The media's saffron shift: On trend ahead of Ayodhya pran pratishtha?
In recent times, the mainstream media's transformation into a vocal supporter of the BJP has become more apparent
In recent years, the mainstream media's staunch supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party and celebration of its vaunted achievements has been loud. But never more so than in the lead-up to the pran pratishtha ceremony (consecration of the idol) of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, scheduled for 22 January.
Much of the fourth pillar of democracy—especially television channels—seems to have seamlessly aligned themselves with the BJP's publicity campaign around Ram and the temple as the 2024 Lok Sabha polls approach.
Ever since the Ram Teerth Kshetra Trust—responsible for overseeing the construction of the temple and led by Nripendra Singh, an associate of Prime Minister Narendra Modi since his Gujarat government days—declared 22 January as the date, television studios have enthusiastically focused on and amplified details of the campaign.
Ayodhya has evolved into a dedicated beat, with most national channels deploying a significant number of reporters—10 to 20 per channel—for round-the-clock coverage.
It goes beyond on-ground deployment of news reporters. There has been a noticeable shift in look and content too. Producers from major news channels have been instructed to generate three to five half-hour special shows on Ram, the Ramayana or Ayodhya itself every day. Business channels and journalists are hyping up the tourism and other commercial benefits of the redevelopment of the temple town.
It is almost as if they have turned apologists for the Babri Masjid demolition. The focus is on coming up with innovative ideas to cover what is being touted as a 'historic' chapter in Indian history. Meanwhile, focus is studiously kept off the more unsavoury and controversial background to the building of the temple—be it the land scam allegations or the riots and vandalism.
The tone of positivity is overwhelming, the applause loud and wide-eyed. Critique seems to have become a casualty.
And the agencies are no longer shy about advertising where their fealty lies as the controversial and iconic inauguration is elevated to the status of a national event.
Some have invoked—nay, even appropriated, some might say—the religious texts and rituals of Hindus to advertise their 'loyalty', as did 'India's No.1 news channel' in its billboards advertising akhand coverage, in the vein of the more usual akhand paath of the Ramayana.
Some channels have even customised their OB (outside broadcasting) vans to reflect their fervour. Leading news group India Today has adorned its vans and crew buses with the legend 'Ram aayenge (Ram is coming)', against an image of the yet-unfinished temple and a saffron bhagwa banner. On one side stands an adult Ram, leaning on his bow, not the 5-year-old Ram Lalla but one confident against all challengers; on the other end, a saffron lotus blooms.
TV 9 Bharatvarsh, a relatively new entrant in the Hindi media landscape, has taken it a step further. Pasted on its OB van is an update of the kar sevak's call from the 1992 riots and what the history writers now like to call the Ram Janmabhoomi movement: 'mandir wahi banaya hai' — the boast that 'we built the temple right there (possible to interpret as either 'where we said we would' or 'where the masjid stood' perhaps?)' It may not be the official government stance, but certainly has been amplified by many a BJP and RSS member in recent months.
Media observers note that the 'saffronisation' of mainstream channels has become alarmingly commonplace. Some news channels are resembling faith-based platforms, akin to Aastha, with guests and anchors jubilantly celebrating 22 January as a 'historic' day — an observation that raises concerns for anyone who cares for the secular underpinnings of India's constitution or the vaunted impartiality of its judicial tradition.
Also of concern is the triumphalism—once incipient and now gathering into a roar—that expands the focus from Ayodhya to other Hindu revivalist 'victories', some ominously in the near distance, such as conversations focused on redevelopment of Kashi (Banaras) and Mathura. Ominous, of course, because cases centred on the key mosques in both places are sub judice.
Indeed, despite the pressing issues of unemployment, inflation and mounting debts that affect the lives of ordinary citizens, TV channels in India appear preoccupied with religious events—specifically, those that involve a certain amount of architectural signposting of a 'lost glory'.
Questions about journalistic responsibility are rarely raised any more—and when they are, they fade into the silence of echo chambers. Our media outlets themselves seem to willingly surrender their role in fostering a well-rounded public discourse—far be it from them to 'speak truth to power'.
Morning after morning, news studios are now awash in saffron hues, bombarding viewers with visuals of the eagerly anticipated Ram Temple ceremony. Elaborate discussions on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's choice of attire and his special diet have overshadowed critical narratives, such as loss of jobs, closing down of small and medium enterprises, India's response to international genocides and other international developments even as its doorstep, etc.
Instead, extended videos of priests singing bhajans (and even the token Muslim schoolchild in Jammu & Kashmir), artists preparing for the event (including the portrait artist who is another 'good Muslim'), and the production of over 1 lakh laddoos dominated screens last week. The media's attention is firmly averted from other pressing concerns.
Headlines on inflation affecting wholesale prices again and other economic hardships that continue to plague the nation are now tucked away into inside pages. The media's task of informing the public and shaping of public opinion is now diverted to the one epicentre—a reflection of the political centre that is the NCR.
Of course, the pran pratishtha of Ram Lalla in Ayodhya is undoubtedly a significant event. For the media to ignore it would be odd in the extreme. However, the emphasis is surely disproportionate when other critical issues—even the economy, with the budget coming up next month; even Republic Day, in the same week; even a Manipur where violence is still out of control and an International Court of Justice hearing; not to mention matters to do with an upcoming general election—are all relegated to the backseat.
It is surely high time that India's TV media—which some mockingly refer to as the godi (lap) media—reflect on their responsibility in fostering a more balanced and informed public discourse.