, come to a final end.

When I sat down to write this essay, I was reminded of a time, in the early seventies when I was in the US and the Watergate scandal had broken out and Nixon was about to be indicted. I was sitting in a room with African American friends, when one of the TV commentators, mostly white at that time, declared that American Democracy would weather this storm and the rebels in US campuses were nothing but agents of foreign left-wing governments. My buddy, who sat next to me, spat out two words-- “Your mama”!