Asia Research Institute and Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore
“Other countries have think-tanks, India makes do with prime-time chat shows”
In September 2009 India’s Prime Minister, Army Chief and National Security Advisor launched a coordinated attempt to douse intense television news speculation about alleged Chinese military incursions on the disputed eastern border. All three leaders issued denials after days of intense focus by India’s private TV news networks who had effectively accused the government of hushing up Chinese aggression. Such reports were not restricted to television alone – in fact matters came to a head when the Times of India reported that two border guards had allegedly been injured in a skirmish. Many analysts, however, noted that the general tone of the aggressive media discourse overall was set by what one newspaper editor called “war-mongering TV channels” (Gupta, 2009). Both governments denied the incidents (China Foreign Ministry, 2009) but the story had created such heat that the National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan appeared on a television interview on CNN-IBN (2009) with a dire warning:
I don't know what the reason is why there is so much reporting …but I think this is a national security issue… the more you raise people's concerns, the tensions could rise and we would then be facing a situation of the kind that we wish to avoid [sic].…..It could create a problem of a kind and I have been through [in] [the] 1962 [war]… then of course we didn't [then] have the media of this kind…
What we need to be careful of is that we don't have an unwarranted incident or an accident of some kind, that's what we are trying to avoid. But there's always concern that if this thing goes on like this someone somewhere might lose his cool and something might go wrong.
That this statement came on a television interview was no accident. The government was effectively asking India’s TV networks to tone down. This, at least, was the majority view in Delhi’s news rooms. Television was seen to have largely led the debate; print was seen to have followed. Anecdotal evidence certainly supported this view. Among others, B.V. Rao (2009), a former TV news editor and media columnist, noted that the government was asking the media to “back off” because “this time the frenzy seemed to have spread even to print [from television]”.
Whether the allegations about border incursions were true or not is outside the scope of this essay. Such shadowboxing between the media and the government on tricky issues is part of every democracy and India is no exception. It is pertinent for our purposes though that this was the second time in the year that India’s TV news networks, were accused of side-tracking bilateral relations with another country. When some Indian students were injured in a racist attack Melbourne in May 2009, the story was initially virtually ignored in the national print press. It was first given prominence on Times Now, the Times Group's 24-hour English news channel, which ran an emotional campaign around it. The network made the story its first headline and ran a hard campaign about injured Indian pride. Though only three years old, Times Now is now the most watched English news network in India and its commercial success has been built on an aggressive policy of pursuing stories with a nationalist angle -- especially those involving non-resident Indians; a hard line on security, especially on Pakistan and China; and the notion of a powerful India, an India that is no more a pushover. Television ratings show that its audiences like that tone and this in turn reflects back on its choice and treatment of stories. The Australian racism story fit its template very well. Once it got traction and the Ministry of External Affairs was forced to react, every other media group, television and print, followed suit. This is the nature of the media -- the story had become too big (Wade 2009a, Wade 2009b). The intense focus meant that every attack on an Indian thereafter – even ones that were part of general crime patterns and not racist – were framed through the same lens. Once such reports would have been relegated to the inside pages of newspapers or, at best, would have made it to a box item on the front page. Now, they became part of an ongoing media discourse about a resurgent India that would not take things lying down.
At a time when Indo-Australian relations had just been on the upswing after years of historical mistrust, the story completely upset the trajectory of bilateral relations, with the Indian Foreign Minister, facing middle class anger in television studios, issuing warnings to Australia. The central role of television in this discourse was best summed up in a tongue-in-cheek account published in the Hindustan Times:
Other countries have think-tanks, India makes do with prime-time chat shows...
To media consumers who got initiated into Australian society this past week, that country must seem formidably scary, almost the fastness of Ming of Mongo. There was discussion on a ‘white Australia’ policy that went out of business 30 years ago. Clips of Australian cricketers sledging or arguing with Indian, West Indian and Sri Lankan cricketers were juxtaposed with reportage of attacks on Indian students, as if one were dealing with a nation of all-purpose bigots.
