Media Power & Indian Politicians’ Communal Drive vs. Secularism

Duel in the crown: India is experiencing growing unrest, often fomented by reactionary Hindus in the Shiv Sena party
Duel in the crown: India is experiencing growing unrest, often fomented by reactionary Hindus in the Shiv Sena party (Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)

by Nilofar Suhrawardy 28 April 2019

Conceptually, the new height achieved by communication, particularly because of the Internet, has added not one but many sub-disciplines to several disciplines. The study of political science can no longer be viewed as complete without including political communication. Similarly, study of diplomacy can no longer be viewed as complete without giving emphasis to diplomatic communication. Globally, applying heterodoxy towards study of political science and other disciplines is thus viewed as pertinent because of great significance assumed by power of media. We need to take a break from the orthodox approach regarding the study of communication as well as the disciplines to which the same is associated with.

Increase in Means & Uses of Communication

Undeniably, with increase in means of communication, there has been an amazing increase in the uses to which the same is being put used to. At one level, the escalation in press releases, media meetings and other such means stand out. These are usually used by leaders to highlight their approach to topical and other issues viewed as important. Their apparent objective is to convince recipients of their approach.

Definitely, various outlets of communication serve as means through which “news” and other information are conveyed to the recipients. Limiting media’s importance to nature of its outlets, including newspapers, televisions and so forth, may be viewed as an orthodox approach. The break from this, that is heterodoxy, demands study of significance assumed by media power. It extends to what information spreads from where, to whom and also how. With recipients having means of communication at their command too, particularly the mobiles, the importance they give to receiving and spreading the information they receive bears its own significance. Secondly, this has added a new dimension to the role that can be and is being played by media. Conceptually, the importance of media is no longer confined to just being a means of communication. Rather, importance assumed by communication in today’s era has added to the power of media. This may be defined as Media Power.

Media Power

The importance of Media Power can be studied diplomatically, politically and at other levels. Elementarily speaking, politicians and other leaders can use media power to accord greater importance to their own images, policies and similar such purposes. Media power can thus serve to advertise and propagate what different politicians and their governments as well as parties desire to promote. The role played by media power, in this context, is dependent on how much importance the recipients tend to give to whatever is promoted by various politicians. The recipients are now, because of Internet, spread across the world. Information is, in most cases, immediately conveyed to interested recipients. The word “interested,” implies those who are interested in receiving and also spreading the information.

Media Power & Communalism

In India, during current parliamentary elections (2019), power of communication has been put to use by some extremist elements to create disturbances, communal tension and also target minorities on sensitive issues. Before elaborating on this, it may be pointed out, constitutionally, India is a secular country, with each individual having the right and freedom to practice his religion. However, there are still are a few extremist elements who tend to abuse religion by targeting weaker communities in the name of religion and other social differences.

One of these is Ayodhya-issue, over construction of a temple at a disputed site, where there was a mosque once. The mosque was demolished by extremists on December 6, 1992.

Extremist leaders put their communication skills to utmost possible use late last year (2018) regarding their determination to build a temple at the disputed site. Legally, the site shall remain disputed till a decision is taken by the country’s apex court. Now, common people have begun saying that hype over this dispute was raised primarily for electoral gains. Communal drive to defeat Indian secularism over Ayodhya-issue may be regarded as having failed. Clearly, if only communal elements’ view over Ayodhya is given importance, false impression may be created. Heterodoxy, applying a new approach, by linking common people’s attitude towards their understanding of what is communicated to them conveys the real picture.

Yes, there was a phase when there prevailed the risk of entire nation being rocked by communal riots. Communalism spread over Ayodhya-issue following demolition of the mosque was one such phase. During those days, that is in late 1980s, media power had not reached the heights which it has in the present period. Internet had not entered India. People had access to only one government controlled television channel, that too for a few hours daily. Limited means of communication played a considerable part in making most people believe what they were informed about. Telecast of a Hindu epic, religious serial during that phase made several people literally worship actors as gods. In contrast, now, though there is no end of religious serials, people have ceased according them the religious significance that they did earlier.

Communal fervour over Ayodhya issue was provoked by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to win majority religious community’s vote and assume political prominence. When means of communication were limited, that certainly was the phase when religious drive did attract people in turning out in large numbers. Religious-card exercised for political gains did succeed. But as new and more means of communication started dominating people’s life-styles, the religious card exercised for negative factors lost its earlier appeal. Rather than taking at face-value what is being stated by various leaders, now the people exercise their own judgment.

