The last few weeks have been rather difficult for anybody wanting to engage with the ‘Anna phenomenon’ on the basis of a framework which appeared even remotely critical. Such have been the hysteric waves colonizing our cognitive frames that any divergence of opinion with the ‘revolutionary upsurge of the great Indian masses (classes)’ was summarily dubbed as cynicism at best and plain act of treason, more generally.
The present ceasefire between team Anna and the ever faltering government of the day notwithstanding, the men and the moment of the spectacle leave a progression of queries which emanate out of the images and issues ‘served’ to the larger society. Needless to reaffirm that this larger society is in fact much larger than those that team Anna claims to have paraded on the streets of Delhi and other metropolitan centres across the country. Till the other day, the media mediated debate was in absolute command of ‘the spectrum of approvable opinion’ for this Anna spectacle. Understandably, the Anna movement can be approached by diverse approaches but I shall focus exclusively on the role of the media in manufacturing of one of the most excellent political spectacles in recent times, which I shall unabashedly call as unprecedented packaging of dreams, aspirations, nightmares and frustrations in an extraordinary whole.
At the cost of eliciting ridicule from hundreds and thousands of my fellow countrymen who have been rather hyperactive on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, one finds that this Anna movement is almost a perfect textbook example of a spectacle. The agencies involved in the making of the spectacle must have drawn from Feuerbach(In his preface to The Essence of Christianity) who said, ‘But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence...illusion only is sacred, truth profane.’ And further, Budrillard also points to the ‘image replacing the reality’. Just like Che on T-shirts, coffee mugs and key-chains, Gandhi topi (now Anna topi) and Gandhi’s image seem to serve the same purpose.
The spectacle required a crafted production of a semblance of clarity and unity of purpose of the ‘nation’ and that meant doing away with anything that distinguished the appearance from the essence. While the agencies involved were looking forward to having the most essential ingredients of the proposed spectacle, the shaky government of the UPA-II obliged by throwing up murkier images of corruption almost on a daily basis.
However, the earnestness of the need and the urgent necessity of packaging corruption was brutally captured by the agencies involved in the making of the spectacle and this reflected another important feature of spectacle, which has been substantiated by Guy Deobard, ‘....to the extent that necessity is socially dreamed, the dream becomes necessary.’
Many views have surfaced as to how this spectacle was co-authored and co-produced by the media, which apparently had exhausted all conventional mechanisms to capture and retain the eyeballs, which it necessarily requires to remain relevant in the highly competitive market. The media barons also perceived beforehand that ‘Anna as Spectacle’ could only be maintained, if the planned spectacle was not merely a collection of images but also managed to build a social relation among people mediated by those images. A cursory glance at the signs, symbols, texts and sound bites which emerged as the essential constituents of the Anna spectacle through this movement against corruption reveal the extent to which self-fulfilling prophesies surface in the times of 24X7 television. The media did not have to undertake any significant innovation but only to dig out the available archival materials on an assortment of issues ranging from rabid rightwing congregations of previous years to sas-bahu soap operas and of course, add to it the liberal spray of the genre of Rang De Basanti and Peepli Live. And lo and behold! The Anna Spectacle was ready to roll!
The Anna spectacle came with the prefix-first for a variety of things claiming to be the first peoples’ movement, the first assertion of peoples’ power against an unrelenting parliament, the first expression of national sentiment etcetera. The only time the spectacle used the prefix-second was when it albeit grudgingly proclaimed itself as the second freedom struggle. A major component in this is also, it must be said, Anna team was well empowered with its own media spin-doctors. Notice that they never did anything during the time-slots when TV channels have sports shows - Sachin's impending hundredth ton kept them on tenterhooks. They created photo-ops - Anna meditating at Rajghat. They kept supplying statements so that news channels had fresh things to say hour-on-hour. We were told Anna never breaks his fast after the sunset - not enough light for videography. Anna's pre-recorded message was tailor made by the team for media consumption. I am reminded of media attention Osama’s pre-recorded messages received. Both these also remind me of David Croneberg's acclaimed film 'Videodrome' in which a media critic Dr Brian o'Blivion keeps making media appearances on news debates even while he's been long dead! He's apparently recorded a number of video tapes on wide-ranging issues. Through the uninterrupted promotional coverage of the spectacle, the biggest ever and the largest watched reality show of the country, the notion of limits of subjectivity in reporting and coverage, was buried. The sign became both, the signifier and the signified.
