Taking the Anna debate online
With more open discussions and deliberations online, will new communication technologies evolve into the much-needed discursive space in India? The question assumes significance as the commercial media takes firm stand on significant issues allowing for no ifs and buts from the general public,
says MAYA RANGANATHAN
Tuesday, Apr 03 22:15:16, 2012
“I’m no expert on linguistics or the etymology of words, so I have no idea if the word ‘banana’ really was the best sounding collection of syllables around to describe a long yellow arc-shaped fruit, but I can say that whoever coined the phrase ‘media circus’ really knew what they were talking about. There’s simply no better description of a bunch of journalists clamouring for quotes and photographs, although ‘media primates’, ‘media rioting mob’, or ‘explosion of media supernova’ might do just as well.”
So wrote Steve Toltz in Fraction of the Whole, a novel that was in the run for the Booker Prize in 2008 referring to the media’s engagement with a vigilante who took to cleansing Australian sports by murdering the cheats.[i] Our vigilante, fortunately a Gandhian, is now the toast of 24/7 television. So popular has Anna Hazare become at the age of 74 that by default he seems to have limited the discussion in the popular media to popular voices. While the issue at the core of his agitation, corruption, has captured the minds of the multitudes, celebrities continue to dominate the discourse on television and columnists the older media. Where is the space for the democratic citizen to engage with the issue, the ‘public sphere’ that the media supposedly provides in modern democracies and is so vital to their very functioning?.
Pushed to obscurity by the commercialisation of media, the ‘public sphere’ is sorely missed in times like now, when opinions are not as monolithic as the media, particularly television, would have us believe. Besides those that vehemently say the ‘aye’s and reluctantly the ‘nay’s, are those whose responses are prefixed by ‘but’s and ‘if’s, but who seem to find so little space in the media that has tuned into popular sentiment for obvious reasons. The ‘in betweens’ have moved online to discuss and debate and ponder over the state of the nation and how.
Perhaps, not the ideal public sphere that Habermas conceptualised (for it is still indeed a few that have access to these technologies), but somewhere between the ‘sphere of Public authority of the State’ and the ‘private sphere’ of the civil society, online technologies allow a discursive space.[ii]
It is this discursive space that the Gen X, which has grown up with ‘corruption’ being an intrinsic part of their public lives, now employ to air their doubts and fears, arguments and criticisms, hope and support. Anna Hazare has gone viral and any search is bound to throw up links to a related event in the neighbourhood. So awash is the social networking site Facebook, of Anna Hazare and his fast, that one cannot be faulted for mistaking it for an online event that requires a click of the mouse on ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’ ‘I will attend’ to back him up!
Clearly this is no analysis that will stand the test of academic rigour, but a look at posts and messages online, primarily the social-networking site Facebook and blogs, seem to lend themselves to a broad categorisation as those from believers, non-believers and sceptics. Those who unconditionally support Anna Hazare typically upload images of the tri-colour in the place of their profile pictures, put up status messages supporting the ‘second independence struggle’, question how any self-respecting Indian cannot but support Hazare and even take pride in the fact that Anna out-sprinted the policemen in rain on the third-day of his fast. A chronological ordering of the posts on Facebook from Independence Day would perhaps go thus: ‘Bharat hamko jaan se pyara hai’ (a link to the song from the film ‘Roja’ on You Tube),[iii] to links on why Hazare has captured the imagination of the common man, to reposting of popular slogans as ‘gali gali mein shor hain, sab neta chor hain,’ and to report the attending of a rally in support of Hazare with perhaps a trace of humility “did something wothy as an indian citizen...though v v small (sic)!” Some sought to make their stand clearer. At least one post went thus: I see mixed views and comments on my wall. How many on my friendlist support Anna Hazare? Please type 'yes' or 'no' only. No ifs and buts. I urge you all to respond. I will type my answer in the comment box. …Can we harness our collective thoughts towards a single goal or are we divided in our viewpoints? (For the curious, there was an overwhelming response of ‘yes’ and a couple of ‘no’s).
