THE MOB AND THE CAMERA

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A couple of days ago, a prominent TV anchor, not associated with the Anna protest coverage, posted sardonically on his Facebook wall that he wanted to go on a fast against TV. He may have been only half-serious but his page was quickly flooded with ‘likes’ and supportive messages, most of them from cynical TV reporters themselves.

Television channels have been the megaphones of the Anna upsurge but TV news long ago left even the pretence of being objective and value-neutral in this entire drama. The calculation in TV newsrooms goes something like this: our viewership is the middle class, the middle class is furious at corruption, how can we not ride on it.

The seductive tri-coloured Gandhian imagery and its framing in David versus Goliath terms, especially after the government’s ham-handedness, completes the logic of the campaign. And if the facts get in the way of a good story, well, then to hell with them.

Kiran Bedi probably missed the irony but her ‘Anna is India and India is Anna’ chant is the civil society mutation of the sycophantic ‘Indira is India and India is Indira’ slogan coined by Debakanta Baruah in the 1970s. In its gushing flag-waving, TV news largely missed it, too.

The dichotomy of the current movement is that while it enjoys widespread support for a general clampdown against corruption, in the end it will boil down to specifics.

The devil is in the detail and look at what is being demanded: Parliament is being asked to pass, not just introduce, the most wide-ranging bill that has come before it in years, in just 18 days. It is a bill whose current draft was put together by activists only in December. Even if the idea and other drafts have been around for years, even if previous Parliaments have not acted, surely that cannot be a reason to now place a gun on this Parliament’s head and say ‘my way or the highway’.

There is no question that the government has messed up and lost its political barometer. Its farcical response oscillated between conciliation and name-calling and ended with misguided repression that backfired.

The Congress has been at sea and has got a bloody nose. It’s now in an impossible corner politically and will probably have to make substantial compromises on its own Lokpal Bill, including on the issue of including the Prime Minister in its ambit. But all this does not automatically mean that everything in the Anna campaign’s self-centred ‘tyranny of virtue’, as one commentator put it, is justified.

Dissent and protest are integral to democracy but institutional blackmailing on the campaign’s particular version of the Jan Lokpal Bill is a dangerous trend. Down this path lies anarchy and a dangerous dichotomy is now being built: a distinction between the people and Parliament. People’s movements should influence law-making and most path-breaking laws have their roots in such pressures but the current discourse is essentially contemptuous of democratic procedures and of institutions.

It speaks to middle class fantasies because it is contemptuous of politicians and promises seemingly easy system-breaking solutions, but by insisting that only its version of the Jan Lokpal Bill is correct, the Anna camp is behaving like a petulant child.

The power of the people can quickly degenerate into the power of the mob, especially if a crowd is magnified in close up to look larger than it is on our TV screens, and the seductive TV spotlight seems to have beguiled the Anna camp into forgetting that it is Parliament that embodies the people.

The media market and the Hazare camp have found common cause in a moral crusade but shrill sloganeering and TV evangelism does not justify blackmail in the name of the amorphous category of the people.

By replacing reasoned debate with cheerleading, TV is encouraging a lynch-mob kind of mentality. The lack of critical quietening fosters an environment where people can pass on and seriously believe stupid slogans like the SMS message currently doing the rounds that asks people to support Anna Hazare because he will supposedly bring back black money, which will turn India into such a superpower that each district will get Rs 6000 crore, each village Rs 100 crore, and no one will have to pay for electricity or their taxes for another 20 years!

No one can be against stopping corruption and the government’s self-goal in arresting Hazare has meant that even people who did not necessarily agree with him have rallied to his side. Hazare, the man, may have failings, but events have so unfolded that Hazare, the symbol, now transcends the man and represents a much larger battle, symbolic of all that is wrong with our day-to-day interface with government.

In the end though, the general sentiment must coalesce into specific actions and the battle to end corruption needs simultaneous movement on several fronts, like the ones outlined by Aruna Roy and her associates in the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information.

It needs systemic governance reform, not a half-baked one-stop solution of the kind that the Anna campaign is proposing, that is, that of a Lokpal that could be a judge, prosecutor and jury all rolled into one, without any say at all for elected representatives and without any checks or balances.

It is time for some rationality to return. Or perhaps for that fast against TV.