Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Public Discourse in the Media: Ideological Avatars

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Like porn, public discourse in the media is seductive, addictive, repetitive, and banal. But I suspect that its ideological function -in our society at least- is far more baneful than that of porn (if at all porn has any baneful function - I have yet to arrive at any conclusions!). The compulsions of 24X7 reporting and the collateral lust to be breaking some news all the time leave the media no moments of leisure to examine (to recall the dead Socrates) its life and the way it makes a living (or killing). It is only in the retreat of the academy (or whatever is left of it) that it is at all possible to remain stuck on a newspaper clipping a month or two old. This remaining stuck, or dwelling upon (as Heidegger would perhaps prefer), is necessary if we are to kick ourselves out of the media samsar's interminable cycle of deaths and rebirths. Media has somehow come to preside over the public sphere as a kind of bastard father - a figure of questionable, monstrous authority - whose function is to provoke desire and endlessly postpone consummation. A kind of guarantor of a perpetual state of unconsummated 'resolutions'. Or a god who repeatedly incarnates himself to restore dharma, the incarnations ironically affirming -at the same time- the law of the eternal return of adharma. In the process, it dispels every crisis by de-radicalising its potential. Media thus becomes a screen for dissent: a screen on which dissent is played out and a screen behind which dissent vanishes. These twin functions of the media are actually 'twins': conceived, carried and delivered together. Like a god who should incarnate himself as a deity and a demon together. A dual avatar.


A press release on January 2, 2010 from Chennai, issued by Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) General President stated: “The Prime Minister will present the Jawaharlal Nehru award to Ratan Tata for his contributions to Indian society and for developing the Nano car, making it more affordable to the common man”. Nobody needs to be reminded that only a few days ago Ratan Tata's name had appeared in the media in connection with a phone tapping story that had Niira Radia as the protagonist. Tata was interviewed by Shekhar Gupta on NDTV for the show Walk the Talk, and the story (as they call it in the journo's lingo) -a pretty long one- was published on the channel's website on November 27, 2010. Before we read the story, again and with care, let's briefly cut back to the press release from Chennai.

The award is “for his contributions to Indian society and for developing the Nano car, making it more affordable to the common man”. There are quite a few things of interest here. The award for Nano comes at a time when the company has launched a do-or die advertisement campaign for “the people's car” (as it was once described) in view of what some reports in the media suggest are its sinking fortunes. For one thing, an award with a Nehru tag is something that still commands respect and so it may have some advertisement value to prop up a product in a post-Nehruvian market. Secondly, even if it fails as a prop and the product finally sinks, the risk the Tatas took may yet go down in history as a patriotic sacrifice.

But these are just incidental speculations. A really serious thing is the way the press release from Chennai stitches together the Tatas' Nano and the UPA government's ubiquitous myth of “the common man”. In the gaps between the stitches one may view the whole wedding film of corporate capitalism and parliamentary democracy. The UPA's “common man” has all the properties of Barthesian myth and is so flexible -because evacuated of history- that he needs Nano along with free mid-day meals and 100-days employment under NREGA. More inauspicious than the flexibility ascribed to “the common man”, however, is his reinvention as a “Nano man”. For if “common man” is the one who has a Nano, in which category do you put those who have no food or those who have to borrow a few thousand and are then driven to kill themselves. By this logic, they are neither “common” nor “human” even. They are, to put it simply, the disposable population of India. The myth of “the common man” is not static. Good news!


The stated backdrop of the Ratan Tata interview is the second anniversary of 26/11 terrorist attack on the Taj Wellington in Mumbai (with “a candle lit right behind [Tata]”, as Shekhar Gupta records). The material apparatus of patriotic fervour thus frames the site of 'truth-telling' and provides a visual complement to the Tata-Gupta discourse. There is a second backdrop, not visual but temporal: President's Obama's admiration for India as a “force” that has already “emerged”. The admiration is invoked by Tata before he rues the fall which has very much begun and which may finally leave India a wretched, rotting “banana republic”. Tata's imagery has all the primeval force of an apocalyptic Hollywood disaster movie: he uses words like “morass”, “slipped”, “flooding” - to register his protest against what he terms as “character assassination”. What an anti-climax! But then, for you and me, what a peep-hole into the dance of ideology!

Dictionaries explain that banana republics are small states whose economy is dominated by a single export controlled by foreign capital. Tata's banana republic, however, is peculiarly conceived (he actually says he does not use the word “lightly”) as a state in which the media has too much freedom of expression and acts as a virtual trial court, whereas ideally a person ought “to be considered innocent until found guilty in a court of law”. Judicial processes that swallow several decades and the extremely poor record of investigation and prosecution in cases of corruption do not upset his faith in the functioning of our justice delivery system. The threat to the Indian state comes in his view not from the uncontrollable corporate greed and the scams it spawns but from what the media does “under the guise of freedom of speech or the guise of many other numbers of so-called rights of democracy abused, the luxury of a democracy” [italics mine]. This is the what he says:

Banana republics are run on cronyism. People of great power wield great power, but people of lesser power or people who have fallen out of power go to jail without adequate evidence or their bodies are found in the trunks of cars. The danger is that you could degenerate into that kind of atmosphere unless the necessary parts of government play their role in upholding the law and fine, let no one be above the law. I would happily have that happen, various other people would not like to see that happen but I would feel very happy to see that, I would feel very proud. So I think it can happen, I mean a Banana Republic kind of an environment could emerge, if we don't put an end to this kind of thing and under the guise of freedom of speech or the guise of many other numbers of so-called rights of democracy abused, the luxury of a democracy.

