We Are Angry

Media is becoming a vehicle for the celebrations and woes of the middle class, leaving the rest untouched. It’s feeding their ego of empowerment in a thoughtless way. So when a Rushdie controversy revisits more than two decades later, we realize that most people in this country haven’t moved along in life.

Indian media is angry. It wants more freedom of speech (not for itself but Rushdie); less corruption and more development for the taxpayer (that possibly leaves out most of the rural folk). This anger becomes an urban contagion most nights during prime time news.

Barkha Dutt’s interview with writer Salman Rusdhie (repeated for a second night) made me travel back in time more than 20 years. Journeying back to the India of late 80s — interspersed with years of political chaos, economic reforms, communal violence and sheer human hope — is like the labyrinths of Rushdie’s magical realism.

So in my teenage years a young, sullied Rajiv Gandhi is battling scandals and controversies even as the nation gets polarized on communal and caste lines. And of course, he bans Rusdhie’s Satanic Verses. The media is angry with Rajiv who soon lost power and then his life.

That launches me into the 90s, a contrasting decade of identity politics, splintered governments and economic liberalization. India talks growth for its own survival in these chaotic years before entering the new century of hope. By now, I am part of the media industry that transforms into a high growth sun-rise sector (salaries picking up from abysmal levels).

A decade of well paced growth follows when our middle class talk of being global citizens, its corporate club swells and young entrepreneurs push frontiers of ideas and business. An indulgent media celebrates and packages it well. It never gets down to deciphering this decade of leaping growth and frustrating politics, fails to set development agenda and does not feel a need for closures on contentious national disputes.

I am now part of this amorphous growth market, in which international investors want to invest but know very little about. We remain a nation of unfinished agendas with sharp edges of the past.

Suddenly, once again, I am watching Rushdie recall asking Rajiv Gandhi “what kind of India he wants to build”. He throws the same question, this time at a bewildered middle class who switch on news channels for their daily self fulfilment. A little earlier Open Magazine editor and novelist Manu Joseph shows up with an article advocating Rushdie’s right to blasphemy. It exhibits complete disregard for our broader national psyche.

On the show same night, is a discussion on ‘slap happy’ anti corruption campaigner Anna Hazare. Is he Gandhian? A tragic story of a Pune bus driver mowing down 9 people in a road rage, with a spin. Is he symbolic of India turning violent and frustrated? There’s story of an Indian couple in Norway battling for custody of their kids. Our media is doctoring Norway on how to bring up kids, the Indian way.

TV anchors and newspaper editors are today heaving with what they call simmering anger and frustrations of the Indian society. But whose anger really? Death of 27 farmers in West Bengal following a crash of paddy crop does not make them angry. Nor is it worried about obscurantist opposition to FDI in retail and attempt to detail its impact. Still, media would bemoan policy paralysis of the government and be part of competitive politics.

Media has fed personal egos and agendas of the political leaders, campaigners and crony capitalists. It’s now feeding the middle class ego of empowerment in a thoughtless way. Aligning with the market savvy class always pays.

Yes, we need to guard freedom of speech but it won’t collapse if Rushdie does not attend Jaipur Literary Festival. We must fight corruption but not with a self-serving frenzy. We should heed the economic clout of the middle class but not at the cost of other priorities.

Media is busy with contrived controversies and campaigns, increasingly becoming vehicle for the celebrations and woes of those who matter, leaving the rest untouched. Then, when a Rushdie controversy returns, we realize that most people in this country haven’t moved along in life.


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