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Indian Snapshot

In the ten years since I last travelled so widely, India has been transformed, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Mar 05, 2006 02:15 IST

For the last couple of months, I have spent very little time in Delhi or, for that matter, in Bombay. A succession of conferences, engagements and the shooting schedule for a new television programme have kept me on the road. I have visited parts of south India I had not seen for a decade; have driven through chunks of western India; spent much of the last week in north Bengal; and travelled through cities and small towns that have changed dramatically over the last ten or fifteen years.

Admittedly, my approach is that of the standard journalistic paratrooper who lands in a new place without bothering to learn the background to the situations he encounters and then moves on without fully understanding the people he has met. And yes, the vast majority of those I met were middle class or very nearly middle-class — I didn’t meet any landless labourers or poor farmers.

But, from my perspective, despite these obvious shortcomings, the experience was valuable because it got me out of Delhi and its pre-occupations. And it afforded me an opportunity to listen to people elsewhere in India.

In the ten years since I last travelled so widely, India has been transformed. Integral to this transformation has been the growth of Big Media. A decade ago, you relied on the local paper in each town (The Deccan Herald in Bangalore, The Telegraph in Calcutta, The Tribune in Chandigarh etc) to judge popular sentiment. Now, while the local papers still survive, they are being increasingly challenged by new editions of the national dailies.

Then, there are the TV channels. We live in an era when the news channels dictate the immediate responses of the middle classes (and the political elite). A case in point is the way in which educated Indians reacted to the verdict in the Jessica Lall murder case. When Manu Sharma and Vikas Yadav murdered Jessica seven years ago, it was essentially a Delhi story. But when a court let them walk a fortnight ago, all of middle class India was outraged. It was the news channels that took the case national.

But I wondered if the public mood outside of Delhi mirrored the pre-occupations of the nation’s capital. Had Big Media succeeded in forging a national consensus? Or were there trends bubbling under the surface that we had missed?

Here, for what it is worth, is a snapshot of the middle class India I encountered on my travels.

* The first and most obvious change I noticed was that politics obsesses people much less than it used to. A decade ago, when people found out I was a journalist, they wanted to know about the government. What was the Prime Minister like? How stable was his ministry? Or, they would want to discuss the latest political scandal.

The big change, this time around, was that few people wanted to talk about politics. There was widespread, if muted, approval of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi’s aura has yet to fade. But nobody seemed particularly interested in either of them. Nobody asked the great Indian political question of the last two decades: “Will the government last?”

When political issues were discussed, they tended to be local (I was in small-town Karnataka when the state government fell) and nobody cared about national political scandals. A decade ago, I was always asked about hawala, Bofors, corruption etc. Even a few years ago, Tehelka would crop up. But this time nobody asked about Quattrochhi or Natwar Singh or, even, cash-for-questions.

The only scandal that ever cropped up in the conversation concerned the Amar Singh tapes. And even then, all people wanted to know was: who were the actresses involved? And were the conversations really naughty? When I responded that I had heard the tapes and that there was nothing remotely salacious in Amar Singh’s conversations, they immediately lost interest.

* Logic suggests that if people have tired of politics, they should care about economics. But in the run-up to the Budget, not one person — not even a businessman in some aircraft cabin — asked about the Budget, before proceeding to favour me with his own thoughts. Once upon a time, this was the Big Subject. Flying back to Delhi, a day after this Budget, I began to wonder if all of us in the media had got the public mood badly wrong with our back-to-back TV coverage and excessive newspaper focus on the concessions offered to the ice-cream sector.

My guess is that Indians don’t really give a damn about the Budget any longer — unless there are huge increases in taxation. And that we in the media should rethink our outdated obsession with Budget news.

* It is a truism within Big Media to say that the people of India want peace with Pakistan. My sense, however, was that while nobody wants another war, outside of Delhi and parts of the Punjab perhaps there was no great warmth towards Pakistan. Most of India is young, does not care about Partition and sees Pakistan as just another foreign country — and a hostile one at that.

When peace with Pakistan came up, every single person I met was clear: there could only be peace on our terms. And this meant not giving up an inch of Kashmir. Nor was there any support for the idea of more autonomy for Kashmir.

So, let us treat all this liberal rhetoric about how Indians long for peace with scepticism. Our idea of peace is: Pakistan should shut up and behave itself or we will retaliate.

It is not a public mood that will lead to any lasting settlement of this long-running conflict. And I think that the challenge before politicians is to shift the consensus. Big Media has tried. And I think it has failed.

* The general view in Delhi is that the BJP is floundering, that it is a party without an issue. Judging by my travels, this view could be seriously mistaken.

There is a massive Hindu backlash building up. The public mood reminded me of the late 1980s, when such issues as Shah Bano and The Satanic Verses so upset moderate Hindus that they turned against Congress-style secularism.

The provocation, this time around, is the attitude of the Muslim political leadership to foreign Islamic issues. No Hindu I met thought it was right for a Danish paper to carry cartoons of the Prophet. But why, they all asked, did Indians Muslims have to get so agitated? What did it have to do with us? Why should a minister in the UP government announce a bounty on the head of the Danish cartoonist? Why should Indian Muslims demand the recall of the Danish ambassador?

I have written about the shameful cop-out by liberal Muslims over these issues before so I will not labour the point. But the Hindu backlash is a perfect issue waiting for a BJP initiative. This time around, the BJP need not focus on how Indian secularism makes Hindus second-class citizens in their own country. (Nobody buys that line any longer.) All it needs to do is to portray Indian Muslims as unreasonable fanatics obsessed with global Muslim issues and argue that they subscribe to some international pan-Islamic identity that could easily conflict with Indian nationalism.

My feeling is that if liberal Muslims continue to react as pathetically as they have over the last few months and if liberal Hindus do not make it clear that genuine secularism means that we fight all kinds of fanaticism — both Hindu and Muslim — a new generation of BJP leaders will ride this backlash to return to power. By ignoring the Hindu sentiment, Big Media is making a big mistake.

* So, finally, how powerful is the influence of Big Media? If you treat the national media as a force for homogenisation, then there is no doubt that they have enormous influence. I found fewer regional variations in sentiment than a decade or so ago. Even the reach of the media is astonishing: who would have heard about the Amar Singh tapes fifteen years ago?

But the old divide between the Delhi-Bombay mindset and the rest of India remains. Much of what Big Media believes (on the Budget, on relations with Pakistan, on the future of the BJP etc) seems to me to be out of step with the public mood that I encountered on my travels.

For instance, this is the age of the TV sting. But while the original Tehelka stings (on defence purchases and cricket fixing) got the country talking, the new stings are viewed as TV reality shows — as paler versions of the drama on Sa Re Ga Ma. People may watch them. But they don’t care very much. And each sting is quickly forgotten.

And as for all the little issues and scoops that we in the Delhi media care so much about (did Natwar Singh’s son go to Iraq, does Quattrochhi have access to his back accounts, do ministers listen to the PMO? etc), no matter how valid and important they are as news stories — and it is not my intention to play down their significance — the truth is that they have lost their resonance with Middle India.

Big Media has the influence. But all too often we focus on things that nobody cares about. And miss the ones that matter.

First Published: Mar 05, 2006 01:45 IST