On one television show, an anchor said Australia had been preceded by attacks on Indians in Germany, the United States and Idi Amin’s Uganda and wondered why the world hated Indians. This is a happy universe of nuance-free non sequiturs.
Even so, India’s television -propelled middle class opinion is a clear and present reality. It will shape discourse that will hassle and harangue governments, demand instant action and colourful rhetoric. In some senses, the drama outside the Delhi airport during the IC-814 hijack was a teaser trailer. This is the new India. Now even Kevin Rudd knows that (Malik, 2009).
For our purposes, it is immaterial whether the television coverage was right or wrong, nuanced or simplistic, sensationalist or measured. The point is that both the examples cited above, clearly underlined the centrality of 24-hour private satellite news as a new factor in the Indian political and social matrix. In both cases, the discourse of Indian television had serious consequences for domestic policy imperatives and an impact beyond India’s borders. A detailed study of Indian news television’s impact on foreign policy is still to be written but it is important to reiterate how recent the phenomenon of private TV news is.
This is a country where as late as 1994, a Prime Minister cancelled the launch of a new state TV channel because it promised to show live current affairs programmes. Narasimha Rao’s reasoning couldn’t have been clearer: “We cannot have live broadcasts. It is too dangerous,” he said, while cancelling the launch of DD 3 in October 1994 (Ghose, 2005, pp. 189-90). The fear was that there would be no way of controlling anybody from saying anything against the ruling Congress on live programming. Historically in India, control over television has been central to and constitutive of the state’s self-image—broadcasting’s principal objective was to “display and enact government control” (Rajagopal: 78)—and live television threatened to break down the very edifice on which Indian television had been built. This was seen most starkly in the case of news programming.
Consider this: in 2000, India had 132 TV channels, by 2011 this number had gone up to over 500 in various languages. The first Indian 24-hour news channel only started broadcasting in 1998 but by 2009 more than a hundred channels were broadcasting news in 15 languages and more than 80 were 24-hour news channels in 11 languages. I have detailed the reasons behind the remarkable rise of private Indian satellite television elsewhere but the numbers are a stark illustration of the massive changes in Indian broadcasting. There has been a simultaneous expansion in reach and penetration. In 1992, if you divided India’s population of 846,388, 000 by the total number of television sets in the country, the number of people clustering around a set would have been a little over 26. By 2011, that ratio had come down substantially to just about ten people per television set, despite a substantial increase in the population. In a little over a decade, the total number of Indian television households more than tripled to reach an estimated 120 million. It made India the world’s third largest television market, just behind China and the United States.
Much like India’s “newspaper revolution” (Jeffrey, 2003, p xi) that started in the 1970s, and the “cassette culture” (Manuel, 1993) of the 1980s, the availability of privately produced satellite television has meant that “people discovered new ways to think about themselves and to participate in politics that would have been unthinkable a generation before” (Jeffrey, 2003, p. 1). Operating at the junction of public culture, capitalism and globalisation, satellite news networks have had profound implications for the state, politics, democracy and identity formation. These are the linkages this essay sets out to explore. It focuses, in particular, on the meaning of 24-hour television in the vernacular languages and it argues that the emergence of local television news networks has greatly enhanced and strengthened deliberative Indian democracy. There is no evidence to show that satellite television has benefited Indian democracy if we understand it in the narrow procedural terms defined by the voting process alone. My claim refers to a broader understanding of democracy as a deliberative process involving larger collaborative processes of decision making, identity and interest formation with the media acting as a crucial hinge. Democracy is intimately connected with mechanisms of public discussion and interactive reasoning. Indeed, the new disciplines of social choice theory and public choice theory are connected to ideas of individual values and their impact on decision-making (Sen, 2002). In this context, Amartya Sen has famously shown that no substantial famine has ever occurred in a country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press (Sen, Dreze, 1989). When the audience for news expands, the shape of politics changes.