Media Power & Secularism

The fact that “secular” perceptions dominate common people’s attitude is gradually becoming accepted by right-winged, communal elements. Their attempt to use media-power to spread communal poison in the name of religion has decreased considerably. The same strategy is now being used to convince people of their secular image. This clearly suggests that impact of even key leaders’ media-power has limited impact, temporally and in keeping with the degree to which recipients choose to accept its credibility. Communication boom demands that greater importance needs to be given to people’s approach towards what is communicated to them by various leaders.

During 1990s, a percentage could be moved by what several leaders propagated about Ayodhya issue.

Now, the situation is different. They are not influenced as desired by noise made by several leaders over Ayodhya issue.

Communal missiles fired over Ayodhya-issue have now been defused by approach displayed by recipients towards the same. 

Ayodhya-issue & Arab Spring

Comparatively, media’s role in raising hype about Arab Spring spelling the so-called democratic revolution in Arab world may be briefly considered. Clearly, if Arab people’s understanding was given greater importance from the beginning, the question of many chasing a mirage, labelled as Arab Spring would not have risen.  This demands analysis of Media Power in spreading “news” or hype about democratic revolutions in several countries, labelled as Arab Spring. Had western media not propagated this, in all probability, greater part of world would not have become aware about the so-called Arab Spring. Equally significant is the hard reality that initially what was propagated about Arab Spring was believed by most of the world.

Media power, thus served as a diplomatic tool to convince the rest of the world about the so-called democratic nature of Arab Spring, that is spread manufactured news about Arab Spring. The tool’s reach, however, had its limitation. News about crises and chaos in Arab countries affected by the so-called Arab Spring led the same be described as Arab Winter. This implies that real news about Arab Winter has defeated the impact initially created about Arab Spring.

Real news is often ignored when media gives too much importance to certain aspects of any issue. Certainly, demolition of mosque and subsequent riots reflect a degree of communal venom. But this was presented as if the entire Indian Hindu society was indulging in communalism. Not even ten percent of Hindu population participated in demolition and subsequent riots. Similarly, the words Arab Springs suggest as if all Arabs and Arab countries have been affected by it. This is totally incorrect. Clearly, what is given importance by media may not necessarily be given the same importance by recipients.

Recipients’ power of communication and understanding of real news contributes to negating impact of manufactured news.

Hype can certainly been raised by manufactured news, whether Ayodhya-issue, Arab Spring, but bubbles raised by the same also burst as soon as real picture surfaces.

Dependency on what is propagated by politicians through media and other means of communication may lead to spread of manufactured news. Herein is significance of adopting a new approach, that is studying media-power from angle of targeted recipients.

This demands analysis of impact of news upon recipients. When recipients of any piece of information choose to understand it from their angle, they play an important role in defeating the primary purpose of news-makers responsible for manufacturing news and propagating it. News about Arab Spring was largely manufactured. The same may be said about communal politicking, particularly over Ayodhya-issue, in India. 

Media & Recipients

True, each and every Indian is not totally secular. Though communal attitude still prevails, the majority are not willing to easily step onto the path of communal frenzy, aggression, violence and so forth. Yet, fear still prevails about possibility of Ayodhya-issue leading to communal tension. It doesn’t take long for any “news” about Ayodhya to hit headlines. During phase of parliamentary elections (2019), attempts have been made by right-winged extremists to add as some much communal fire to the issue as possible. But let us also accept the fact that these elements do not represent even a significant percentage of Indian society. If they did, their attempts to communalize and also polarize the Indian society along religious lines would not have had limited impact. Around 30 years have passed since this religious issue has provoked nation-wide riots. But fear prevails that it may again. In all probability, such fear is likely to remain confined to discussions, debates and media. In the opinion of the majority, Ayodhya-news at present is nothing else but another electoral strategy, without any political and/or religious legitimacy.

Even illiterate, poor public seems wise enough to understand the electoral importance given to Ayodhya-issue and probably not be taken for a ride by its communal propagators. Undeniably, there still prevails fear about the risk of Ayodhya-issue leading to communal tension. This is further compounded when media goes overboard in according coverage to extremist elements’ stand on Ayodhya issue and raising speculations about communal tension in the air. It is time, perhaps, that serious attention is paid to analyzing the fear-phobia linked with Ayodhya-issue provoking communal tension.  In essence, this only aids extremist elements trying to add communal fire to the same. Greater attention needs to be paid to common people’s approach towards the same.

