Archive for August, 2014

The Media is the Massage

It was Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian intellectual and philosopher, who coined the famous catchphrase “The medium is the message.” He observed that “societies have always been shaped by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.” McLuhan avers that the consequences of the media are so pervasive in every aspect of life that they touch and alter every part of human existence. I confess I was not even aware that McLuhan was the co-author of a book “The Medium is the Massage” when I conceived the title for this blog. So it is rather apt that I emphasise in this blog the central argument of McLuhan that each medium has a different impact on the human senses, confining my discussion to the print and electronic media (what I would loosely term as “information media”) in India.
The era of the print media in India, spanning most of the twentieth century, was characterised largely by reporting drawing on agency reports. Investigative reporting was given a fillip by newspapers like the Indian Express, which documented the plight of women sold into sexual slavery, the cement for trust scandal in Maharashtra and the origins and consequences of communal riots in different parts of the country. However, the reader participated at most vicariously in most of these rather sombre accounts of the polity and society. They agitated some who sought to change the status quo but were largely “water off the duck’s back” as far as the silent majority of middle class readers were concerned. I do not, of course, refer here to blatantly inflammatory writings (which surfaced increasingly towards the close of the 1980s) in newspapers and journals espousing extreme religious views, which had the potential (often through misleading or false reporting) to inflame public passions.
The explosion of the television revolution in Indian homes and the exponential increase in electronic broadcast channels has had a phenomenal quantitative and qualitative impact on viewers. It cuts across barriers of gender and age in the ordinary household, unlike the daily newspaper, which was largely the staple fare of the head of the house (usually male). Again, this medium could be consumed around the clock, in contrast to its print predecessor, which lost its novelty by mid-morning. Post the 1982 Asiad, televisions entered almost every living room (and subsequently bedrooms) in India. I can’t help thinking, a little cynically, that the government of the day saw this as a medium to influence the masses (after all, Orwellian 1984 was fast approaching!). However, the early fascination was for soap operas (long denied to the starved Indian public) and religious epics. The latter probably spawned a rush of religiosity, reflected in subsequent electoral mandates to parties with specific sectarian appeals. Soap operas and family dramas stoked the aspirations of millions of viewers, with coiffured ‘bahus’ (even when rising from bed) and magnificent houses on display. In an economy and society with limited opportunities for upward mobility, one could at least dream of, in not actually attain, the Olympian heights of material success. The “massage” of the masses could well and truly be said to have begun.
The next wave of “media massage” was ushered in by the advent of 24-hour television news channels. Starting with English and Hindi, they expanded to every major regional language spoken in India. As their reach extended throughout the country with the spread of cable networks and, subsequently, direct to home (DTH) television services, news channels metamorphosed from purveying to shaping and influencing public opinion. When information is hammered relentlessly hour after hour on the consciousness of the viewer, the resulting “analysis fatigue” leads to a willingness to accept the presented version as the unvarnished truth. The dictum “No news is good news” was stood on its head and “Good news is no news” became the accepted norm. News channels, in their quest for “grabbing eyeballs”, started feeding on the anxieties of their viewers. I had personal experience of this more than a decade ago as a senior administrator in Maharashtra. A well-known Hindi news channel flashed a late night report of an earthquake in an area, when we were aware that the locals had reported some noises emanating from the ground and the local administration had already taken precautionary measures. The next two hours saw panic-stricken calls from the state government in Mumbai and verification calls from other journalists. The concerned news channel did not even clarify that their report had been exaggerated. I also remember vividly a prominent murder case in Mumbai where one news channel pronounced a guilty verdict on a friend of the deceased within hours of the murder, without even waiting for the police to complete their investigation and arrest the actual accused. In this case, too, there was no retraction or apology from the channel for having falsely maligned an innocent person. Today, we have channels which, under the guise of rapid news, will report every case of murder, dacoity, etc. Not only that, the pernicious practice of painting persons, including bureaucrats, as guilty solely on the grounds that they are questioned by investigative agencies has caused untold anguish and represents a violation of their rights as citizens. The public, attuned to the “bad news” of low moral and ethical values, is only too ready to lap up salacious details of any occurrence, with truth often being the first casualty.
