Has anyone noticed how much media coverage RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has been hogging since Narendra Modi came to power? The BJP has been in government before but, if my memory serves right, the RSS never got this level of news exposure in the past.
Even without counting that notorious one-hour live DD telecast of Bhagwat's Vijaya Dashmi address to his cadres last October, it has been unprecedented.
Just look at the everyday media coverage of his speeches -- most of it front page and topped by earnest commentaries plus noisy TV debates.
Any gem that comes out of his mouth (and Bhagwat seems to suffer from the same level of verbal diarrhoea that the BJP used to complain Indira Gandhi suffered from) is faithfully reported.
So, by now we know almost by heart his mostly irrational and frequently illiterate views on Indian (sorry, Hindu Rashtra) society. And his crackpot theories of nationhood and cultural identity, not to mention a grasp of Indian social realities so slender that he thinks rapes don't happen in what he calls "Bharat" (rural India) but only in "India" (urban India) blighted by western values. Even in cloud cuckoo land you will struggle to hear such rubbish.
The funny thing is that the media believes that by reporting his tasteless and ignorant remarks it is exposing and challenging his views. But the fact is that it is Bhagwat who is having the last laugh. He spouts any old nonsense, and there he is on the front page with Edit and Op-Edit writers deconstructing his "thoughts".
What the media doesn't get is that it is falling into a trap.
It is a time-tested tactic of secret/extremist organisations to provoke and create controversy with the aim of generating headlines that would keep them in the news.
And Bhagwat's actions are no different. His provocative interventions are carefully calculated to get airing for his views which, when repeated again and again in the media even for the purpose of attacking them, become part of the mainstream discourse.
Consider this: six months ago when he claimed that all Indians were Hindus it sounded like a shocking statement. But since then it has been talked about so much that these days it barely causes an eyebrow to move.
Bhagwat doesn't care how his utterances are received so long as they are noticed. Any publicity — even a bad one — is better than no publicity. There is an Urdu couplet Badnaam bhi honge to kya naam na hoga (never mind getting a bad name; at least it gets talked about). And that about sums up the RSS strategy. It is in line with the tendency of all such organisations: they crave attention, and what Margaret Thatcher described as the "Oxygen of publicity", their staple survival diet.
At the height of the IRA terror, the UK government tried to cut off supply of such "oxygen" by banning the BBC from even using its leader Gerry Adams' voice. It was, of course, an extreme response and was rightly ridiculed.
Censorship doesn't work. Apart from being hugely undemocratic it is counterproductive as it gives those thus targeted an aura of martyrdom and victimhood which in turn makes people more curious about them.
Above all, it denies people their legitimate right to information. Reporting the likes of Bhagwat and Sakshi Maharaj is also important in that it gives us a glimpse of their thinking and shape our response to their activities.
But the alternative is not indiscriminate dissemination of any old thing that Bhagwat and his attention-seeking Parivar bedfellows choose to say, no matter how toxic or odious.
Why must every pronouncement on ghar wapsi be reported until there is a new development? Who cares how many children Bhagwat wants a Hindu woman to have? How many times are we going to read his views on Hindu Rashtra or his definition of Hindutva? Or his insistence on defining all Indians as Hindus?
And must everything he says be taken so seriously?
Take the excitement — again predictably front page, prime-time TV — over his latest intervention: his tasteless comment about Mother Teresa. Much more critical things have been said and written about her by better polemicists and more knowledgeable people than Bhagwat. So, what’s new? Does it really matter what he thinks of her? By amplifying his remarks the media is not so much exposing his prejudices as playing into them.
The media’s "Bhagwat Problem" is, in fact, part of a bigger malaise – the fact that news selection is far too frequently made not so much on whether it has great news value but who is the source. "Who says what" drives a lot of the editorial judgment.
So, for example, anything that Amartya Sen says is news. Never mind if he has said the same thing umpteen times before. But on the same day, something more important by a less sexy figure would go unnoticed.
Similarly, the antics of the lunatic fringe whether Hindu or Muslim are automatically "in" while sensible moderate voices are ignored. Among political figures, the most sought after by the media are those who have a nuisance value—the likes of Uma Bharati and Digvijaya Singh.
True, sensationalism is the nature of the beast called media. Newspapers and broadcasters worldwide are guilty of it, but it is much more marked in India. In Britain,sensationalism is confined largely to tabloids, and rants like those of Bhagwat's will rarely make to the front pages of The Times, The Guardian or The Daily Telegraph.
There is a big debate going on in the West over the danger of amplifying threatening voices and the media is under growing pressure to stop boosting their messages. In India, though, it is not only business as usual but is thriving.
It is telling that at the time of the infamous DD telecast of Bhagwat's speech critics were exercised not so much over the fact that it had zero news value as that DD was arm-twisted into doing it. The fact is that several private channels also carried the full speech live; and even those, who didn't, showed large chunks from it.
So, OK, DD did it under sarkari pressure but what about them? What were they up to? Were they also cosying up to the power behind the Modi throne?
The bottom-line, as one editor candidly points out, is that it is all about generating controversy and driving up ratings.
"It is a guaranteed button pusher. One side will outrage, the other will defend, and the media is happy. Polarisation works for media as well as it does for the BJP."
So, more media power to the Bhagwat brigade then?
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Updated Date: Mar 03, 2015 21:16:46 IST