The first part of this essay uses separate case studies of regional language news television from the states of West Bengal, Maharashtra, Chattisgarh and Punjab to illustrate what happens to politics and society when television emerges as an independent factor. It focuses on the specific ways in which the new medium affected the daily spectacle of Indian politics and how political leaders and parties adapted their daily practises of politics to the 24-hour publicity it provided. We will then move to a brief discussion on the meaning of Indian television in the wider South Asian region.
‘More Impact than in Delhi’: The Meaning of Local News TV
When Network Eighteen launched its Marathi language 24-hour news channel, channel IBN Lokmat in April 2008 it began by setting up 13 bureaus across the west Indian state of Maharashtra and hiring more than a hundred stringers. The channel began its coverage by devoting a half hour daily special to the farmer suicides in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region. This is a chronic issue that since 2005 has only been covered sporadically by the national press which, with few honorable exceptions, failed to build sustained coverage around the crisis (Sainath, 2005). Within hours of the first telecast, Lokmat’s Managing Editor received an angry phone call from an angry Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) on whose constituency the first part of the series had been based on. He wanted the story to be pulled off air and threatened to use his clout with the local cable operators to blank off the new channel from the airwaves. The incident revealed both the potential and the limitations of satellite television. On the positive side of the ledger, the MLA’s phone call was proof that he was worried about viewers in his constituency watching the story and drawing conclusions about his performance. As Lokmat’s Managing Editor explained:
We have done many similar stories on farmer suicides on our English [CNN-IBN] and Hindi [IBN-7] channels but never have I received a phone call from any minister or elected representative. It is like they did not care. But in this case, in the Marathi channel, for the first time, I got a call. The MLA was angry because he knew the people who would vote for him would be watching. I realized that this was the real impact. If you show something to people in the language that they speak then it percolates down to the grassroots and that is why the MLA was worried. It had much more impact there than in Delhi.
This contention ties in with my own observations while covering Parliament proceedings in Delhi. In the late 1990s when private satellite news networks were still a novelty members of Parliament would happily give interviews to national networks like NDTV and Zee. This was partly due to the glamour of the new media but as India’s politicians became more savvy with television a new pecking order emerged. Reporters for national networks like myself found that we were no longer the first choice to give interviews to. MPs discovered that it made more political sense to speak in their own language on their own regional language channel. All through 2004-07 for instance, the Teleugu Desam’s Parliamentary Party Leader Yerran Naidu who began by being the most accessible of politicians for reporters in Delhi gradually became more difficult to get hold of for national channels. Yet, he would make it a special point to step out of Parliament virtually on a daily basis when it was in session to give long interviews on the Telugu ETV network because he knew that his constituents would be watching. He had decided who was important for him. This was about space as well as strategy. According to the Tamil Jaya TV’s Vice President KP Sunil:
For a public figure in a state the most important platform now is the most local cable channel. Earlier they used to come on Jaya TV easily. Now if a murder happens in a district the District Magistrate knows that if he speaks to a national channel he will get 15 seconds of a sound byte, on a regional channel he will get maybe a minute but on a local cable channel he will get half an hour. Localisation translates into power and they have understood this. 
Coming back to the Marathi farmer suicides, Network Eighteen also runs two other national news channels – in English and Hindi – and its Managing Editor also felt that market dynamics made it difficult for his network to run such campaigns on social issues on these ‘national’ language platforms. I have shown elsewhere that in economic terms, the Indian satellite networks are inordinately dependent on weekly ratings, more so than their western counterparts. This is a direct derivative of the peculiar “illegal” origins of satellite broadcasting in India and in a market where more than 70 news channels are competing for advertising the structural economy of television forces many channels to focus on content with the lowest common denominator that will register on television rating panels (Mehta, 2008, pp. 140-193). Given the narrow base of these ratings, cricket and Bollywood have emerged as an easy option to register on them. Both have a pan-Indian appeal cutting across socio-economic and regional categories. News of a farmer suicide in Vidarbha may not interest anybody in Kerala but news of the Indian cricket team interests people in every region of India. This is why when national news editors want to lift the ratings of any show they look towards cricket and Bollywood and these genres increasingly dominate news space. News, as such, is a commercial product packaged to suit commercial targets.