Spirituality and astrology are two other areas where the Indian television viewer seeks refuge from the pressures of modern life. Adrift from her traditional caste and village moorings, the viewer absorbs messages from a wide variety of gurus and godmen, cutting across religious and caste lines. Anxieties about the future are also cleverly exploited by the legion of astrologers who have set up shop on different channels. One well-known astrologer on a regional religious channel predicted apocalypse two years back. The world continues on its merry ways, but the astrologer (alas!) has vanished from the channel. A wide variety of mantras, observances, medicines, amulets and stones are offered as solace to the hordes of seekers of jobs, marriage alliances, good health and progeny. What is noticeable is the intricate mesh of spiritual and temporal-commercial interests. After a few cursory suggestions, the viewer is provided with mobile numbers and websites to fix appointments and obtain remedies on payment basis. I am not passing value judgments on these practices on television channels, merely observing that the “massage” has moved from catering to aspirations to stoking insecurities to providing a quick fix to all the myriad problems that beset us in our daily existence.
What concerns me about the “media massage” phenomenon is the growing lack of discrimination of the television viewer. The lack of critical reflection on what one reads has already been one of the consequences of the sub-Rs. 100 book industry, with its “use and throw” philosophy. When this extends to a far more pervasive medium like 24-hour channels, the brainwashing of the individual can be far more thorough and comprehensive. Consumerism has already taken a firm hold on viewers, with infinite products displayed on channels dedicated to sale of a wide variety of products. Greed, rather than need, dictates buying impulses, in the mad rush to keep up with the Patels/Sharmas, et al. Superstitious behaviour is being given a fillip by programmes on supernatural events and dire predictions on events likely to occur in the near future as well as measures to ward off evil effects. There is also the concern that politics and history can be doctored to inundate the viewer with sectarian views aimed at creating collective insecurity and reinforcing separate community identities. With the phenomenon of paid news in the print media in relation to election campaigns, who is to say that poll predictions will not be doctored to meet the interests of different political parties? However, one remains optimistic given the number of dissenting and discordant voices which prevail on the media, as well as the competition among channels espousing different points of view. Finally, the enigmatic Indian voter, like the moving finger “writes and, having writ, moves on…” Thanks be for the eternally argumentative Indian and our noisy, occasionally exasperating democracy!!

Decentralising governance: the chicken and egg problem

At the height of the Anna Hazare Jan Lokpal movement in 2011, I was more than a little apprehensive of the draconian powers that this institution would exercise. I saw it then as the Indian version of the Jacobin Terror. However, as politics marches on in India, post the game changing 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the realisation is dawning on me that checks on institutional misuse of power, of which corruption is one major phenomenon, have to be strengthened in the Indian context if we are not to see the spectacle of the same old wine being poured into new bottles.
This train of thought has been set off by the advocacy of decentralised governance right upto the village level by influential academics, thinkers and public policy analysts. In itself, this concept is unexceptionable. What gives one pause for thought are the deteriorating standards of ethics and morality at all levels of the polity and government (and, indeed, society) in India. Motivated probably by Mahatma Gandhi’s mantra of gram swaraj, a number of state governments devolved financial and administrative powers to local governments in the 1950s and 1960s. One by one, starting with Maharashtra (a state I am familiar with) and then Karnataka, they gradually recentralised these powers in the state governments. Many other states did not even bother to attempt transfer of powers to local bodies. Part of the reason for this was the fear of state legislators and the state governments that their writ would cease to run in the rural and urban areas of the state. It was not uncommon in the 1960s and 1970s to see Zilla Parishad presidents in Maharashtra exercising greater authority than the local legislators. But the local governments also contributed to the diminution of their powers by irresponsible governance, a tendency that has become enhanced over the past three decades.
If, as has been suggested in different fora, a number of functions currently managed by state governments at the district and municipal levels, including crime and law & order policing, are to be transferred to local governments, what could be the legitimate apprehensions? Foremost among these is the likely suborning of the administrative process to meet the demands of local musclemen and ‘bahubalis’. The reprehensible habit of packing the local administration with pliable, compliant bureaucrats, right down to the police station and village levels, is already popular with legislators and ministers in different states. At a macro level, with more checks and balances and alternative centres of power, the scope for misuse, particularly in these days of media (and social media) overkill, is somewhat mitigated. Move the power down to the local level and the likelihood of abuse increases: local media is more vulnerable to threats and blandishments.
