Daijiworld Media Network
New Delhi, Mar 24: About seven years ago, the entire nation had risen up against the then UPA government in response to the clarion call given by social reformer Anna Hazare over the issue of corruption and demand for Jan Lokpal. India went through an unprecendented show of solidarity against the menace of corruption as lacs of people gathered at Delhi's Ram Lila grounds to raise their voice in unison.
Today, Anna Hazare is at the same historic Ram Lila grounds in Delhi, on a hunger strike for the same demand of Jan Lokpal to investigate corruption cases. The difference - this time it is against the BJP-led NDA government.
There is another glaring difference, and that is the utter indifference shown by national news channels to Hazare's protest. Back in 2011, the entire nation had sat glued to television screens as lacs of people led by Hazare and his coterie of then supporters under the name of civil society - Arvind Kejriwal, the present CM of Delhi, Kiran Bedi, who later joined the BJP and is now the lieutenant governor of Puducherry, lawyer Prashant Bhushan and others - gathered at the Ram Lila grounds for days together.
The India Against Corruption movement, as it was called, captured the imagination of millions and was seen as a dawn of a new era of upright Indians, of an India that would take the path of righteousness and end corruption in public and private life. The mass protest was especially significant as it came at time when the then UPA government was dogged by massive corruption scams like the 2G Spectrum, the Commonweath Games and others. It was in fact seen as a major game-changer that catapulted the then chief minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi to national politics and ultimately led to his emergence as the Prime Minister.
News channels made the most of it, with prime time shows orchestrated to derive the maximum TRPs. A report by Wall Street Journal stated that in the two weeks that surrounded Hazare's fast, the viewership of news channels skyrocketed, with around 2.5 million more people a week turning to news channels than in earlier weeks. TV channels showed live images and updates of every minute of Hazare's hunger strike, from the beginning to the point where he finally broke his fast. Many had in fact pointed out that the media had gone 'overboard' with their coverage, some even saying that the neutrality of the media had been compromised in the way some of the news channels took sides.
Cut to 2018. The response of the media is blatantly inadequate. Apart from a passing mention of the protest among the headlines and some coverage among the several top stories for the day, the indefinite strike has hardly created a ripple on television. The reasons could be manifold - perhaps a certain belief that the protest would again end in no action from the government on implementation of the Lokpal bill, perhaps the whole idea of hunger strike against corruption has lost its steam, and therefore not worth the effort of coverage, or the open secret that some channels these days are more pro-government than pro-people. Channels like Times Now, Zee News and Arnab Goswami's Republic TV have often been criticised for being the 'mouthpiece' of the ruling BJP government. None of the mainstream news channels carried Hazare's strike in the prime time news. While Rajya Sabha polls and comeback of disqualified AAP MLAs grabbed headlines, there was not even a mention of Hazare's fast. No shouting constests in the name of debate, no opinions on corruption, not even a report. It is as if corruption is a non-existent issue in BJP-ruled India. BJP leader Sudhanshu Mittal has said that unlike the then UPA government, the present BJP government is 'completely clean', and hence the lukewarm response to the agitation.
Ironically, Hazare finds himself in a catch-22 situation today with no political outift willing to back him on the Lokpal bill. The Congress will not support him as it was against the UPA that Hazare had launched his 2011 movement, and the BJP won't either as it sits in the government. Kejriwal who was a staunch supporter of the movement then broke away to form his Aam Aadmi Party, and Hazare has himself made it clear that he does not want AAP's support. Some on Twitter have wondered if it is the CPI(M) sponsoring the agitation this time.
The sparse coverage however has not gone totally unnoticed. While the Twitterati is calling out the media on it, Tehseen Poonawalla, brother of Maharashtra Congress secretary Shehzad Poonawalla, sees a 'conspiracy'. He tweeted, "Well #AnnaHazare is only doing what he is at Ramlila Maidan coz he has been instructed by the govt to do so. Hope the opposition does not fall for this stunt! Game is: have a 'flop protest' & the govt will claim ..NO PUBLIC Support coz of the PMs credibility . (sic)"
One wonders if Poonawalla's claim is true given Anna Hazare's allegation that the government deliberately cancelled trains that were to carry protestors to Delhi. Sources in the Congress have claimed that the crowd mobilisation in the 2011 agitation was done by the RSS and the BJP, which will not happen this time. Ashutosh, spokesperson of the AAP, pointed out in an opinion piece to a website: "Now, the country is led by Modi, an extremely powerful and ruthless leader. He does not know how to surrender. There is public disenchantment with his government but his control over the media, particularly TV channels, is absolute. Seven years ago, it was the TV channels that made Anna Hazare the crusader against corruption and a ‘mahatma‘." He goes on to say that Anna Hazare was only a 'face' of the movement, while the actual command was with Kejriwal and his team. Their absence this time has had a major impact in the way the protest has turned into little more than a whimper.
It is a fact media support to the 2011 agitation played a vital role in its success. An agitation that is in public interest needs to reach the public, and it is the media that can make or break this reach. Without media support, Anna Hazare's agitation has turned into a run-of-the-mill protest that hardly catches anyone's attention. Whether media's indifference is orchestrated or not is anyone's guess.