Last Saturday evening, an English language television news channel sent one of its coquettish anchors, who otherwise specialized in going gush-gush over Bollywood stars, to report on Baba Ramdev’s ‘yoga camp’ in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan. The lady had apparently never seen life on the other side of the tracks — or, at least, successfully pretended she hadn’t — and was wide-eyed in astonishment at both the numbers and the motivation of people who had travelled long distances to be with the man dubbed the “rock star of yoga”. She was also bowled over by the huge media presence. “There are channels here,” she said in breathless astonishment, “that I’ve never heard of.”
For that India whose TV viewing doesn’t go beyond the news and entertainment channels available on Tata Sky, the ignorance is understandable. There is an India People-Like-Us know and claim to understand, even if it is from a position of detachment. This includes the mysterious, mystical India personified by the flowing white robes and the ‘wellness’ philosophy of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The PLUs also habitually invoke the romanticism of rural life, even if they are understandably horrified by the Taliban-like decisions of khap panchayats.
That there are multiple Indias is a truism. It is also a truism that the only time the kaleidoscope of India finds some reflection in either the ‘national’ or the mainstream regional media is during an election. That’s the time the limousine liberals are sponsored by indulgent bankers to travel in comfort to the wilderness and even do an election-related chat show from a dusty truckers’ dhaba in West Midnapore or the roof of a garish hotel in Gaya.
Unfortunately, the season for political tourism is all too brief. It is always possible to gauge voting intentions during an emotionally charged campaign and even report the quantum of economic change brought about by India’s soaring gross domestic product in the small market towns and neighbouring villages. It is never a media priority to understand the corresponding shifts in aesthetic and social impulses.
The multiplying consequences of passionate Islamic discourses by tele-evangelists have, for example, led to a sharp rise in social conservatism among India’s Muslims. Some of this is even sartorially self-evident. Less understood, however, is the impact of the discourses broadcast by TV channels such as Aastha on the mofussil Hindu imagination. Have the unending emphasis on true dharma and the constant invocations of righteousness had an unforeseen political consequence?
For the past three years at least, I have been told of the subterranean buzz around Ramdev’s robust festivals of health and patriotism all over India. The extent to which the surge in religiosity has been brought about by rising TV viewership is difficult to quantify. All that can be said is that Ramdev’s decision to expand his mission statement to demanding political action against organized venality was not born out of thin air. It stemmed from his reading of the responses he got from the non-metropolitan audiences he spends most of the year addressing.
There is a sharp class divide between the ‘civil society’ movements launched by Anna Hazare and Ramdev. The old Gandhian and his core support team are public spirited individuals who in a more settled age would perhaps have been a part of the institutional apparatus of governance. Blessed with modern education and global exposure —note the surfeit of Magsaysay Award winners in Anna’s Star Chamber — they are people who talk the modern idiom of development and politics, a language the mainstream media finds comprehensible, comforting and respectable. The Anna movement has drawn sustenance from three quarters: from a core network of professional activists with a disdain for organized politics, from senior citizens, usually active in residents’ welfare associations, horrified by the moral decline of a world they can’t keep pace with, and a section of idealistic but impressionable youth which believes that social media networking is a force for the good.
The Anna movement was a made-in-media campaign. The crowds that flocked to his rally in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar two months ago did so without any incentive and organization. However, its spontaneity was also governed by a spectacular degree of TV hype that unnerved the government and forced it into setting up a joint committee to draft a new lok pal bill. No doubt the process was helped by the endearing personality of Anna — a man who exudes both simplicity and sincerity. However, it is worth considering whether or not the multiplier effects of the movement would have been that marked had the location of the fast not been the heart of Lutyen’s Delhi.
Compared to the 5,000 or so people who thronged Jantar Mantar at the peak of Anna’s fast, Ramdev began his show with a dedicated audience of something around 40,000 people. While most of Anna’s supporters were from the national capital region — plus shows of solidarity in the state capitals — the yoga guru mobilized people from all over the country, including a large contingent from West Bengal. Yet, the government risked a potential riot by forcibly evicting the crowd and shutting down the show in the early hours of last Sunday. What explains the visible double-standards?
The answer is obvious. The ‘civil society’ that Anna represented was the influential metropolitan middle class, many of whom were PLUs. Ramdev’s support base was drawn primarily from B, C and D category towns and lacked either clout or glamour. The English-language media was openly contemptuous of his mission, portraying it as a variant of another Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-sponsored gau rakshan show. There was not a single Bollywood star to keep company of the relatively unknown religious figures that graced Ramdev’s dais. Even Anna was in two minds over being present on the stage. Each of the sadhus may have had a following of lakhs but this was not the power elite Delhi knew. To them, it was an assembly of obscurantists.
The scepticism of the PLUs contrasted starkly with the earnestness with which the Hindi channels dealt with the Ramdev phenomenon. To their viewership, Ramdev was a venerated figure and not someone whose raw understanding of economics was worthy of mockery.
The sharp class divide was unmistakable. The last occasion I witnessed this was the Ayodhya movement. Till L.K. Advani’s rath yatra in 1990, cosmopolitan India treated the fuss over Ram’s birthplace with sneering contempt. It was blind to the raw emotions unleashed in the hinterland, a phenomenon that was dismissed as ‘false consciousness’.
There is nothing as yet to indicate that Ramdev is likely to trigger a similar explosion of sentiment. Yet, the yogic entrepreneur has succeeded in extending the reach of the anti-corruption movement into the deep interior of the Hindi heartland. He has complemented a modernist unease with corrupt governance with populist anger against a venal, elitist order — note how his demand to secure the return of black money stashed in foreign shores was cleverly twinned with the demand to replace English with the vernacular. Ramdev has triggered the revolt of the outlander.
The Hindu faith has traditionally been caste-based and localized. Yet, there has been a congregational undercurrent that has subsumed these divisions. Over the past two decades and thanks in no small measure to growing TV viewership, a new congregational faith has injected a new energy into the Hindu universe. Particularly noteworthy is the growing marginalization of the Brahminical order. Ramdev, a Yadav by caste, personifies this phenomenon. The Congress may have miscalculated by declaring total war on him.