Those who live by the media often are slain by it. At the 2011 CNN-IBN Indian of the Year awards, Anna Hazare candidly admitted that it was the media which was responsible for his rise from a regional figure in Maharashtra into a national icon. "If your cameras had not followed me everywhere, who would know me?" was the activist's honest response. Today, the same media reports on Anna's flop show in Mumbai, on how an anti-corruption stir has become an anti-Congress agitation and how Anna's fasts amount to coercive blackmail. Last week, Mani Shankar Aiyar, the ruling class's last iconoclast, referred to Anna as a "Frankenstein monster", mirroring the views of several politicians who are convinced that Anna is a media creation threatening parliamentary democracy. But was the media hype really responsible for Anna's larger than life image?
There is little doubt that over the last nine months, Anna Hazare's advisers used the media quite brilliantly. Prime time press conferences, made for tv spectacles, social networking campaigns: Anna Hazare did benefit from saturation media coverage. Yes, some of it was high-pitched, and yes, some journalists did become Anna cheerleaders. But to see Anna as purely a media phenomenon would be a misreading of the mood on the street. Crowds were attracted to Anna not because the tv cameras were there, but because he appeared the antithesis of a morally bankrupt political leadership beset with a series of scams.
Rewind to April when Anna first descended on the national capital. Just before the first fast in Jantar Mantar, Anna addressed a press conference at the Press Club. The attendance was thin, and Anna remained at best an object of curiosity for the national media. Yet, even before the fast could really take off, senior union minister Sharad Pawar resigned from the group of ministers on Lokpal, thereby almost vindicating that Anna's claim that a "corrupt" Pawar could not be on an anti-corruption law panel. Two days later, Anna's cause was further bolstered when the government issued a formal notification in the official gazette setting up a joint drafting committee that would discuss and draft a strong Lokpal bill. The members of the committee would be a 50-50 divide of government ministers and a unique concept called 'Team Anna'.
Till April 9, Anna was just another voice in the ongoing debate over an anti-corruption law. The singular act of agreeing to formally negotiate with his appointees on the Lokpal automatically legitimized him and his 'team' as the sole spokespersons for 'civil society'. Suddenly, confined to the margins were equally respected figures like Aruna Roy, Jaiprakash Narayan (of Loksatta) and a number of anti-corruption activists who had also worked hard on the Lokpal legislation. Did the media ask the government to make Team Anna the exclusive interlocutors of civil society, or was this simply a reflection of a government mindset that was eager to appease all shades of NGOs and their fellow-travellers? To compound the political error, all nominees on the government side were Congress ministers, effectively making the negotiations a Congress versus Team Anna exercise rather than a wider, more inclusive process.
If April 9 was a bad mistake, what followed on June 5th was another blunder. The Delhi police's midnight crackdown to break Baba Ramdev's black money fast came barely 72 hours after four senior ministers rushed to the airport to receive the yoga guru. Treating Ramdev almost like a visiting head of state one moment, then virtually as a criminal the very next, this was flip-flop politics of the worst kind that further discredited the government.
The third, and perhaps most serious, error came on August 16th when the Delhi police arrested Anna as he prepared for a second fast. By first denying him access to the fast venue, and then sending him to judicial custody, the government ensured Anna's transformation from anti-corruption crusader to martyred messiah. During Anna's April fast, the backdrop had been a large Bharat Mata poster with Baba Ramdev sharing stage space and Art Of Living Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's supporters providing vocal support. By August, when Anna fasted at Ram Lila Maidan, the Bharat Mata poster had been replaced by a Mahatma Gandhi portrait, Ramdev had disappeared, and even Sri Sri was a peripheral presence.
Moreover, the arrest provided the trigger for thousands to take to the streets: this was no longer about a Lokpal anti-corruption law which most Indians knew very little about, but an expression of general disaffection with a system that was seen to be arrogant and corrupted. Anna, as the self-sacrificing 'fakir' like figure was the perfect mascot for the angry, anonymous Indian. The 'I am Anna' caps and t-shirts on sale marked the complete 'personalisation' of the movement: the journey from environmentalist in Ralegan Siddhi to folk hero at Ram Lila was done. Anna's triumph appeared complete when parliament in a desperate bid to end Anna's fast passed a hurried 'sense of the house' resolution on the Lokpal bill. So again the question: did the media push the government to arrest Anna, or was this also the irrational act of an establishment in panic mode?
In the end, both the state and Team Anna mistook the medium for the message. Team Anna saw the frenzied coverage as its main weapon, forgetting that democratic politics is not a repetitive television serial, but a tortuous process of negotiation and conciliation. The state, on the other hand, failed to recognise that cacophony will be part of a media environment in which there are more than 350 news channels and several hundred OB vans across India. The media will be a loudspeaker of grievances, not just of Team Anna, but of many other protest movements in the future. Strong leaders will not be swayed by the noise, a wise civil society will seek legitimacy beyond the camera lens.