In such a scenario, the chances of unbridled corruption increase manifold. Today, the two elections that are fought with the greatest amount of bad blood and viciousness are those to gram panchayats and municipalities. Schemes like the MGNREGA have put huge funds at the disposal of gram panchayats; municipal councillors and corporators often have sizeable constituency funds, especially in the larger cities, apart from patronage powers in relation to vacant land, access to public hospitals and securing employment for favoured ones in municipal services. Not surprisingly, those left out of this “patronage gravy train” are bitter about their lack of powers. I have had innumerable grouses retailed to me by members of Panchayat Samitis (the intermediate tier of rural local government) in Maharashtra about how all resources are controlled by those either in the tier above them (Zilla Parishads) or in the tier below (Gram Panchayats).
The imagination boggles even further when we contemplate local bodies controlling law and order policing functions. Even today, the local police officer, because of caste and other considerations in postings, is often seen as the man of the powerful local overlord, who may often be a legislator/minister. Were local bodies to oversee police functioning in law & order matters, one can only speculate on the security concerns of disadvantaged groups and women, given that the current environment is itself a matter of grave concern.
And yet, we cannot again fall into the age-old trap of the “white man’s burden”, justified for over a century to deny self-rule to native colonies all over the globe. We have to repose faith in the dictum that a democratic transfer of power imbues, albeit over a period of time, those exercising these powers with a sense of their responsibility to those who have voted to vest this power in their chosen representatives. More importantly, there are three mechanisms which can serve as checks and balances on those in power in local governments (as indeed on those exercising power in state and national governments).
Deterrence, or the fear of punishment, is undoubtedly one of the major weapons for controlling irresponsible exercise of powers. The Lokayukta at the local level will exercise the same punitive powers that the Lok Pal (at the national level) and the Lokayukta (at the state level) will exercise. Apart from the bureaucracy, actions of all political functionaries at the local level will be liable to scrutiny by the Lokayukta. Karnataka has set an example wherein a sitting Chief Minister had to quit office when indicted by the Lokayukta. Independent investigation and prosecution wings attached to the Lokayukta will ensure that there can be no attempts by vested interests to interfere with the course of law.
Exposure is the second method to keep executive power in check. The Right to Information Act, by making available information to the public, has opened up public records to scrutiny. Section 4 of this Act has yet to be implemented in letter and spirit. Disclosure of government decisions and placing government data in the public domain should, to the greatest extent possible, be voluntary and web-based, so that the general public is aware of what their governments are doing. Of course, social media is a powerful tool available today to open up actions of public functionaries to instant scrutiny. The novel concept of citizen-journalists and the widespread use of smartphones have enabled the ordinary citizen to bring to public attention attempts to interfere with individual dignity and instances of misuse of public money. The fear of complaints “going viral” through the exponential spread of incriminating information ought to keep public functionaries on their toes and act as a check on arbitrary, unlawful actions on their part.
Processes constitute the third measure to enforce accountability in governance systems. These cover procedures related to public service delivery to make them transparent, impartial and timely and would often have to incorporate a substantial technology element. This blog column has, in the past, spoken admiringly of the flawless service and customer-focused responsiveness of private online retailers. It is heartening to note that public sector agencies like gas companies and electricity distribution companies have developed excellent internet portals to facilitate supply of gas cylinders and payment of electric bills. These services need to be extended to areas like old-age pension payments, registration of first information reports with the police, scholarship disbursements, etc. Reducing citizen interface with public bureaucracy reduces transaction costs not only by eliminating travel costs but also by cutting out opportunities for “rent-seeking”. E-tenders and online land records and systems for online registration of land transactions would go a long way in checking arbitrary exercise of executive power.
I need to stress here that the measures suggested are by no means limited to local governments; they apply with as much, if not greater, relevance to state and national governments. But the transfer of financial and administrative powers to local governments, accompanied by introduction of the measures mentioned above, would remove one of the facile excuses trotted out by state governments to delay the transfer of these powers (never mind that state governments themselves are no paragons of rectitude, probity and transparency in functioning). As we celebrate India’s sixty-eighth Independence Day, let us commit ourselves to decentralisation of powers, the only means by which citizens of India will have a greater voice in decisions impacting their future and the destinies of unborn generations of Indians.