As Sardesai, however, points out, in a local language channel important stories that are cut out of national networks – due to commercial constraints – do find space. This is not because of any special altruistic reason but because on this platform, local stories make imminent commercial sense. Ratings are as important in Marathi television as in the so-called national languages of Hindi and English: IBN Lokmat is competing with Zee and Star’s 24-hour news channels in the language but here in-depth local coverage is a sure way of registering on the ratings.
The economic imperatives of creating a market and sustaining it drive news channels to create a public sphere. The meaning of the message is not static and takes different forms for different people (Thompson, 1995, pp 34-41). The crucial point is that politics, unlike before, has to unfold in an open arena and in the glare of a new visibility that has a life of its own and is often difficult to control. The media’s importance lies not in whether anybody is watching or is getting influenced, but in the assumption of it by political leaders and decision-makers, as Schudson (1995, pp. 22-25) has argued persuasively. It is in this context that television assumes an important role and—regardless of its actual impact on the voting public—becomes central to the political process.
When the Bengali news channel STAR Ananda started operations in June 2005 it announced its launch by instituting daily live public debates between candidates contesting the Kolkata municipal election. These debates marked an important signpost in the political campaigning culture of the city. They were conducted in the city’s open public spaces and took the form of public meetings where sometimes as many as some of 10,000 people turned up as live audiences in addition to regular television viewers. The tapes of that programming make for riveting viewing. They show large public rallies of the kind that are familiar to observers of Indian politics but differ in one crucial aspect: these were joint political events, organised by a television channel and moderated by a STAR Ananda newsman as rival candidates debated their political views while their followers raised lusty slogans (STAR Ananda, n.d).
This was happening in a city which had been ruled by the same political conglomerate, the Left Front, since 1977. The debates unleashed political passions and for the first two weeks, mini-riots broke out during virtually every one of the daily events. Rival political groups attacked each other with swords and sticks. In one instance, petrol bombs were also used. The news anchors were roughed up for daring to ask tough questions and all this happened on live television. The debates created such a problem that the police commissioner of Kolkata called up the channel and asked it to stop, citing the fear of public rioting. As the founding editor of STAR Ananda, who also anchored these debates, explains:
It created such a furore and became such an instant hit … I didn’t even know … that these two warring groups would come with daggers and bombs, and there was one shoot-out incident … The police commissioner personally requested me 25 times ... He said to please withdraw this programme … This is creating hell of a lot of jhamela [problem].
STAR Ananda responded to the commissioner’s suggestion with a public campaign for the strengthening of democratic traditions and debate. The editor went on air with news that the police commissioner wanted the public debates to stop and argued that this was a dangerous precedent for Bengali democracy. The important point here is that this tradition of public television debates was not a Bengali innovation. Hindi news channels like Zee TV and STAR News had run numerous such events in various constituencies during national and state elections across north India in the preceding five years. This is what STAR Ananda emphasised, along with the long Bengali tradition of public culture, adda and political activism that goes back to the Bengal renaissance of the 19th century.
The public appeal to democratic principles and Bengali-ness worked and the political violence ceased within two weeks. Many localities in Kolkata began to invite the channel to hold similar debates between contesting candidates and that single event turned STAR Ananda into a market leader in the Bengali news sphere. Following this success, a year later two more Bengali news channels started from Kolkata in 2006 in the run-up to the West Bengal assembly election. These two, Zee’s 24 Ghanta and Kolkata TV, both followed similar programming formats of public debate and developed these even further.