There is an obvious slipping and sliding in this discourse: the enemy of a democratic state is cronyism, yet the threat comes from the “so-called rights of democracy”, from “the luxury of a democracy”. Is he suggesting that the media in India is only a stooge of crony capitalists and that it abuses the democratic freedoms for anti-democratic ends? In that case, he should be arguing for freeing the media from corporate capitalism. Why blame democracy's “so-called rights” and “luxury”? The best explanation lies in his own admission that his group hired the services of Niira Radia's company in order to manipulate the media: “to protect ourselves and get our point of view across to the media”. In other words, the media is a weapon in corporate warfare in which the ultimate adversary is not another corporate house but democracy itself. So when you suffer casualties in this warfare, you can use the opportunity to aim your friendly fire on the “so-called rights of democracy”. Such collateral damage should not be a problem in a country that is set to become a superpower and in which the Tata group's turnover has increased (going by Tata's own endorsement of the figures mentioned by Gupta) forty times in ten years. The irony is that the fear that India faces the threat of being reduced to a banana republic is being expressed by someone from a class which itself is the author of such banana-isation. And that class of “good corporate citizens” (to use Ratan Tata's humble self-description) - what a fabulous de-personalisation of citizenship, but understandable in a period of disposable populations - honestly fears that democracy is being used to “bring down” and “destroy” “this nation”. Tata's own credentials, in own modest words, are: “I think as an Indian and a caring Indian who is proud of my country ….” And it is not that being “a corporate citizen” he is not committed to freedom. He is. But it is to the freedom to invest. In fact, there is a sustained binary opposition suggested in the interview between the “free world” and India. To cite an instance:

I think the FDI limits in a whole series of areas - some of them promised by the government - have not been done, insurance for example. Retail has been promised, and that is another area. The banks are the third. These are things that the free world has come to accept as areas of participation. India is a nation that everyone is looking at today. People want to invest and it's not unusual now for a foreign investor to ask when do you think the FDI limits on this will change?

In Tata's opinion then, India is yet to join the “free world”- and it must, as a matter of moral obligation. And in so far as the democratic freedom of expression conflicts with the corporate freedom to invest, it is a menace to the nation. After all, the nation is the exclusive property of its “corporate citizens”, with a largely co-opted middle class and a lower middle class in the process of co-optation through “nano-isation” (Nano being the new denominator of “the common man”). The rest of the people are a disposable population, the antithesis of the most valued of all natural resources today - land, along with mines. It is significant that Tata reacts to widespread corruption in mining leases (which Gupta describes as “the biggest ATMs in our politics”) with a winsome innocent astonishment. He exclaims that “natural resources globally have gone through the roof”, and in so doing he avoids the next logical step - pinpointing the very obvious reason of this “go[ing] through the roof”: the antithesis between a majority of the population and the corporate takeover of the nation's natural resources. It is as if something entirely providential, utterly inexplicable were taking place.

Such recourse to things outside mere reason appears also in his pronounced evocation of what he calls “a value system that has been a part of our [the Tata group's] tradition”, and again - and most clearly - in his “belief” in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's personal goodness notwithstanding the fact that most of Tata's most serious complaints and accusations pertain specifically to Singh's tenures as a PM. He says he does not “believe the PM is contributing to” India's downhill slide towards a banana republic. And this high-minded belief stands in the face of his own bitter experience that “through ten years” the government's policies - telecommunications included - have been “modified several times to suit individuals” and to serve “vested interests”. During the last six years particularly (that is precisely during Mr Singh's Prime Ministership), “the interpretation of policy has become very vague … so bully and vague”. The juxtaposition of “bully” and “vague” could be seen as symptomatic of Tata's real perception of the political economic climate in the country at the highest levels. It is intriguing, therefore, to hear him - a man of few words that he is - repeatedly and excessively praise the Prime Minister:

he's a tremendously good man. We are lucky to have him as a PM. I want to say that it has hurt me to see what he has gone through in the past weeks... in Parliament... the pressure... the innuendoes and the pressures he's been going through to resign and so on. He is one person who is truly above any of the allegations thrown at him... the person whom we are lucky to have to because it's his face that has been the face of transforming India. And it is this person who has commanded the respect of the leaders in major countries. He doesn't deserve to face this kind of humiliation.

A few minutes later, he again counsels everyone: “[W]e have got to be proud of our Prime Minister”.

One wonders how to reconcile, if one must, his praise of the Prime Minister and his severe criticism of the way the government is functioning. Does the praise dilute the criticism, or does the criticism cancel out the praise? Or should we let the contradiction stand as it is and treat it as an instance of the ideological eclipse of reason? Does it stand to reason that we let the personal goodness and integrity of the head of a government over-ride all considerations of fair and democratic governance? If it does stand to reason, we must then remind ourselves that in the global marketplace fascism is available in many flavours and skins. Actually, the Nazis never got a copyright on it. It circulates for free in the liberal political public domain. And who knows if it is not already sitting in your system as a (viral) trojan horse.

Overdone devotion to personal traits, merits and appearances might well conceal a disavowal of some critical pathology secretly at work in the system, a disavowal of some monstrous transformation of the system.

(To be concluded)
Link to the Ratan Tata Interview by Shekhar Gupta on NDTV:


Badri Raina said...

marvellously acute analysis of the menace of the sweet ephemeral, and the ways in which it is sought to be manipulated by the chief brokers of the state;
thanks for writing this.

vadapalli rama rao said...

Your article is very powerfully written. Fearlessness and forthrightness are the hall marks of inspired writing.
god be with us as always
Rama Rao

Anonymous said...

A bold(as brass)and awakening commentary on corporate/political/contemporary ideology. "Banana republic" a headache for "mango people" (aam adami). Liked, super liked.