Aakar Patel | Why divisive issues hold sway as ‘real’ ones ignored

The mass media in India is largely owned by corporate bodies

On Saturday the prices of petrol and diesel were raised again, the tenth time in the last 12 days. But this is not the especially the subject of much debate in the media. The Opposition has tried to raise the issue of inflation, which several surveys have claimed is the single most important issue for Indians, along with unemployment.

For some reason there is little traction on this at the moment. The Congress Party in Karnataka had said recently that “it is a cause of concern that people-related issues are being ignored in the frenzy stoked by communal elements” and that “we can only raise pertinent issues… but we can move forward only with public support”. This means that little or no enthusiasm for opposing the price rise was forthcoming from the public at large.

The state’s former chief minister, H.D. Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal (Secular), said of this phenomenon that “people are prosperous under (Narendra) Modi’s rule, and that is probably why they are not protesting against the price rise”. The case is similar with unemployment. A Union government survey from just before the 2019 Lok Sabha election showed that joblessness in 2018 was at a 50-year high of six per cent. It has remained above that since then for the past four years, but like with fuel and LPG prices, there appears to be no way for it to become a subject of politics.

It would be interesting to examine why it is that the Opposition cannot mobilise public support on something that is clearly in the public’s interest. The first of their hurdles is the issue with the media. The structure of the Indian media is such that it is heavily dependent on the government, for licences, for advertising and for sundry other favours. The mass media in India is largely owned by corporate bodies, that have many other companies and treat their media outlets as an extension of their larger business interests. This is why most of them sound like government mouthpieces. This could be one reason why the ruling party feels no pressure, but it is not the only one.

Another reason could be that the Opposition leaders are not competent at mobilising people against the ruling party. Perhaps this is true, but it cannot be entirely true. The BJP has not won all states and it is not possible to claim that it has total dominance over the nation’s polity. Some space for the Opposition exists, but on this issue, it does not appear to be gaining mass support. In Pakistan, Imran Khan’s government has become unpopular and about to fall because of inflation. In India, with fuel prices lower than in Pakistan, the government continues to remain popular.

What other reasons can we ascribe to this unusual phenomenon? Let us hear again from the Opposition parties what they have to say. In Karnataka, the focus has been on introducing the Bhagavad Gita in schools, banning the hijab and keeping Muslim girls out of school, on the controversy over a movie on Kashmir, on banning halal meat, and banning non-Hindus from trading at temple festivals.

There is no doubt that these are popular issues, meaning that the public is interested in reading and watching news about them. They are certainly the dominant issues if we examine how much time the media spends on them. What India’s political parties are saying is that these issues are more important to many and perhaps most Indians than fuel prices and LPG prices and unemployment. The ruling party is saying this by pushing for communal issues constantly, and the Opposition is saying it by admitting that non-communal issues have no traction.

How long does such a state of affairs continue and what does this mean for our future? A couple of years ago, I wrote a book whose thesis was that Hindutva has no end state. Meaning that there is no particular goal that it wants to achieve.

It does not seek, for instance, to drastically change or scrap the Constitution, because the current law gives it enough space to be able to do what it wants. Its only aim is a constant stirring of the communal pot. And there is always something to be used here. Today beef, tomorrow namaz, the third day it could be the Sunday mass (which has also been attacked by Hindu organisations in Karnataka), the fourth day hijab, the fifth day halal, the sixth day love jihad.

On April 2, the Uttar Pradesh announced that all meat shops in the state would be shut for the entire duration of Navratri, which ends on April 10. Why? Because other people buying and eating meat offends some Hindus. There will be no shortage of things we have to torture our minorities, and for this reason it will continue like this. Because India is a democratic nation, our discourse is disproportionately focused on political victory and defeat. Very little thought is given to what happens after the elections and between elections. For a writer, India in the current times provides rich and fascinating material, but as a citizen it is disheartening to see where we have arrived as a nation.

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