Before the spectacle was launched on a grand scale, it was preceded by beautiful promos and a mixing of the best of music and drama. Thus, while in one moment team Anna was interacting with the family of a martyr in one TV studio, the next moment showed them acting as judges for a singing competition for kids in another studio. As the days unfolded and as the political class made its operative frame look like a ‘pathetic comedy of errors’, the media gloated over its manufactured spectacle and its potential mass (class) appeal. Debates followed in the public domain (read essentially private domain of the TV channels) and the over enthusiastic anchors of some of these TV channels began using a range of techniques from hard persuasion to cajoling and lampooning of any view which even remotely dared to be critical of this spectacle. Needless to mention that any supposedly national movement necessitates critical and complex arguments, but to be dealt with harangues such as, ‘gentlemen, gentlemen it is getting too complex...let us be clear...are you for or against......?’ relegated the whole issue to the mercy of the predisposed wisdom of the anchors. The anchors of this spectacle just needed to know whether the analyst in the TV studio is Anna or not (not even for or against Anna!).
One was supposed to amalgamate oneself with Anna; for the person had become the spectacle...the man was the mission now and it was mission made possible by the media. Paradoxically, the medium became the message as McLuhan would have termed it. One lost the locus standii whatsoever in raising queries regarding the class character, the composition of the crowd, about the funding of such a good-looking protest and of course about the overtly divisive symbols on display. More than a loss to the political class of the day, it was a greater loss to the cause of the peoples’ movements which have eternally lacked the privilege of the OB vans and cameras mounted on buses and cranes to record and transmit their protests. The genuine peoples’ protest in a Manipur or a Jehanabd or a Bastar has to negotiate their protest against an insensitive state and an anaesthetized media. It may sound bizarre in these euphoric times of the spectacle but this is how the memory of the common masses shall record the Anna movement once the manufactured commotion settles and the media gaze moves on to another spectacle.
Seen in retrospect, when the spectacle entered through the third and the fourth day of the most celebrated fast of modern India, the speed of the media torrent within and around was unambiguous, the technology was at work to showcase it as one of the most historic moments of Independent India. The carefully crafted images of Anna (bringing him in the closest possible physical resemblance to the great Mahatma), top angle shots of people surging to have a glimpse of the central icon, together with waving of hundreds of national flags and high pitch patriotic songs in the background transmitted the frenzy to an exalted level. These techniques were perfected by Nazi filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl who, using multiple cameras shot Hitler from low angles thus making him look larger than life and the crowds from the top hence making them look small. Subsequently, the images thickened, the soundscape grew noisier and the montage was highly frenetic. It transcended the conventional polarities visible in politics and the fantasy about the reality of the spectacle posed as reality itself. There were several overt acts of subversion by the media by way of redefinition. To name just a few, we came to know that a movement passes on as a national movement only when some of the television anchors decide so. For them, we the people of India means as the ones who are at Ramlila maidan or a freedom park and who are on the one side of the digital divide celebrating the signs, symbols and the slogans of the Anna spectacle. We were also told in most unambiguous fashion about what constitutes ‘national sentiment’ and why some people have more liberal dose of it than the others. It certainly left to introspect and identify our inadequacies which failed us to be part of the revolutionary spectacle. It is nevertheless a different story that this movement not only mockingly questioned the legislative supremacy of the parliament but in more ways than one, ‘democracy’ itself. ‘We the people’, the opening lines to the preamble of the Indian constitution was invariably shown in the backdrop of ‘Annas’ on television screen; the fantasy was real again, for Annas at the Ramlila Maidan or Azad Maidan were the only bona fide ‘we the people’ and rest others were the ‘apologetic others’. The spectacle in this case went ahead and rather blatantly puffed up the numbers and the will of the ‘contagious crowd of Le Bon’ appeared as the de facto voice of the nation. One could dispute the ‘number game’, and one could also argue with the team Anna that vibrant democracies need to be little cautious with showcased numbers.
Now when the spectacle seems to be in the ‘interval’, it is time to move to critical replays of the slogans and speeches, of each frame of Anna moment, which undoubtedly shall reveal that in the garb of attacking the spineless political regime of the day, it has shown downright disdain for democracy itself...Do we get that?