Sunday, March 27, 2011

Televised Politics

 Indian politics underwent a sea change after the Ramayana serial. .

What colour does television have? It has been a point of argument amongst media and cultural, all of them contributing elaborate versions about television s social and cul­tural character. But its growth and consolidation over the later decades of the past century has indubitably proved that television's colour is predominantly political. It profoundly changed the context of politics as it helped in building images that cut across literate and illiterate masses to work as a political cata­lyst. Thus television became a weapon of the modem-day hegemonies. The rise of CNN and the birth of Al-Jazeera at the international level to the role of Jam TV, Sun Network, Jaya TV and lately the Kairali channel at the local level, all point. to how the new media has evolved as a modem-day combat equip­ment for precision bombing in political warfare.
In our country, the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign signalled a new phase of politics wherein a different relationship was es­tablished between the communication network and the public. Thus the Hindutva campaigners took with them the television as the main crowd puller. One of its spokesmen, Pramod Mahajan defends this without shying away from words such as "sell". "We must realise there has been a major revolution m communication. If we maintain that a good ad campaign can't sell a bad product, conversely people will never purchase a good product if they don't know about it."
The stage was set back in 1987 with the telecast of the Ramayan serial. This was of course a violation of the Nehruvian principle which wanted government institutions (read Doordarshan) to be secular and non-partisan. The weekly broad­cast thus inaugurated a new era not only in television but in politics as well, with the popularity of this serial allowing the ambivalent status of religion to be exploited, thereby sanction­ing Hindu nationalist activities to be conducted in the public sphere. This opportunity was seized by the Bharatiya Janata Party-hardly a significant electoral force when the serial be­gan in January 1987-in establishing itself as a major national party.
The mythological serials were actually successors to pro­-developmental soap operas which started with Hum Log aired in 1984-85. The official proposition of the Ramayan' serial stated that "Ramayan is not only a great epic of Himalayan dimensions, it is also a repository of our human and moral val­ues. The real challenge lies in seeing this immortal epic with the eyes of a modern man and relating its message to the spiritual and emotional needs of our age.  It stressed the importance of the epic's contemporary relevance to the human condition.
This was a contradictory phrase that could underwrite a projection of the present as a timeless condition as well as filter the epic's account of the past according to present-day convenience. With the advent of this mythological serial, a glorified image of national identity emerged in saffron colours, shared beyond and above latter-day di­visions. Thus was a Hindutva herit­age prepared for the modern age. While the Congress failed to capital­ise on this serial's vote-making capac­ity, the BJP cashed in big time.
The secular Nehruvian demand to exclude religion from programming assumed of course the possibility of separating and compartmentalising it from the rest of existing art and cul­ture. Probably, this helped in consoli­dating the communalists' stance. The Ramayan viewership hit the zenith every' week-it jumped from 40 million to 80 million in a few months' time. Rama's story now was firmly entrenched in the public domain. The result was that Hindu myths and ritu­als began to be declared as legitimately belonging to the public arena, invit­ing the participation of one and all in their commemoration and re-enact­ment. On another level, a relationship was established between the televised image of Rama and the religious con­cept of darshan (to see the God). Thus, among other things, the serial was a congregational experience as people acknowledged the importance of watching it even if they could not see the show.
Above all, the viewers could un­derstand the Ramayana as offering a way of talking not just about faith and the epic past, but also about the kind of leadership a society required and , the mode of public engagement appro­priate for its members. This was com­plemented by a clever strategy to sell Hindutva in retail outlets in the form of a range of consumer objects such as the bottled waters of Ganga to wrist­bands and audio cassettes. The Hindutva forces could not have asked for anything more to sow the seeds of their hegemony. That's how politics was reshaped after television in India.

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