Bengali television shows how news television feeds off, and into, liberal democratic values, which themselves are rooted in a long heritage of argumentation and debate. In this context, I have argued elsewhere (Mehta, 2008, pp. 230-273) that news channels tap into strong oral traditions and heterodox structures of social communication that Amartya Sen has labelled “the argumentative tradition of India” (Sen, 2005, p. 14). For Sen, these traditions are an important support structure for the sustenance of Indian democracy (Sen, 2005, p. 12). Indian television thrives on programming genres that marry older argumentative traditions with new technology and notions of liberal democracy to create new hybrid forms that strengthen democratic culture. Argumentative television fits into broader cultural patterns but the very nature of the medium is such that they mutate into newer forms when mediated by television. In separate analyses of the uses of video technology for religious purposes in India, John T. Little (1995: 254-283) and Philip Lutgendorf (1995, pp. 217-253) suggest that new electronic presentations are not overwhelming traditional religious performance genres. Instead, a new layer of interpretation is being added to what is likely to remain a vibrant and multi-vocal cultural tradition. Precisely the same thing is happening in the arena of politics with news television’s focus on politics and civic life.
The advent of 24-hour news necessitates a fresh look at what happened to the politics-television equation after the rise of news channels. Twenty-four-hour news introduces the element of permanent publicity and forces politicians to adapt to new forms of electronic mediation. Firstly, 24-hour news makes politicians visible on a daily basis. The kind of high publicity that politicians desire during election campaigns is now thrust upon them on a daily basis. The daily television camera symbolises the scrutiny of public opinion. Even if that public is a “phantom” one, the politician has to behave as if it is always there. The demands of 24-hour news force politicians to be on the campaign trail all the time. Anyone who has followed television reporters on their daily rounds of party offices in Delhi knows that it is often the insatiable drive of news channels to “take the story forward” that induces party spokespersons to “react” to the latest political controversy. Twenty-four-hour news leads to 24-hour politics.
Political Parties, Regional Languages and Television
Satellite networks have taken different meanings in different regions and in different languages. By the 2006 Tamil Nadu assembly election, for instance, it had become so important that the DMK made the free allotment of colour television sets to every family a key plank of its election manifesto. It is a promise the DMK has begun to fulfill since winning back political power. As Maya Ranganathan writes, “not only had the DMK catapulted ‘television’ into a premier position in the electoral discourse but also granted the status of an essential commodity on par with subsidised rice and reservation in jobs … for the first time ever, television viewing moved to be part of the political discourse….” (Ranganathan 2006: 4949).
Similarly, Tamil television is very different from television in say, Chhattisgarh where broadcast journalists encountered a very peculiar kind of censorship during the run-up to the 2003 state election. Every time any of the news channels broadcast a news item that was even mildly critical of then chief minister Ajt Jogi, it was blanked from the air. Chhattisgarh viewers watching that particular broadcast would suddenly find their television sets going blank and the pictures would return only fifteen minutes or so after the offending news story was over. This unannounced censorship would happen only within the territorial boundaries of Chhattisgarh and television viewers in the rest of India did not encounter this problem at all. This was because supporters of the Chief Minister, had set up a state-wide private television network—Akash (Sky) TV—that bought over, or took control of, cable distribution networks across Chhattisgarh and this provided an easy mechanism for controlling the broadcast of national news channels within the state’s borders. The national networks could be turned off each time their product did not suit the ruling establishment. It was an ingenious form of censorship: it wasn’t officially announced, it technically did not come from the state and there was nothing any of the channels could do about it. The uses, or misuses, of Akash Television became an important part of the BJP’s electoral campaign against Jogi in 2003 and within hours of his losing power on December 4, its television studios were taken over by a triumphant crowd of the party’s supporters. Anecdotes like these reveal the complexity and the centrality of news television across India’s regions.
