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Turning on the nation

Unfortunately, at the moment, neither the Govt nor the students have shown any inclination for out of the box imaginative solutions that could end the stand-off.

india Updated: May 26, 2006 00:12 IST

Satellite television in India is just over a decade old. Twenty-four hour news networks are the excitable younger siblings of the venerable voices of the broadsheets. Yet today, mutually competitive 24-hour news networks are almost direct participants in public processes: not only do they amplify the news, they also influence it. In spite of its youth, 24-hour news television has acquired the power to transform India’s public life.

I believe, for example, that the Babri masjid would never have been demolished if 24-hour news television had been at hand to cover the activities of the kar sevaks. The unblinking gaze of a vast army of cameras and reporters would have exerted enormous pressure on the then Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, and he would have been forced to act. Surrounded by ceaseless pictures of TV news, Rao could just not have claimed that he “didn’t know” the true intent of the Hindutva activists. In 1990, during Mandal-I, when student leader Rajiv Goswami attempted to immolate himself, the moral advantage suddenly swung to the upper caste anti-quota protests. But imagine the even greater power of that image (which might have endured for generations to come) if a burning, screaming Goswami had been captured on prime time news and played again and again, rather than just remained frozen on a dull newspaper front page.

The television picture and sound bite has been one of the most dramatic political developments in the last 16 years. Rao and VP Singh were very lucky. Rao could sleepwalk through the Babri demolition and VP Singh could emerge as the messiah of the backwards because they weren’t subjected to the daily intense scrutiny of the TV camera and mike. HRD Minister Arjun Singh and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, alas, have no place to hide. The agitation of the doctors at the All India Insitute of Medical Sciences in Delhi has acquired the status of a ‘national movement’ largely because of television coverage. The image of a Mumbai policeman wielding his lathi on young doctors -- still a noble profession that lies at the heart of middle-class aspirations -- transmitted instantaneously to millions of home, has become a symbol of a brutal system.

Kargil was India’s first television war. Gujarat was India’s first television riot. Agra was the first television diplomatic summit and Kandahar was the first television hijack. And now, the anti-reservation protests have become India’s first multimedia public protest. It’s not just the TV cameras; there are also SMSes and chain emails circulated to show solidarity. Citizen groups have organised media events. There are blog sites, interactive radio shows, not to mention the Rang De Basanti effect that made the candle-light vigil and march to India Gate the most visible, almost cinematic method of protest against the establishment. The Jessica Lall murder case verdict was an important example of how television news worked for the cause of the underdog and at least spurred a debate on the criminal justice system.

Yet, while in the Jessica Lall case, there was a clear victim and a clear cause, namely that of bringing criminals to justice, the issue of reservations is not so easy to capture on camera. When an inordinately powerful medium like television turns its eye on the class and caste divide, it’s crucial not to be partisan. So while television has elevated the anti-reservation protest to national prominence and maybe even set off the copycat protests in other cities, television so far has perhaps played up the emotion rather than calming the atmosphere with reasoned arguments. For every practitioner of television, the moment of truth dawns when you ask yourself the question, where does the cut-throat competition of TRPs end and social responsibility begin?

The reservation debate, perhaps courtesy television, has become far too surcharged. Now that the UPA Coordination Committee has decided to bring in a Bill to implement the 27 per cent OBC quota from next year, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. Who, at the end of the day, are the politicians who have been at the forefront of reservations? HRD Minister Arjun Singh is, for all intents and purposes, at the end of his political career. He came third the last time he contested from the Satna Lok Sabha seat and is at the moment totally unelectable. Being projected as the new flagbearer of OBC politics is his last shot at political relevance. The fact though is that Singh has ceased to have any stake in the future of India: in his cynical calculations, protesting medical students are not potential resources for India in the 21st century. They are merely electorally irrelevant upper castes whose votes he does not need, nor is the middle-class a constituency he wants to cultivate.

Who is the other politician at the forefront of the demand for reservations? Udit Raj, of the Indian Justice Party. What is Udit Raj’s vision for India? Udit Raj is a marginal politician who has no larger agenda beyond advancing his own sectional interests. The PMK is another party vociferously taking up the reservations cause. Yet the PMK is a minuscule presence in the Lok Sabha and championing of the reservations cause is only meant to consolidate its base among its backward Vaniyar constituency in Tamil Nadu. As for the original faces of the pro-reservation movement -- the Lalus, the Mulayams, the Mayawatis -- these are politicians who have already won the battle in Mandal-I and, therefore, feel no necessity to enter into another reasoned public debate. As for the official national party positions -- be it the Congress, the BJP or the Left -- no one wants to be seen as ‘offending’ the interests of the largest social group in the country.

Perhaps Manmohan Singh alone, given his own middle-class constituency, has been trying to achieve the much-needed nuanced position on the reservation debate by refusing to make any statement that can be construed as partisan either by one or the other side. His silence has been misread as weakness but in fact, Mandal-II is exactly the right time to break free of the imprisoning labels such as ‘casteist’, ‘elitist’, ‘anti-merit’ or ‘pro-social justice’. This is the time to aggressively pursue the idea of an equitable society that also rewards excellence. It is also the time to view India’s young as a group crying out for innovative solutions from the State so that all their ambitions can be accommodated.

Social scientists have already come up with innovative thinking. Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande, for example, have created a 80.20 weightage scheme of marks for student admissions. Abolish reservations, they say, just award marks to student for social disability, be they disabilities of poverty, gender or region. JNU Professor Purushottam Aggarwal has created an index of social disadvantage for all students. Dalitbahujan scholar Kancha Ilaiah has come up with ways to create mass English language primary schools in neighbourhoods.

Unfortunately, at the moment, neither the government nor the students have shown any inclination for out of the box imaginative solutions that could end the stand-off. The shades of grey that need to be focused upon in the reservation debate have been lost, replaced by shrill, high-pitched voices on both sides, designed to raise a lot of heat and dust but provide very little illumination. In a sense, television -- a medium that often prefers to reduce the most complex of arguments to 15-second sound bites -- has become the perfect arena in which the final act of the reservation battle is being played out. But for television, the doctors would perhaps never have got a chance to get their voices heard in the corridors of power. But to expect television to play God in this instance is also asking for too much.

The writer is Editor-in-Chief, CNN-IBN sardesai.rajdeep@gmail.com