A few days ago, the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting invited over a dozen prime time TV anchors, as well as senior editors of influential news television channels, to discuss whether highly polarising debates inciting religious and communal passions could be dialled down.
This request puzzled many senior TV anchors, who thought that polarising debates is what the establishment always wanted and indeed, thrived on, both before and after state elections.
The right wing ecosystem blessed by the establishment upped the majoritarian ante just after a decisive victory in Uttar Pradesh. Carefully curated campaigns around The Kashmir Files, the hijab episode in Karnataka, targeting of Muslim protesters with bulldozers in multiple locations across north India and finally the high-decibel Gyanvapi mosque campaign have kept the news TV channels busy months after the Uttar Pradesh elections.
So some TV channel editors were totally baffled at the request of the minister to dial down content about Hindu-Muslim tensions.
He even asked some editors whether polarising debates were driving their viewership and had become part of their business model. Ideally, the minister should also ask UP chief minister Adityanath how much advertising money was pumped into these news channels in the run-up to the UP elections.
So, what has brought about this sudden change in the official attitude towards TV debate content? Obviously, it has to do with the fallout of the Nupur Sharma episode and the way it has shaped international opinion about the ruling party’s attitude to minorities and constitutional freedoms in India.
There could be a domestic political dimension to this new realisation that majoritarian politics starts yielding diminishing returns after a point. Both online and offline stormtroopers of the right are disappointed with the BJP leadership for the way it has treated former party spokespersons Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal. There is clearly some dissonance within the Hindutva ecosystem in this regard. It is possible that the party leadership wants to tactically provide a cooling off period for the cadres of the broader parivar. This may have begun earlier with the RSS chief’s call to stop looking for a shivling under every mosque.
Isn’t it a bit odd that the debate around Gyanvapi is suddenly off the TV screens? At its peak, it dominated airtime 24/7. Over the past eight years, the Sangh parivar has perfected the method of building up a polarising campaign around any issue in no time. The rapid scaling up of such campaigns to a crescendo, with the help of friendly media, is now an art form.
This capacity must also impose some responsibility on the Hindutva actors concerned.
The Nupur Sharma episode tells us that this capacity to easily ratchet up a communal campaign can sometimes have a hugely negative fallout. Calibration of the decentralised actions of the broader ecosystem becomes impossible, and the campaign then blows up in the face of the PM himself.
Narendra Modi rarely condemns actions emanating from the ecosystem but does seem to care for the reputational damage to him when things go out of hand.
Political scientist Shiv Vishwanathan has talked about the “everydayness” of violence, where brutality becomes routine. But this brutality cannot be controlled in a dispersed ecosystem where the state appears to have delegated some of its monopoly over violence. The rule of law is clearly softer on the radical activists of the Hindu right.
If the I&B minister is now asking TV news media to scale back their communally polarising debates, he clearly has the wrong end of the stick. The effort must begin with the Sangh parivar ecosystem which has been on steroids for many years, especially since the BJP’s 2019 Lok Sabha election victory.
The nature of online hate and its quick transition to offline violence is also part of “everyday” brutality. The Sangh needs to dial down on the patently false construct of the Hindu majority as victim, which is being peddled incessantly with many TV channels playing a dubious role in promoting it. The right wing ecosystem today knows it has all the tools to stir up majority sentiment and create a heightened victimhood psychology among the Hindus. This is especially true in the Hindi-speaking northern and central states, where majority victimhood has struck deeper roots.
RSS head Mohan Bhagwat had admitted some years ago in his address at Vigyan Bhawan that the problems of Hindu society lie within, and cannot be blamed forever on some minority religious group. It was a rare acknowledgement of reality.
But nothing concrete changed on the ground.
Indeed, things are worse as the majoritarian agenda threatens to create new fissures, including counter radicalisation among the minorities. Perhaps the time has come for the Sangh Parivar to seriously introspect on its future strategy to prevent India’s social fabric from being torn asunder. Toxic TV debates are a mere symptom, the disease eating into the body politic and society at large lies elsewhere.
A version of this article first appeared in The India Cable – a subscribers-only newsletter published by The Wire and Galileo Ideas. You can subscribe to The India Cable by clicking here.