Like the Congress in Chattisgarh, the ruling Akali Dal has been accused of forcibly capturing cable TV operations in Punjab. In August 2007, the Cable Operators Federation of India complained to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting of physical threats and arrests of cable operators in the state. Like Jogi in Chatisgarh, Sukhbir Singh Badal [President, Akali Dal] denied the charges but the parallels were undeniable. Many cable operators in the state were forced to replace the popular Punjab Today channel with the new Akali-friendly channel PTC on their prime frequencies soon after the Akali Dal came to power. As one cable operator from Patiala said after being released from prison on charges of violence, “This is state terror being used against us and the police are being used freely and scores of false cases are being filed.” (Chakraborty, Aug 8, 2007). Congress MPs, now on the back foot, even planned to approach the National Human Rights Commission on the issue and whichever side one chooses to believe in this dispute it is undeniable that across India political parties are taking private television seriously.
In 2008, when the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting decided to investigate the ratings system of the television industry, arguing that it was lop-sided, many argued that the move was rooted in the fact that channels supported by the Congress Party and its allies were not doing well in the existing ratings and therefore not drawing enough advertising (Raman May 12, 2008). As such, the Ministry wanted to change the goalposts. What is interesting is that by 2008 numerous channels were openly owned or aligned with political parties. Doordarshan continued to be a state controlled enterprise. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK has shifted patronage from Sun TV to Kalaignar TV while the AIADMK controls Jaya TV. Makkal TV is considered close to the PMK while ETV has long had close tied with the TDP. In Karnataka, Kasturi TV is identified with JD (S) while the CPI (M) patronizes Kairali TV in Kerala. The Congress has recently backed Jaihind TV in Kerala while Akash Bangla in West Bengal is controlled by the CPI (M) (Raman, 2008). These networks with political patronage co-exist with many other independent ones, all competing for the same markets.
Technology has also created new possibilities like the wonderful all-women’s local news programme ‘Apna Samachar’ [Our Samachar] in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district. Run by two women with a handycam and two cycles, the weekly 45-minute has emerged as a powerful local tool of empowerment and is broadcast weekly at the village haat [market]. Funded by local traders, the programme’s production is also supported by housewives and local students and it is a powerful example of the intoxicating new possibilities of television in India (Kumar, 2008).
Stories from the Field: Indian News in the South Asia Context
What does all this mean for South Asia in particular? Anecdotal evidence indicates that the impact has been quite significant. Three 24-hour news networks operate in Bengali out of Kolkata, and the heads of all three agree that their biggest viewership is in Bangladesh, where television is strictly controlled by the state. For the Bengali TV CEOs, the only concern is that “they haven’t found a way of tapping into Bangladeshi advertising” but the fact remains that Indian Bengali channels have now have huge cultural currency in Bangladesh.
I was in Nepal in 2001, covering the assassination of the royal family for NDTV and within 2 days of the killings, the Nepalese government banned Aaj Tak, the largest Hindi news network from India, because some of its broadcasts questioned the official versions of the assassination. NDTV, the BBC and CNN raised speculative questions about that version as well, but because we were broadcasting in English, they let us alone - it was the Hindi networks that were banned because that was the language the Nepali street understood. Nepal and India have an open border but the relationship has always been an uneasy one and the skeptical reports from Aak Tak and Zee News fed into a history of tenuous fear about an overbearing India. The anger against the reports was such that most Hindi reporters from India were physically roughed up by grief-stricken Nepali mobs and other Indian TV reporters started taking off their channel logos from their microphones so that they couldn’t be identified as Indian. My own camera crew experienced much of this anger and purely as a defence mechanism, every time we were asked where we were from, we began saying, Bangladesh TV.
In Kathmandu that month, Indian reporters, coming from a different political culture, were seen as breaking Nepali conventions about reporting about the royal family. A typical comment that my own crew got a number of times was, “We don’t need you Indians here. Go back.” We were not the only foreign reporters in Kathmandu but we got the sense that people were used to the Western agencies talking about them; Indian reporting, however, was a new experience and had a different connotation. Popular anger at time of public grief became mixed with an older history of what has been seen as Indian insensitivity.