Conclusion

Hype raised about Ayodhya-issue, ahead of 2019 parliamentary elections added greater significance to communication-oriented analysis of this issue. It also signals the importance of media power in 2019, compared to what it was in 1992 and earlier. Undeniably, media coverage has assumed a new importance for politicians and their rivals at all levels. At one level, it brought them into limelight on ground they presumed to be advantageous for themselves. Receiving substantial media coverage amounts to, in their opinion, a great political standing. There is, however, no guarantee that media fervour over any issue may turn the political tide in favour of politicians and/or parties responsible for initiating “news” over the same. Interestingly, irrespective of whether the issues the politicians focus upon have much appeal for people or not, there prevails the trend for them to weigh their importance by the coverage the same are accorded by media. Of course, this impression among politicians linked with saffron brigade about Ayodhya and its religious symbols was strongly visible in the latter part of 2018. Certainly, media did not refrain from according coverage to this issue. This may be regarded as as one of those ever-topical and also an old controversial issue that is expected to arouse interest among the people. Thus, when media choose to give importance to any issue, the decision is normally based on the level of attraction it will have for various classes of people, including politicians and the common people.

With respect to Ayodhya-issue, prospects of “news” linked with it being sidelined by any section of media may be assumed to be practically non-existent. After all, nowadays (2019), a key aim of each wing of media is to remain in circulation and also gain commercial advantage. Ignoring or sidelining issues that may arouse interest of people and be regarded as important for key leaders, parties as well as for others is least likely to be given much consideration by any section of media. Increasing competition in the media world, leading to a tight race, cannot be ignored. Nor can the importance of various wings of media as important business centres and/or ventures. Thus, the fear of being left behind in the race and losing business are given serious consideration by papers, channels and other media sections. A priority of each is not to be outdone by its rivals in this tight race.

Importance of media power cannot be ignored from any angle. Yet, gaining substantial media coverage with photographs, even with headlines on first page, cannot be measured as success at other levels, particularly in India. Coverage with videos and live-recordings in television-news as well as special programs also cannot be presumed to add much to the same success. The hard reality of rivals, critics and others criticizing the same moves cannot be ignored. These too are paid some attention by the people in general. With respect to Ayodhya-issue, its political importance cannot be assumed to be same in rest of India as it is in Hindi belt. This also implies that playing the Ayodhya-card with eyes set on gaining political victory does not and cannot guarantee total success.

The point is simple and clear – voices of recipients, people at large cannot be guided by what suits “leaders” and/or those glorified by media. As indicated earlier, communication boom has contributed to tremendous increase in recipients’ ability to comprehend and judge various leaders’ motives from their own angle. Possibility of the latter blinding the recipients with only their vision has diminished significantly.

Overall, it was communication boom that played a major part in bursting the communal frenzy carried by the Ayodhya-issue. Thanks to communication boom, the same rhetoric –resting on manufactured news that had once provoked mosque’s demolition and incited the nation to a riotous stage- is now reduced literally to the level of rhetoric. As the media-boom enhanced recipients’ access to information related to “news” or “information” the possibility of their being blinded by what was fed to them by a single or limited source of communication decreased substantially. Communication boom burst the communal frenzy carried by what was presumed to be Ayodhya-related communal bomb. The diminution in the “electoral” importance of the Ayodhya-issue itself for the BJP rested on the refusal of recipients to be blinded by the same. What was a platform to step onto the political stage – the Ayodhya issue – lost its earlier value. Not because the masses became any less religious, but because they refused to be eluded by pretensions projected by promoters of the Ayodhya-issue.

Media that is purchasable can represent stand only of a particular section, the buyer. It cannot be assumed to hold any strength if people and/or recipients choose to differ with it. When media bigwigs and leaders remain guided by the notion that by harping on fear-psychosis with media-support, they can succeed, the two are living in glass houses built only on their illusions. This is the media age, when media power accessible to people can defeat and/kill hype raised by even key leaders and/or countries. In India, if the majority did not believe in secularism, they may have allowed themselves to follow communal hype promoted by extremist elements. But their secularism and media power accessible to them has not allowed communalism to succeed.  

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