Their master's voice: The media circus around Ayodhya
22 January 2024 will be remembered as the day the Indian media revealed its true colours like never before
The contentious BBC documentary on Narendra Modi’s role in the Gujarat riots of 2002, banned in India in January last year, included a revealing statement by the then-chief minister of Gujarat.
Asked if he would have done anything differently, Modi said, without any hesitation, that he’d been ‘weak’ in handling the media in the wake of the riots. As prime minister, he has clearly made amends: how his regime eviscerated the media will no doubt inspire rich tomes at some point in the future.
In 1963, the late Philip L. Graham, then publisher of the Washington Post, described the “daily and the weekly grist of journalism” as providing what he called a “first rough draft of history”.
Some of us cut our teeth in journalism believing this to be a truism, but we hadn’t budgeted for the present-day transmogrification of the Indian media. And so we wondered what kind of ‘first rough draft of history’ the media wrote on the day of the pran pratishtha ceremony in Ayodhya.
A cursory scan of the front pages of our national dailies (image above) bares it all.
The full extent of their competitive bhakti may have surprised some, but the drift has been clear for a long while now—mainstream media has either bought into the political re-engineering of the ‘secular, democratic republic’ we imagine India to be, or has rationalised its capitulation to the rampaging forces of Hindutva.
Either way, the headlines of 22–23 January were a shrill chorus of obeisance—and the deity they were falling over themselves to propitiate is not the one installed in the Ram Mandir.
Sample the breathless coverage.
On the day of the pran pratishtha, the Dainik Bhaskar's front page announced ‘Bharat ke pran ki pratishtha’ (the infusion of life into Bharat). On the day after (23 January), its front page declared: ‘Rashtra ki aastha ka naya suryoday’ (a new dawn of faith for the nation); it even changed its masthead for the day to ‘Ramcharit Bhaskar’.
The Times of India headlined its front-page lead with a quote from the prime minister: ‘Dev to Desh, Ram to Rashtra’; the strapline read: ‘Diwali arrives early as nation celebrates consecration of Ram Lalla’s idol with fireworks and festivity, amid calls for harmony and healing’.
The Indian Express chose to play up another grand statement by the prime minister: ‘[it’s] not a mere date on [the] calendar, [it’s the] origin of a new kaal chakra...'
You get the drift.
The television news channels had begun to dress up for the occasion much ahead of time. Ayodhya and all the prep for the Grand Inauguration had become the single-minded focus for more than a week in the run-up.
You’d imagine that all of Ayodhya—indeed, all of India—was just waiting for this epochal event, and that life and its attendant miseries had ceased for the nonce.
The non-stop TV coverage had all the trappings of an epic tamasha, complete with chariots, costumes and saffron-robed saints, looking every bit as perky as their TV hosts, in the studios or outside, as on the stage set up on the banks of the Sarayu at Ram ki Paidi in Ayodhya.
Dress-up is, anyway, a prime component of TV news, and on the big day, TV anchors had plenty of expert help to make them look the part—you saw them preening in saffron regalia and teekas etc.; some even went the extra mile to pick up a smattering of Tulsi’s Ramcharitmanas for the occasion.
It was not an easy act, because while the spotlight was ostensibly on the temple and Ram Lalla and the consecration ceremony, the real focus had to be the presiding high priest.
Even when he was doing his temple runs down south, before he arrived in Ayodhya, the camera never wavered in its focus: we had a full running commentary of when he was fasting, what he ate (or didn’t), that he was surviving on “just coconut water” (fruits were added later) and sleeping on the bare floor.
All of it made headlines.
Anchor Sudhir Chaudhary devoted an entire show to how the prime minister rears and feeds cows in his official residence—and even told his audience to try it at home.
The 3-minute video shared by the prime minister himself held its focus steady on himself for the first 2 whole minutes, and ensure even Ram Lalla shared the spotlight once Modi met him 'in person'.
Following the leader, Opposition-bashing accounted for the pauses in the media's otherwise breathless coverage—their biggest sin of omission being the boycott of the consecration ceremony. Navika Kumar of Times Now was indignant that the Opposition had dragged even Modi into this: “Mandir par bhi siyasat?” she fumed on screen. For her, it was the Congress invitees that had politicised the consecration ceremony by declining the invitation. It was the Opposition, we were told, that had politicised Ayodhya—not the BJP or the RSS or their many ‘cultural’ offshoots.
It is presumably of no political significance that the inauguration of an unfinished Ram Mandir—on which even religious eminences had expressed grave reservations—had to happen just a few months ahead of the Lok Sabha election.
It couldn’t wait, and there is apparently nothing political about it.
Even though it was not one of our aggrieved shankaracharyas or some other Hindu priest presiding over the religious ceremony but our beloved prime minister.
When they take the oath of office, our elected representatives pledge their allegiance to the Constitution of India.
The Preamble to the Constitution envisions India as a ‘sovereign socialist secular democratic republic’.
No former Indian prime minister made such an exhibition of their religious beliefs; if anything, they took great pains to ensure that any public act of faith displayed no religious bias.
And never before in the 75-year-old history of independent India has media played handmaiden to power in quite this fashion.