Perhaps the most significant South Asian ramification of the growth of Indian satellite television is for the India-Pakistan relationship. In 2004, when the Pakistan government granted 39 licenses to private broadcasters, many of them made overtures to Indian channels for technical cooperation just as the Indian channels had looked to Western consultants when they themselves had started. When an Indian parliamentary delegation went to Pakistan in 2003, the newly launched Geo TV got a visiting Indian journalist, NDTV’s Rajdeep Sardesai, to anchor its special coverage programming in a joint-production with NDTV. This was uncharted territory and a gesture that symbolized the increasing people-to-people contact between the two countries. Pakistani satellite television was still in a nascent stage but the decision to put an Indian TV journalist on air as a co-anchor was reflective of the respect news teams on both sides of the border regarded each other with. Journalists were forging links that were far ahead of the bilateral relationship. Geo TV was later at the forefront of the pro-democracy movement in Pakistan that finally led to the stepping down of General Musharraf as President. Most Indian and Pakistani channels now have reciprocal agreements wherein they share video footage free of cost and provide visiting television teams from either side with free studio facilities.
During the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, a special broadcast that emerged from this kind of cooperation resulted in a live television audience from both sides of the LOC talking to each other. In an especially poignant moment during this programme, a family from the Indian side actually discovered people in the audience on the Pakistani side, who knew some of their missing relatives in Pakistan and were informed on live television that their relatives had died in the earthquake (We the People, 2005). It was a coincidence but it resulted in the Indian government granting a rare visa to the one surviving child from that family to come to India.
Indian and Pakistani entrepreneurs have long cooperated in matters of commerce, in areas like the sugar industry. But television is different because it is a cultural product and it creates its own social dynamic. Pakistani channels have followed the model set by Indian private channels which got around tough Indian broadcast regulations in the early years by broadcasting into India from foreign soil (Fateh, 2005). Similarly, most Pakistani channels broadcast from Dubai in the early years. Geo TV, for instance, had plans to shift its news production to Dubai during its tense stand-off with General Musharraf’s regime in its last months when it faced the threat of shutdown. But the antagonism between television and the state came later. When the networks started, the then Pakistani government, under a military dictatorship, was largely supportive because it needed Pakistani news channels as a response to Indian television’s powerful cultural influence.
The story of the 2001 Agra summit between then Prime Minister Vajpayee and then President Musharraf sums up how seriously the Pakistani establishment takes Indian private television. This was a summit that was touted as one that one would break the post-Kargil war chill between both countries and herald a breakthrough in bilateral relations. There were still no Pakistani satellite networks and Musharraf landed in India in a blaze of round-the-clock publicity on the new Indian networks. On the second day of the summit, when everything seemed to be going well, General Musharraf met Indian newspaper editors for an off-the-record breakfast meeting. It was off-the-record and the only camera that was allowed in was a Pakistan TV crew, ostensibly for archival purposes. At that meeting, contrary to the atmospherics of that summit, Musharraf reiterated the Pakistani hardline on Kashmir, referring to militants “freedom fighters” and justifying the Kargil war as revenge for Siachen. This was usual diplomacy as long as it remained off-the-record but as soon as the meeting got over the General’s staff decided to leak the PTV recording to NDTV’s Prannoy Roy. The story goes that Prannoy, who was among editors at the breakfast meeting, walked up to Pakistan TV officials as soon it finished and asked if he could get a copy of the tape. They asked him to approach the General who said yes. Roy ran out with the tape to his broadcast centre and the minute it was played on television, the entire dynamic of the summit changed. What was meant to be an off-the-record briefing was now on live television and Indian viewers saw a Pakistani head of state stating a no-compromise position on television in the middle of what was meant to be an ice-breaking summit. From that moment, the Agra summit could only have failed. But it also allowed Pervez Musharraf to project himself as a tough leader of the Pakistani cause for his domestic audience.