The non-believers are those who doubt the very premise that the people want to be rid of corruption. One post goes thus: i am a little confused about this 'public anger' against corruption. tell me, how many of us will go to court over a traffic fine, instead of bribing a cop? how many of us will grease the passport officer's hand instead of waiting our turn? how many of us don't jump queues, don't look for or create loopholes? i don't think it is anger against... but more anger because we are not getting a piece of the pie! The internalization of corruption and now the externalisation of it by a section of the people is their focus. They have their supporters, the most popular being Manu Joseph, whose article titled ‘India’s selective rage over corruption’ is so often shared online. A common refrain is that Indians by and large have learnt to think of corruption as part of their everyday lives. And the total disregard for rules is pointed as the epitome of the attitude. While there are very few who question Anna Hazare’s integrity, he is not without detractors either, going by the presence of the group, ‘Why I do not support Anna Hazare’. It lists lesser-known details of ‘Talibanisque’ Hazare such as his ‘intolerance of tobacco, meat, alcohol and cable television’ (ironically, the very media that has now made him a national icon) and his ‘call for a ban on the use of English language and foreign goods’. If there is a space for them in the popular media is a moot point.
But it is for the sceptics that online technologies have stepped in with the much-needed space to debate the issue. Amidst all the euphoria and censure, they write paragraphs and paragraphs dissecting the government version and Team Anna’s version of the Lok Pal bill, they debate the rightness and wrongness of the government and the ‘civil society’s stand and lament the simplification of the complex issue of corruption.
Seeking to ‘understand the issue’, one non-resident Indian writes: “First the government's bill: the govt intends to create an anti-corruption force that will investigate corruption of government officers (excluding the PM) and this force will be dependent financially, investigative-ly and judicially on the Government! Obviously the very premise on which the bill is based is wrong.. so no need to dig deeper here … second the anna hazare one: the jan lokpal bill aims to create a central lokpal authority and state level lokayukta. this is a centrally administered body, independent from the government. It will have similar autonomy as the election commission has. The lokpal will be have jurisdiction to deal with ALL complaints against corruption. You can complain to it about your MLA and you can lodge a complaint against a constable who ripped you off a 100 bucks. It will investigate all public servants from bus conductors to the Prime Minister. It is like this one answer for all corruption related problems in the society. The problem however is that all corruption is not the same. Raja kinda corruption and your local constable corruption is not the same. Secondly, the lokpal will have unlimited power, and history has taught us better than to trust any one body - be it democratic & transparent or otherwise - with too much power … There is however a third bill - something i would never know if i only watched TV channels. The third bill is proposed by a few other civil society members.. am sure they wouldn’t mind me not mentioning their names…(sic).” In counter posts and responses the solutions are discussed and the debate moves beyond the Constitutional and the legal to the social and socio-psychological. One blogger writes: “Media has failed to focus on the bill drafted by Anna and team, discuss it and show its limitations and mistakes to the people. Instead it is making a hero out of Anna because the government gave them a chance to do so by exposing its ‘bankruptcy of political ideas’ while it should have had the moral to criticize the arrest of Anna but at once and at the same time critically discuss the Lokpal bill the poverty of imagination on the part of the so called movement, the leaning of the so called movement towards Hindu fundamentalism, the middle-class nature of the so called movement and debate them.”
It is almost tempting to conclude that this is the stuff that ‘participatory democracy’ is made of; that in this instance at least online technologies have helped address some of the structural problems in the traditional media. However, what tempers such grandioseness is first, that online technologies remain the preserve of a negligible part of the civil society. It seems to comprise largely the ‘txting generation’, one that is more comfortable to ‘hang out’ in the virtual world than the real.
Secondly, the employment of social networking media in the recent riots in London,prompting calls to regulate social media, is too recent to overlook. But recent history has also taught us technology is by itself is never to blameand is adapted to suit the conditions it works in. So will Team Anna whatever it may or may not achieve, besides catapulting into the domain of common concern the issue of rampant corruption in the country, usher in the culture of discursiveness?
It is early days yet, but with television having been hijacked by commercial and partisan interests in India, is it too much to hope that new communication technologies will evolve to provide the much-needed space that can help shape public opinion that can in the not-too-distant future direct political action?
[i] Toltz, Steve, 2008, A fraction of the whole, Australia, Penguin, p. 198.
[ii] Habermas, Jurgen, (German (1962) English Translation 1989), The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Thomas Burger, Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press
[iii] Perhaps not of relevance to this article, but an interesting fact is that the Tamil original of the song goes: Tamizha tamizha…, placing the ethnic identity over the national identity.
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