Varun Gandhi’s got out of jail, and the BJP has made some happy sounds at this, but the party has given all credit for making an ‘icon’ of him to the media. BJP spokesperson Balbir Punj said the idea of Varun as icon was a media creation. Perhaps he is right.
The hoopla that surrounds outrageous statements and acts by characters out to shock doubtless plays a part in making stars of them. Take Rakhi Sawant, for example. She’s made a career of it, just as Varun is making his. Pramod Muthalik, another of their ilk, has become a star in the Hindutva firmament thanks almost entirely to the media attention he got after the attack on Amnesia pub in Mangalore.
Saggere Ramaswamy, a photojournalist who runs an agency called Karnataka Photo News, recalls that Muthalik had called a press conference at the Bangalore press club a little over two years ago. “Hardly five reporters and photographers showed up,” he says. “Now, if he calls a press conference, everyone will run.” He and his photographers are the people the local lumpens call before going to attack places. “Without the visuals, these things become small incidents, small news,” he says. “That’s why the Ram Sene called photographers and TV crews before attacking the pub.”
The Sene thanks the media for the support it has got. The outfit’s Karnataka state convener Arun Puttila said the Sene expanded to seven new states after the pub attack. “There has been a lot of expansion due to the media,” he says. Muthalik had thanked the media for the coverage, he adds.
Karnataka’s BJP Home Minister, the very right-wing Dr VS Acharya, says, “Small incidents that would not be heard of are now big news.” It seems to bother him, but he’s convinced it won’t do his party harm. “Similar things were written about Modi’s Gujarat, but he won three times,” he says. Noted Kannada writer UR Ananthamurthy had called him a ‘rabid dog’, Dr Acharya said, “so I refused to share a platform with him...we are not at the mercy of these judges, we are answerable to the people.”
Ananthamurthy himself says he has stopped speaking about the right-wing extremists. He is worried “not merely about what they are doing, but by the kind of publicity they are getting, which leads not to a curbing of these forces but to their rise.” He says he is “so totally opposed to them that I don’t even comment on them”.
That is an option for him, but it is not an option for most newspapers and TV channels. If their rivals run the news, papers and channels have little choice but to follow suit. Everyone follows everyone else in the rush to not miss a piece of news, with sometimes disastrous and sometimes hilarious consequences.
Last year, on June 30, the following news item appeared in some form in most newspapers:
“An 88-year-old Nazi war criminal identified as Johann Bach was airlifted to Berlin after he was tracked down to the Goa-Karnataka border by German and Indian intelligence agencies on the basis of information provided by an Israeli group involved in the search for war criminals ... Efforts to nab the alleged war criminal narrowed down recently when he put up an antique 18th Century piano up for sale through newspaper advertisements in Goa.”
It emerged subsequently that the whole thing was a joke. There was no geriatric Nazi Bach running around Goa with an antique piano slung across his back.
If a white man claiming to be an Israeli spy had appeared before cameras, though, it might have made ‘breaking news’ for a while.