We must be careful not to exaggerate the influence of television and the summit failed for a variety of complex reasons but the crucial point is how Musharraf used Indian television to project the Pakistani view. Even Pakistan Television, whose crew had recorded the breakfast meeting, did not have a copy of that recording and had to poach it off NDTV’s broadcasts. When Musharraf dashed back to Islamabad in the middle of the night, the Indian side, which was still in traditional diplomacy mode, did not come out with a statement for another 24 hours. But the Pakistani Army spokesperson, Major General Rashid Qureshi, within minutes of his President’s departure, was on Aaj Tak and in a live thirty minute interview pinned the whole blame on “hardline elements” within the Indian side. If Musharraf’s breakfast meeting had projected him as the uncompromising defender of Pakistan, the Aaj Tak broadcast painted him as the peacemaker, thwarted by Indian hardliners. Such a platform for the Pakistani government in India would have been unthinkable just ten years ago, in the era before private television. The result was that for the first two days after Musharraf flew back home, the entire media discourse of the summit revolved around the idea of sabotage and divisions within the Indian negotiators. Soon after the Agra summit, General Musharraf gave the green light to Pakistani private networks and perhaps it was no accident.
The case of Indian television seems to validate the view that globalisation is not just about the crass spread of capitalism, it is also about new complex ways of communication. As Thomas Friedman (2006:510) points out: “The iron law of globalization is simple: If you think it is all good, or you think it is all bad, you don’t get it. Globalization has empowering and disempowering, homegenizing and particularizing, democratizing and authoritarian tendencies all built into it. It is about the global market, but it is also about the internet and Google.” It is also about Musharraf on NDTV and discovering that your family is dead on live television, across a border that has been fortified for sixty years.
It is not my claim that satellite television’s influence impact on India has always been positive. Television performs many of its transformations “subliminally”. Simply by being there, available for viewing, for debate and for participation, it has effected changes in the way Indians operate in and interact with society. The capitalists who led the move towards private satellite broadcasting in India did not do it for altruistic reasons -- their objective was to make money -- but their efforts have led to the creation of newer modes of public action and publicness. Television has been adapted by Indian society —by its entrepreneurs, by its producers and by its consumers—to suit its own needs. Looking to create markets for advertisers, Indian producers and entrepreneurs searched for publics and, as purveyors of identity, they tapped in to, but also altered, existing social nodes of identity and communication. This has not always been rational or “positive”, but it is fundamentally different from the past when television was nothing more than a governmental tool. Television has opened up avenues that previously did not exist and brought many more people into the public arena. This is why Rajdeep Sardesai (2006) has argued that
The television picture and sound-bite has been one of the most dramatic political developments in the last sixteen years … mutually competitive 24 hour news networks are almost direct participants in public processes: not only do they amplify the news, they also influence it
Measuring the political effect of television is, however, an inexact science. Television does not explain every social and political change in contemporary India. To make such a claim would be an overstatement. It is my argument, however, that it is impossible to imagine, or explain, modern India without reference to television, that it just would not make sense without it.
What now of the future? Robin Jeffrey (2008) has argued that an alert, well-funded public broadcaster could have given India a global media presence like the BBC, long before the appearance of Fox, Al-Jazeera or even CNN. As he put it, the talents existed from the 1950s, as did Indian aspirations to lead the “non-aligned movement.” But fears about the dangers of electronic media, and the temptations of media control, produced policies in the 1950s that Indian public broadcasting still struggles to modify. This could still be a great “might-be”: an Indian version of the BBC World Service, sufficiently removed from government to be able to respond quickly and efficiently to demands of news and entertainment, emerging as an attractive trans-national broadcaster.
India has many advantages: a tradition of media freedom, large numbers of talented English-speaking journalists, an expanding computer and electronics industry and a vast film industry with 70 years of experience. However, the private satellite networks still too entrenched on the imperative of profit in a fast-fragmenting domestic market while All India Radio and Doordarshan are branches of government, too dependent on the whims and pressures of ruling governments (Jeffrey, 2008). The path that Indian private news television takes depends in part on the imaginations and the choices of the private interests that increasingly dominate India’s electronic media but one thing though is certain. India is changing, it has changed.
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 Chattisgarh is a predominantly tribal state in central India, created in 2002.
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